December 18th, 2008
|07:07 pm - I Wish I Were DNA Helicase So I Could Unzip Your Genes|
At the genetics session at Asilomar, the instructor highly recommended Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, by Matt Ridley. She even read an excerpt from the introduction. So I put it on my Amazon Wishlist, since I suck at genetics. Sure enough, Melanie, who reads science books for fun way more than I do, bought it for me for my birthday.
And you know what, guys? GENES ARE AWESOME OMG.
The book takes us on a tour of our own genetic code, using the 23 pairs of chromosomes as convenient jumping-off points for 23 topics ranging from the nature of intelligence to sexual antagonism. Now, the reason I suck at genetics is because I get lost in all the nitty gritty molecular biology of it all, but, thankfully, Ridley keeps it very high-level and constantly uses metaphors to help the reader understand. For instance, the central metaphor of the book is that the genome itself is a book that contains within it the story of how it came to be in the form of genes. This theme occupies the first couple chapters but remains prevalent throughout the book, and it is absolutely fascinating. I mean, how fucked up is it that our genome differs from the chimpanzee genome by TWO PERCENT? How fucked up is it that there are certain genes that are EXACTLY THE SAME across species? So much so that you can replace a certain fruit fly gene with a human gene and NOTHING HAPPENS. You can use the genome to trace back through history, identifying when species splits occurred based on how similar their genomes are. Hell, we can make fairly educated guesses about what we were like millions of years ago just by asking the question, "Why is this gene even here?"
That's all fabulous and dazzling, but there's a more troubling revelation that comes from examining our genetic code: the "selfish gene" idea. You guys, I had heard about this idea and possibly read a little about it in textbooks, but I did not realize how RIDICULOUSLY SCARY AWESOME it was until Matt Ridley laid it all out for me. Because genes are fucking bastards! They are totally only looking out for themselves! All they want to do is make it to the next generation, and if you suffer some collateral damage along the way, whatever. Perhaps the most awesome example given is that the battle of sexes is REAL, DOWN TO THE MOLECULAR LEVEL. Holy shit, the X and Y chromosome have been fighting it out for EONS. There is all this crazy shit about what's actually in semen (THIS BOOK CONTAINS KILLER SPERM) and who controls placental development (BABIES ARE SERIOUSLY PARASITES HOLY CRAP) and how all this has managed to go on when only one gender even gets a Y chromosome.
Plus, like Simon Singh in The Big Bang Theory, Ridley does a great job making scientific research and discovery sound exciting. He highlights unsung heroes in genetics that I feel really sorry for because they were FUCKING RIGHT all those centuries ago and their contemporaries just LAUGHED AT THEM. He also gives the quite-sung heroes the respect they deserve (HOLY SHIT MENDEL WAS AMAZING). He provides a variety of hypotheses and discusses them without bias, although he sometimes gives the reader his own opinion just for kicks (it's his book, after all). It really makes you appreciate how discoveries are made, how you often have to challenge basic assumptions to find the answer. I mean, nobody thought DNA was anything worth looking into; nobody believed four base pairs were all you needed to encode an organism. Can you imagine that? It seems so stupid in retrospect! You want to go back in time and shake people. And then there's the fact that a great deal of the important discoveries talked about in the book happened in my lifetime. That is nuts. I was alive, and the world was changing all around me. The world I was born into had a completely different understanding of genetics than the world I live in now (and this book was written at the turn of the century, so it must be even crazier now).
Ridley's style is very much geared toward the layperson with no science background. You don't need to know the chemical structure of adenosine or what an Okazaki fragment is; he never gets that technical. And he tries as much as possible to use metaphors rather than jargon: in fact, he sometimes deliberately stops himself before he begins to bore the reader. And he tells the reader he's doing this, it's funny. He engages the reader constantly throughout the book, addressing him directly, so it really is as if Matt Ridley is standing right in front of you and telling you this awesome stuff he knows about genes.
When I decided to write this post, I was going to use a whole lot more specific examples from the book, but, you know what, I don't want to spoil it for you. There is just too much awesome. Reading this book made me rethink my entire existence. And the world. And society. And evolution. It's just psychotic how much of everything can be explained by our genes, how they really do tell a story. Ridley is forced to use the word "mindboggling" multiple times because, seriously, this shit just boggles the mind. But you should know what's going on inside of you! And what it all means. It is your right as a human being! Reading this book made me want to read more science books because HELLO SCIENCE IS AWESOME YOU GUYS. IT CAN EXPLAIN WHY IT RAINS AND EVERYTHING.
In conclusion, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.
Current Mood: sleepy
Current Music: Annuals - Sore