Dr. Fred Bortz

Genome The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

by Matt Ridley

(HarperCollins, 2000, $26.00 hardcover, 350 pages, also available in paperback)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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"In the beginning was the word," and the word was alive. Written on a sugar and phosphate molecule in the shape of a double helix (deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA) in an alphabet of amino acids known as nucleotides, the word copied and combined with itself over billions of years until it "blossomed and became sufficiently ingenious to build a porridgy contraption called a human brain that could discover and be aware of the word itself."

So writes Matt Ridley with a combination of biblical awe, scientific curiosity, and wit about what many consider the greatest scientific breakthrough of the twentieth century and the greatest technological challenge of the twenty-first: the discovery of the molecular basis of life and its many applications in medicine, law, and commerce.

The international Human Genome Project began in 1990 with the ambitious task of reading and decoding every one of the estimated 60,000-80,000 genes that reside on 23 pairs of chromosomes in the DNA of each human cell. When completed in a few years, the project promises revolutionary changes in the state of our species. [Note: As of 2001, the project was completed and the estimate proved to be too large by a factor of two. A better estimate for our species is a paltry 30,000.]

Each gene has a story to tell, and Ridley skillfully selects one story for each human chromosome pair as a thread in a tapestry of interwoven themes of human nature: life and fate; death and immortality; health, healing, and disease; instinct, memory, learning, intelligence, personality, and behavior; sex; cooperation and competition; determinism and free will; heredity, environment, and culture.

The book is strongest in its scientific presentation and its novel perspective. Readers come to view adaptations of organisms -- even intelligence and civilization -- as mechanisms not for the survival of species, but rather for the propagation of selfish, competing genes.

Ridley, a former editor of The Economist, also brings interesting political and sociological insights to this work. He does not shy away from controversy in discussing misguided political, social, and educational policies that either ignore or respond improperly to genetic differences among people. He takes firm stands on genetic engineering, genetic screening, and use of genetic information. Many readers who disagree with Ridley's viewpoint will still appreciate his well-informed arguments.

Yet a significant group of readers will see his discussion as too clinical and lacking a necessary spiritual dimension. Like so many great scientific discoveries of the past, the exploration of the genetic code both humbles and elevates the human spirit. Although we humans have been demoted from our exalted position at the pinnacle of creation to one of many creatures in a continuum of life, we are still the only species capable of a partnership with the universal life-creating force. Whether we see that force as natural or supernatural, the responsibility is monumental. Ridley's decision not to include ethical or religious strands may lead some readers to conclude that his tapestry is tattered.

Fred Bortz, as a result of genetic endowment and environmental and cultural influences, has evolved into a Ph.D. physicist and an author of science and technology books for young readers. His To the Young Scientist includes a chapter profiling three researchers at the National Center for Human Genome Research.