New Book

Genes cover

To order the book at a discount from Amazon, click on the picture

Genes - the Fight for Life

London: Cassells, 1999. ISBN 0-304-35019-2, 250pp, p/b 14.99

This book has been reviewed on the web (click on the picture above for details). As the publisher's description emphasises, this is a positive book, celebrating this new era of molecular biology as exhilarating (p 221) and with great potential benefits (p 1). However, it warns against commercial exploitation of pure science (pp 177, 235). It also reminds us that molecular biology is no good on its own; we need to study whole organisms. We are drowning in data, the book says, and what we now need to do is find new scientific ideas to fit the figures into patterns that can be useful (p 1). Holistic science should be the science of the new millennium (p 2). Modern science (p 183) pressurises scientists into being dishonest. Liberating ‘resistance’ genes into the environment could be disastrous (pp 179-80), for example.

The theory of natural selection is put firmly in its place: it was not the original idea of Charles Darwin (p 199) who promised another author he would acknowledge his priority (but then broke the promise). The ‘selfish gene’ theory is also dismissed (p 9). To pretend that genes are selfish is like claiming that holidays were invented to give passports a break, says this book. Scientific ideas often reflect the opinions of the age; thus, the selfish gene theory arose at a time when selfishness was the great legacy of Thatcherism. Life is more complex than that.

Languages are seen (p 204) as a way of preventing communication, rather than assisting us to understand each other. The book uses Latin words (p 4) - the young are fascinated by Velociraptor just as older readers might be by Metasequoia glyptostroboides in a garden centre, so there seemed no reason to banish them from the text. The cell is fundamental to us all - the book shows that we may even have memories of life as single cells. Some drawings by children may show cells (p 229) and pictures published hundreds of years before the microscope was invented seem to show them too (p 230).

The book also celebrates the amateur enthusiasts - like the businessman who first carried out embryo transfers (p 172), and the unqualified Canadian who discovered the phage virus that attacks bacteria (p 143). We meet the roller-blading eccentric who perfected PCR (the idea behind Jurassic Park) yet could not persuade the establishment what he had done - and was later bought off for a pittance (p 44).

It is the living cell which is the real master of our destiny (p 5). We all begin as single cells, and their ways dictate our behaviour. This new theory about human nature will revolutionise our way of looking at ourselves - civil war, for example, is an expression of the innate ability of cells to react against non-self cells. What has happened in Northern Ireland, Lebanon and Bosnia (p 214) is the equivalent of an autoimmune disease, with warfare waged between people, rather than cells. We can use this model to explain the problems of a single currency (p 216), the origins of ‘europhobia’, and national differences in culture (p 219). It even offers an answer to racism (p 220).

See reviews in Laboratory News or Biologist magazine.
Move to
Genes and the Fight for life publisher's description.