1/09/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts
pub: Prometheus Books. 337 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: $25.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61614-214-8.
check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com
There are two things that initially struck me about Richard Kowles’ book, ‘The Wonder Of Genetics’. The first is its sub-title, ‘The Creepy, The Curious And The Commonplace’ does not give a better choice of title to its main one. However, more important is Kowles breaks my comments on books with too many footnotes at the back of the book. He doesn’t use them making this book less a game of paging to and thro. If you’re stuck on what Kowles is referring to there is a much more useful glossary and I only used that for the occasional clarification. To top all of that, Kowles is also an excellent writer and with a subject like genetics you need that to explain not only its mechanics but its pitfalls. He displays a variety of facts and a lot of practical knowledge for any of you folk who need it when writing your stories, which also divides fact from fiction. If you want to get things right on this subject then this makes this book essential reading.
He starts that well by explaining how people are afraid of science and especially genetics simply because they don’t understand what is going on. I suspect that contributed in him explaining it in language the layperson can understand. I liked Kowles explanation of parthenogenesis, ie mothering a child without a father would always bring a daughter. Saying that, it does bring up an interesting question which he doesn’t cover later as to the various human variants, especially those possessing both male and female genitalia other than them being mostly sterile.
He covers a lot of different genetic defects as being the prime cause of early deaths and complications that I hadn’t come across before, hence my occasional referral to the glossary. Kowles also points out the detrimental effects of various external influences from chemical, sunlight, ionisation and radiation – radon being the most dangerous, mostly because its sources are most prevalent. If you have access to a Geiger counter, run it down the wall of any building made of granite. Fortunately, the radiation isn’t high enough to give any cause for alarm for humans.
Did you also know that humans are one of the few species that can’t manufacture its own vitamin C because of a metabolic block and that our cats and dogs who can are superior to us in that regard?
Another fascinating fact is that although the chemicals in your body aren’t worth very much, the hormones that you produce are worth the value of a bionic man. I wonder if he allowed for inflation?
Did you also know that DNA fingerprinting is used more for determining off-spring parents than detective work in America? Kowles explains how the process is done and how the chances of having the same DNA fingerprint as someone else is extremely low but can’t rule out how many people have passed through a particular place and must always have more supplementary evidence to match someone to a crime. It’s also being used to prove people who have been found guilty in court weren’t actually there which is often neglected by the press.
One of the most common things brought up in any books on genetics is the moth Bison betularia, which lives up north in the UK, not south-west contrary to the book, comes in two shades. I’m not convinced that the dark shade is the mutant stain as it’s been around too long. What does change is the ability to be camouflaged when the trees’ bark were darkened in the Industrial Revolution where the lighter coloured variant became bird fodder. Now the trees are back to lighter bark, more of the darker coloured variant are eaten. All it’s really ensured is that the moth will survive in one colour or another.
A chapter which should be of interest to all of you concerns genetically modified food. Kowles points out that the developments centre on preventing crops being eaten by common pests and reduce the use of insecticides which has to be sensible and increasing yields to ensure everyone enough to eat. Some, like strawberries, have been adjusted to tolerate lower temperature or tomatoes that can use salt water and rice with vitamin A ensuring that there are foodstuffs out there. Kowles doesn’t ignore the ethical questions, pointing out the gains are worth more than the losses.
My own survival is dependent on a bacteria modified to produce human insulin so I’m hardly likely to complain about its use. I loved Kowles story that one complainer against genetic engineering at a presentation was also a type one diabetic. A clear case of complainers clearly don’t understand how genetic engineering is ensuring their own style of life.
About the only things I think was missing was an explanation as to how it was determined which genes did what. Kowles points out that there are six involved in determining skin colour. Presumably, as there’s only about 1% difference between all of us, it comparing the differences that determines which genes are active. The other was the parallel evolutions in Australia and Madagascar where non-related species took on similar characteristics to European animals. Does that indicate that for certain places in the food chain that there are only one option?
When it comes to looking at films that have depicted correct genetics, he only points out one as being wrong and that was the comedy ‘Twins’. The other SF ones Kowles has seen, he tends to regard as being right. In some respects, I get the feeling Kowles did a sampling rather than talk to anyone more versed in SF but on the whole, it looks like SF authors get their research right although I would have liked to have seen his comments on the extreme mutations that are used.
This is a great book because it covers all aspects of genetics, not to mention quack theories and where they go wrong. You can’t help coming away from this book without being knowledgeable, mostly down to Kowles good writing style and even at its most technical, explains in ready language. He also includes occasional cartoons re-enforcing things with a touch of humour. There is a great deal of development in genetic engineering and I hope this book will inspire the younger scientifically motivated amongst you to its career opportunities. A great learning curve.
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