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Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters
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Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

4.4 34
by Matt Ridley

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The genome's been mapped.
But what does it mean?

Arguably the most significant scientific discovery of the new century, the mapping of the twenty-three pairs of chromosomes that make up the human genome raises almost as many questions as it answers. Questions that will profoundly impact the way we think about disease, about longevity, and about free will.


The genome's been mapped.
But what does it mean?

Arguably the most significant scientific discovery of the new century, the mapping of the twenty-three pairs of chromosomes that make up the human genome raises almost as many questions as it answers. Questions that will profoundly impact the way we think about disease, about longevity, and about free will. Questions that will affect the rest of your life.

Genome offers extraordinary insight into the ramifications of this incredible breakthrough. By picking one newly discovered gene from each pair of chromosomes and telling its story, Matt Ridley recounts the history of our species and its ancestors from the dawn of life to the brink of future medicine. From Huntington's disease to cancer, from the applications of gene therapy to the horrors of eugenics, Matt Ridley probes the scientific, philosophical, and moral issues arising as a result of the mapping of the genome. It will help you understand what this scientific milestone means for you, for your children, and for humankind.

Editorial Reviews

This national bestseller is one of the most accessible and lively books available on the topic of the human genome. Taking each of the 23 chromosomes in turn, Matt Ridley, author of The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, tells stories of the genes and their meaning for us -- blending history, science, medicine, philosophy, and ethics.
Susan Okie
A superb writer whose exquisite, often moving descriptions of life's designs remind me of the best work of the late Lewis Thomas....He crafts some of the clearest explanations of complex biological processes that I have encountered. What's more, he captures their slippery beauty.
Washington Post Book World
Ronald Bailey
Mr. Ridley provides not only a fascinating tour of the human genome but a persuasive argument against the skeptics of biotech research. If you want to catch a glimpse of the biotech century that is now dawning, and how it will make life better for us all, Genome is an excellent place to start.
Wall Street Journal
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
HSoon we'll know what's in our genes: next year, the Human Genome Project will have its first-draft map of our 23 chromosomes. Ridley (The Red Queen; The Origins of Virtue) anticipates the genomic news with an inventively constructed, riveting exposition of what we already know about the links between DNA and human life. His inviting prose proposes "to tell the story of the human genome... chromosome by chromosome, by picking a gene from each." That story begins with the basis of life on earth, the DNA-to-RNA-to-protein process (chapter one, "Life," and also chromosome one); the evolution of Homo sapiens (chromosome two, which emerged in early hominids when two ape chromosomes fused); and the discovery of genetic inheritance (which came about in part thanks to the odd ailment called alkaptonuria, carried on chromosome three). Some facts about your life depend entirely on a single gene--for example, whether you'll get the dreadful degenerative disease Huntington's chorea, and if so, at what age (chromosome four, hence chapter four: "Fate"). But most facts about you are products of pleiotropy, "multiple effects of multiple genes," plus the harder-to-study influences of culture and environment. (One asthma-related gene--but only one--hangs out on chromosome five.) The brilliant "whistle-stop tour of some... sites in the genome" passes through "Intelligence," language acquisition, embryology, aging, sex and memory before arriving at two among many bugbears surrounding human genetic mapping: the uses and abuses of genetic screening, and the ongoing debate on "genetic determinism" and free will. Ridley can explain with equal verve difficult moral issues, philosophical quandaries and technical biochemistry; he distinguishes facts from opinions well, and he's not shy about offering either. Among many recent books on genes, behavior and evolution, Ridley's is one of the most informative. It's also the most fun to read. Agent, Felicity Bryan. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Written in 23 chapters corresponding to the 23 pairs of chromosomes comprising the human genome, this is an engrossing account of the genetic history of our species. Each chapter focuses on a newly discovered gene on each chromosome, tracing its genetic contribution to such areas as human intelligence, personality, sexual behavior, and susceptibility to disease. Ridley (The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature) is a zoologist-turned-science writer. As the Human Genome Project nears completion (the first findings are expected to be released February 2000), this book will be particularly relevant to lay readers, providing insight into how far we have come and where we are heading in the understanding of our genetic heritage. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--Leila Fernandez, Steacie Science Lib., York Univ., Toronto Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Philip Kitcher
Genome is a splendid introduction to some important science. It deserves to attract a wide and enthusiastic readership...
The Times Literary Supplement
[M]uch of Ridley's remarkable book is focused on a higher plane of pure intellectual discovery. It is a nearly jargon-free expedition that hops from one human chromosome to the next (23 in all) in search of the most delightful stories. Even practicing geneticists -- apt to view the genome as a boring research tool -- will come away with a greater sense of wonder at the hidden secrets in the text.
The New York Times Book Review

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt



All forms that perish other forms supply' (By turns we catch the vital breath and die) Like bubbles on the sea of matter borne' They rise' they break' and to that sea return.
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

In the beginning was the word. The word proselytised the sea with its message, copying itself unceasingly and forever. The word discovered how to rearrange chemicals so as to capture little eddies in the stream of entropy and make them live. The word transformed the land surface of the planet from a dusty hell to a verdant paradise. The word eventually blossomed and became sufficiently ingenious to build a porridgy contraption called a human brain that could discover and be aware of the word itself.

