Note: All materials on this site are the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies of reviews or columns for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies of any of the materials on this site, please contact the author by e-mail.
Like its protagonist, Gregor Mendel, the thought-provoking book The Impact of the Gene by British science writer Colin Tudge, is much more than it seems -- and the thoughts it provokes will not always be favorable.
For six chapters, the book appears to be a more-or-less standard overview of the history and science of genetics, though a bit heavy-handed in its opening chapter. Its second paragraph resounds with dire prediction. ("In a hundred years or so ... we might produce livestock like balls of flesh, churning out milk and eggs like termite queens.... Most shockingly of all, we could, in the fullness of time, redesign ourselves." A few pages later, it declares Mendel to be a rare genius. ["...we can hardly doubt that Mendel should be ranked among the pantheon: the elite that includes Galileo and Newton among physicists, and Darwin (it is hard to think of another quite so significant) among biologists."]
The latter statement echoes the thesis of Robin Marantz Henig in The Monk in the Garden, who admirably seeks to restore the reputation of a great scientist whose pioneering work was underappreciated in its time -- it was effectively lost to science for more than thirty years -- and then attacked in later decades as too simplistic or even fraudulent. As Mr. Tudge points out, its simplicity, derived from Mendel's academic training and inclination as a physicist, was part of its beauty, and the statistically too-good agreement between experiment and theory can be explained by the biology of the famous pea plants themselves.
By the time he makes that argument in the book's core chapters, readers have found a comfort level in the clear and informative summary of Mendelian genetics, Darwinian evolution, and their twentieth century synthesis with molecular biology. Still, readers' discomfort with the earlier exaggerated tone lurks in the background. It returns to prominence when Mr. Tudge moves from description to advocacy in a chapter on the emerging science -- if it is indeed a science -- of Evolutionary Psychology.
The closing chapters and the epilogue take readers beyond the science of genetics to the emerging technologies of genetic engineering, including the inevitable questions of ethics or, more simply stated but complex in implication, what is right and wrong. Here, Mr. Tudge's writing becomes passionate, opinionated, and compelling. These chapters are not merely to be read, but to be grappled with.
In the book's closing paragraph, the heroic Mendel reappears in all his benign and modest glory. Mr. Tudge intends for him to cast light on the controversial issues, but many readers will find that the Mendelian presence, instead, turns a spotlight on the author and his penchant for overstatement. It is a less than comfortable ending to a less than comfortable reading experience.