Magazine article The Spectator

Hanging a Chapter on Every Chromosome

Magazine article The Spectator

Hanging a Chapter on Every Chromosome

Article excerpt

Hugh Lawson-Tancred


by Matt Ridley

Fourth Estate, 18.99, pp. 344

This is a spectacular book. The amount of new information yielded by modern genetics is going through an exponential explosion around the human genome mapping project, whose imminent completion will be one of the least silly memorials to the turn of the millennium. There is hardly a single area of human life that this information does not directly affect. Inevitably, the literature is vast and permanently obsolescent. It is an extraordinary achievement to have surveyed so much of it and rendered it intelligible and - in this case the same thing --compelling. Genome will be superseded by new knowledge within a year or two, but it is likely to remain a paradigm of exposition for a generation.

The conceit of hanging a chapter on each of the 23 chromosomes was risky, but it pays off superbly. This is one of those rare books in which the intellectual excitement continues to rise from what already seems an almost impossibly high plateau. My entirely subjective selection of highlight topics in the order that they come would be: being alive and being human, Huntington's chorea, intelligence, sexual conflict, stress and personality, the development of the embryo, ageing, memory, cancer, BSE, Alzheimer's disease, genetic policy, eugenics, and free will. In all these areas geneticists have made specific and wholly unexpected discoveries, which are documented with copious and often brilliant experimental evidence and fraught with implications for policy. To take three examples almost at random: the 25 per cent of men (not women) with the lowest cholesterol level are four times as likely to commit suicide as the 25 per cent with the highest level; cancerous tumours can survive only in the absence of the protein made by the TP53 gene; and susceptibility to Alzheimer's varies (very widely) in dependence on the code embedded in one gene, the APOE gene on chromosome 19.

Genetics is a science whose extraordinary complexity is based on very simple foundations. The chromosomes contain digitally-encoded text written in a DNA alphabet of four letters. Most of these letters form evolutionary doodles - the socalled junk DNA - but the three per cent in which the genetic message is written shape our lives and destinies to an extent that we are probably only beginning to realise. …

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