My porridgy contraption boggles every time I think this thought. In four thousand million years of earth history' I am lucky enough to be alive today. In five million species, I was fortunate enough to be born a conscious human being. Among six thousand million people on the planet, I was privileged enough to be born in the country where the word was discovered. In all of the earth's history, biology and geography, I was born just five years after the moment when, and just two hundred miles from the place where, two members of my own species discovered the structure of DNA and hence uncovered the greatest, simplest and most surprising secret in the universe. Mock my zeal if you wish; consider me a ridiculous materialist for investing such enthusiasm in an acronym. But follow me on a journey back to the very origin of life, and I hope I can convince you of the immensefascination of the word.

'As the earth and ocean were probably peopled with vegetable productions long before the existence of animals; and many families of these animals long before other families of them, shall we conjecture that one and the same kind of living filaments is and has been the cause of all organic life? asked the polymathic poet and physician Erasmus Darwin in 1794. It was a startling guess for the time' not only in its bold conjecture that all organic life shared the same origin, sixty-five years before his grandson Charles' book on the topic, but for its weird use of the word 'filaments'. The secret of life is indeed a thread.

Yet how can a filament make something live? Life is a slippery thing to define, but it consists of two very different skills: the ability to replicate' and the ability to create order. Living things produce approximate copies of themselves: rabbits produce rabbits, dandelions make dandelions. But rabbits do more than that. They eat grass' transform it into rabbit flesh and somehow build bodies of order and complexity from the random chaos of the world. They do not defy the second law of thermodynamics, which says that in a closed system everything tends from order towards disorder, because rabbits are not closed systems. Rabbits build packets of order and complexity called bodies but at the cost of expending large amounts of energy. In Erwin Schrodinger's phrase, living creatures 'drink orderliness' from the environment.

The key to both of these features of life is information. The ability to replicate is made possible by the existence of a recipe' the information that is needed to create a new body. A rabbit's egg carries the instructions for assembling a new rabbit. But the ability to create order through metabolism also depends on information -- the instructions for building and maintaining the equipment that creates the order. An adult rabbit, with its ability to both reproduce and metabolise, is prefigured and presupposed in its living filaments in the same way that a cake is prefigured and presupposed in its recipe. This is an idea that goes right back to Aristotle, who said that the 'concept' of a chicken is implicit in an egg, or that an acorn was literally 'informed' by the plan of an oak tree. When Aristotle's dim perception of information theory, buried under generations of chemistry and physics, re-emerged amid the discoveries of modern genetics' Max Delbruck joked that the Greek sage should be given a posthumous Nobel prize for the discovery of DNA.

The filament of DNA is information, a message written in a code of chemicals' one chemical for each letter. It is almost too good to be true' but the code turns out to be written in a way that we can understand. just like written English, the genetic code is a linear language, written in a straight line. just like written English' it is digital, in that every letter bears the same importance. Moreover' the language of DNA is considerably simpler than English, since it has an alphabet of only four letters, conventionally known as A, C, G and T.

Now that we know that genes are coded recipes, it is hard to recall how few people even guessed such a possibility. For the first half of the twentieth century, one question reverberated unanswered through biology: what is a gene? It seemed almost impossibly mysterious. Go back not to 19 5 3' the year of the discovery of DNA's symmetrical structure, but ten years further, to 1943. Those who will do most to crack the mystery' a whole decade later, are working on other things in 1943. Francis Crick is working on the design of naval mines near Portsmouth. At the same time James Watson is just enrolling as an undergraduate at the precocious age of fifteen at the University of Chicago; he is determined to devote his life to ornithology. Maurice Wilkins is helping to design the atom bomb in the United States. Rosalind Franklin is studying the structure of coal for the British government.

In Auschwitz in 1943, Josef Mengele is torturing twins to death in a grotesque parody of scientific inquiry.

What People are Saying About This

Sarah B. Hrdy
Clever, up to the minute informative, and an altogether spellbinding read. Ripley does just what a first-grade journalist should do: get it right, make it interesting, and wisely put it all in perspective.
—(Sarah B. Hrdy, author of Mother Nature)
James Watson
A lucid and exhilarating romp through our 23 human chromosomes that lets us see how nature and nurture combine to make us human.
—(James Watson)
Abraham Verghese
With riveting anecdotes, clever analogies and compelling writing, Matt Ridley makes the human genome come alive for us. I was left in awe at the wonder of the human body, and the scientists who unravel its mysteries.
— (Abraham Verghese, author of The Tennis Partner)

Meet the Author

Matt Ridley is the award-winning, bestselling author of several books, including The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves; Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters; and The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. His books have sold more than one million copies in thirty languages worldwide. He writes regularly for The Times (London) and The Wall Street Journal, and is a member of the House of Lords. He lives in England.

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Genome 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is interesting but BE WARNED - it is NOT a NEW book! I thought I was getting the latest and greatest on this subject when I saw it advertised as a NEW release. Not so - This book was written in 2000! It is still worth reading if you are interested in genetics and do not want a lot of technical detail.
Blubmin More than 1 year ago
Most people on the planet who took any sort of high school biology course know about the human genome; it is the blueprint that makes us, us. Perhaps if one¿s memory is advanced enough, they will remember that DNA is wrapped into 23 chromosomal packages and that each chromosome does something different. However the sheer idea that there are millions of tiny base pairs in specific sequences is overwhelming to most. What Ridley does is takes a very basic approach to the situation and presents this overwhelming idea in a way that is very narrative. The separate chromosomes act as a setting for the human story that Ridley flushes out, from life, to history, to our own personalities. His approach may not be heavily based in scientific detail, but for what he sacrifices in appropriate scientific jargon, he makes up in entertainment value. Each chapter is titled with a particular heavy subject, such as Chromosome 22¿s ¿Free Will¿ - a very effective method that keeps interest high. He then proceeds to describe how a gene on the chromosome in question relates to the chapter¿s title. Genome is one of the most accessible books on genetics whose purpose is to enlighten a mass audience. I highly recommend that anyone who is curious about how our genetic blueprint is actually read should pick this up.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is pretty good...from a scientific aspect of things most of the content of this book can be found in any introductory biology textbook...however the social issues that Ridley approaches in this book are interesting to think about and that makes most of this book enjoyable.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Several of my friends and I, who all attend the University of Pittsburgh and are biological science majors, read this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. Ridley manages to capture fact while adding humor. As with his other books, this book inspired many conversations between us and our professors.
Hydra More than 1 year ago
As a scientists, I truly respect the amount of research peformed by Mr. Ridley. I really like his writing style which is casual enough for the non-scientists yet academically precise for the science/medical professional. Chapter 1 has already been updated since the original publication date so some of the evolution theories have been disproved with the recent findings (called The Link). However, the discussion of our relatedness to chimpanzees was well-developed and defended, despite several recent suggestions of a possible separate lineage from orangutans. Mr. Ridley also does a good job tackling the bioethical questions surrounding genome testing, and demonstrates that knowledge is not the same as wisdom. Truly, a terrific read.
nagirl More than 1 year ago
This was a great book to read during my Advanced Biology class. It was not required, but i loved reading it. It is a great introduction to genetics and many diseases and it is simply interesting. Not for everyone, though, especially those that have no major interest in science and its complexities.
Shuku_Hokuyoru More than 1 year ago
I got this book because I was told I'd need it for college but I found that it is a very interesting book. Even If you're not into the really technical stuff this book offeres wonderful insights into humans as a people and has relevance to anyone who might read it. If you intend upon a Genetic major or if you are unsure, be sure to get this book. It will really help you to decide.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a great book. It is clearly written and interesting. As a scientist, I found the book very easy to understand but at the same time challenging and thought provoking. This is not a simple minded 'popular science' type of volume. I learned alot from this book--something I can say about very few books.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ridley's book is a simplistic, overgeneralised approach to a topic about which there is already enough confusion. He makes assertions which are dubious at best, and often doesn't bother to provide adequate scientific proof of why a statement is the case. Also, the book is poorly written, with sentences that are frequently choppy and amateurish. I salute Ridley for his audacity in attempting to 'explain' an area which is still in the process of being understood by the most advanced scientists, but I sharply criticise his lack of substance. Although most readers wouldn't be able to understand the real technicalities of what occurs, he insults our intelligence by assuming that this then means that we do not require proof. Far better to pick up a copy of The Scientific American and get the current, partial, well-documented truth than a book full of half-understood, half-articulated conjecture.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have had an interest in genetics for some time now, but for the first time I have been able to read a book on the topic without needing a scientific background in it. Though a new vocabulary is introduced, it is not necessary to learn it in order to understand the processes going on with our genes. For anyone who wants a layman's understanding of our genetic makeup and how it affects us and the world around us, I highly recommend this well written and easy to read book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ridley explores one chromosome per chapter in a style that is both informative and entertaining. The reader does not have to understand advanced chemistry nor in depth genetics to become educated to this most important topic.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Matt Ridley does something very few other writers could with this book, he explains the science of genetics to a totally unscientific mind like mine! I welcome this book for anyone with an open mind who is willing to try and learn something that wouldn't appear on their normal curriculum. Pick this one up you just might be pleasantly surprized!
Guest More than 1 year ago
An amazing trip through the genetic forest guided by a 'regular guy' who makes the complex subject approachable to layfolk . I carry it with me when I travel to revisit various chapters and consider implications the material prompts me to do. Very refreshing reading--no sterile bland science text here.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book says how small we are in whole our history, and also how big gen could be to rule with part of our lives.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have learned more from this book than any other so far i have read. I found all of it interesting and enabling me to understand and enjoy biology more fully. there were a couple of chapters that didnt make a lot of scence to the layman, but most of it was clear enough to take in. over all, i would recomend you read this book for a general knowledge of the human genome.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Many people describe the work in decoding the genome to be the beginning of the most important work ever done in science. Are you prepared? The field of genetics is doubling knowledge every few weeks. So Matt Ridley had set himself an impossible task in writing one of the last books before the completion of the Human Genome project. Yet, he has created a book of unique value to all of us as the full impact of genetic knowledge begins to take over our world. Forget 99 percent of what you have ever heard about genes. The school wasted your time with obsolete knowledge that wasn't in the ball park, in most cases. What Ridley has done is given us a roadmap of the kind of territory and effects that occur within our genes, and among our minds, bodies, and genes. The interrelationships are extremely complex and diverse. Beware any simple judgments about what genetics mean, as a result. What was most impressive to me was the remarkable potential to use genetic information to shed light on all kinds of issues. For example, the genetic record can give insights into the development of species, past expansion of nomadic peoples, language, personality, stress, memory, sex, instinct and the effect of the environment. To give us each a full panoply of ideas about genetics, he adopted the interesting structure of having one chapter about each chromosome. The chapter is not exhaustive, but picks on one or a few aspects of what is known or is in the process of becoming known. Fear not! I never took biology, and know little biological jargon. Yet the book portrayed the ideas and information simply and clearly enough that I don't think I got lost anywhere. The only part of the book that I did not like was a completely unsatisfactory discussion of what free will is in the last chapter. Skip that and you'll enjoy the book a lot more. How accurate is the book? In five chapters, I had read source books or articles referred to by Ridley, and each was well chosen for what he was trying to do and scrupulously described. Of course, we are still up against the fact that we know very little on this whole subject. This is the most stimulating science book that I have read in a long time. I even liked in better than The Selfish Gene, which I thought was a terrific book (which is also referred to and discussed in this book). I found that the book stimulated a lot of new thinking on my part. Fifteen minutes with the book led to four hours of conjecture on several occasions. I liked that feature of the book. Have a great time reading this book and thinking about its implications for your own life! Where will you have more potential in the future? Donald Mitchell, co-author of The Irresistible Growth Enterprise and The 2,000 Percent Solution
Guest More than 1 year ago
Very intresting, like how the author put it in simplest terms, so even a preteen can read. I recommend this to anybody intrested in genetics.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have only read a portion of this remarkable work so far. However I must point out that on pg 56, on the topic of Huntingtons disease, it is stated that several decendants of a particular family were burnt at the stake as witches in Salem 1693. The historic society of Salem states that no accused person was ever burnt in this country and 19 people were hung in the Hysterics of 1692-93. This is a great book but that fact bothered me given how much research was put into this work.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It's a nice addendum to 'THE BLIND WATCHMAKER.' This field is so new that every baby step is a 'great leap for mankind'. If there's a kindergarten for new ideas put this in the sandbox. It's a start, not a finish. It's part grist, part mill. It's wonderfully intelligent for what it is. It's too bad that when the human genome has been fully writ the word 'Genome' will not be available for copyright.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you never thought you'd read a book about genetics, (or even if you have) then this is the book for you. Ridley shows how the genetic map that is being developed for us will lead us to many of the answers that we have sought about ourselves. He explains in basic terms how genetics and evolution works. The most amazing part of this book is that it is extremely enjoyable to read. While still in the second chapter I was contemplating reading it again. If you have any interest in how we got to be what we are and what the future may hold for us, (or if you want some great party trivia) then reading 'Genome' will be both entertaining and enriching.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In THE BIBLE ACCORDING TO EINSTEIN, it is said 'The Book of Biology is unfinished, for human knowledge about the living is limited. Each day a new page of biology is written. The pages are and will be assembled. And when the book is finished, man will have the understanding to answer the fundamental questions: What makes that which is dead, dead, and what makes that which is alive, alive? And when the book is finished, man will have the power to manufacture life. And man shall, at that point, have one of the great power of a god.' This statement alone makes it worth reading anybook on the human genome project.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Are new books they are usually unknown or a lost leader to get you into a series which i take full advantage they can be from authors forgotten e g whose copyrights have run out this is nice for those of us who remember . but most of them would be on the sales table of any book store most are not a re read beware those that are really a serial not a series
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