Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

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. 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060894085
Publisher: HarperCollins US
Publication date: 05/30/2006
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 94,226
Product dimensions: 7.78(w) x 5.30(h) x 0.87(d)

About 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.

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.

Table of Contents

1 Life
2 Species
3 History
4 Fate
5 Environment
6 Intelligence
7 Instinct
X and Y Conflict
8 Self-Interest
9 Disease
10 Stress
11 Personality
12 Self-Assembly
13 Pre-History
14 Immortality
15 Sex
16 Memory
17 Death
18 Cures
19 Prevention
20 Politics
21 Eugenics
22 Free Will
Bibliography and Notes

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)


When I began to write this book, the human genome was still a largely an unexplored landscape. Some eight thousand human genes had already been roughly located, and I mention a few of the most interesting ones in the book, but the rapid acceleration towards the reading of the entire genome still lay in the future. Now, only a little over a year later, that gargantuan task is complete. Scientists all over the world have deciphered the entire human genome, written down its contents and distributed them on the internet to all who wish to read them. You can now download from the net the near-complete instructions for how to build and run a human body.

The revolution was swift. In early 1998, the publicly funded scientists who made up the Human Genome Project still predicted that they would take another seven years at least to read the entire human genome, and they had barely read 10% of it by then. Then suddenly a joker was thrown on the table. Craig Venter, a flamboyant and impatient scientist now working in the private sector, announced that he was forming a company and would do the job by 2001 and for a fraction of the cost: less than $200 million.

Venter had made such threats before, and he had a habit of delivering results. In 1991 he had invented a quick way to find human genes when everybody said it could not be done. Then in 1995 he received a withering reply to his request for a government grant to map a whole bacterial genome using a new `shotgun' technique. The technique would never work, said the officials. The letter arrived when the job was already almost complete. So it would be a foolish person who bet against Venter a third time. The race was on. The public project was reorganised and refocused; extra funding was poured in and a goal was set to complete a first draft of the entire genome in June 2000. Venter soon set his sights on the same deadline.

On June 26, 2000, President Clinton in the White House and Tony Blair in Downing Street, simultaneously announced that the rough draft was complete. This is therefore an astonishing moment in human history: the first time in the story of life on earth that a species has read its own recipe. For the human genome is nothing less than the instructions for how to build and run a human body. Hidden within it, as I have tried to show in the book, lie thousands of genes and millions of other sequences that constitute a treasure trove of philosophical secrets. Most of the research into human genes is driven by the urgent need to find cures for both inherited diseases and much commoner diseases like cancer and heart disease, whose origin is abetted or enhanced by genes. A cure for cancer would, we now know, be virtually impossible if we did not understand the role of cancer genes and cancer-suppressing genes in the progress of tumours.

Yet there is much more to genetics than medicine. As I have tried to show, the genome contains secret messages from both the distant and the recent past—from when we were single-celled creatures and from when we took up cultural habits such as dairy farming. It also contains clues to ancient philosophical conundrums, not least the question of whether and how our actions are determined and what is this curious sensation called free will.

The completion of the genome project has done little to change this picture, but it is gradually adding more examples to the themes I explore in this book. As I wrote, I was conscious that the world was rapidly changing; genetic knowledge was exploding all about me in the scientific literature. I could do no more than capture the first glimpse of some of these exciting debates. But many great insights still lie in the future. Science, I believe, is the search for new mysteries, rather than the cataloguing of old facts. I have little doubt that there will be astounding surprises in store for us over the next few years. We are realising for the first time just how little we know about ourselves.

What I could not have foreseen is how dramatically the debate over genetics would have invaded the public media. With controversy raging over genetically modified organisms and with speculation growing about cloning and genetic engineering, the public is demanding the right to be heard. Quite correctly it does not want these decisions left only to the experts. But most geneticists are too busy mining nuggets of intellectual gold from the laboratory to give up their time to explaining their science to the public. So it falls to commentators like me to try to translate the arcane stories of genes into something more like entertainment than education.

I am an optimist. As will be clear from this book, I think knowledge is a blessing, not a curse. This is especially true in the case of genetic knowledge. To understand the molecular nature of cancer for the first time, to diagnose and prevent Alzheimer's disease, to discover the secrets of human history, to reconstruct the organisms that populated the pre-Cambrian seas—these seem to me to be immense blessings. It is true that genetics also brings the threat of new dangers—unequal insurance premiums, new forms of germ warfare, unanticipated side-effects of genetic engineering—but most of these are either easily dealt with or extremely far-fetched. So I cannot subscribe to the fashionable pessimism about science and nor can I warm to the idea of a world that turns its back on science and the unending assault on new forms of ignorance.

Matt Ridley July 2000

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Genome 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 43 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.
l8amylou on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an entertaining read that is easy to understand even if you are not familiar with the terminology used in genetics.
clitchfi22 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Found the book very interesting, picked the book up my freshmen year of college a couple years ago and just recently impulsively decided to read it. Though now I have a few years of biology under my belt the book was still very interesting. Even those with little knowledge of genetics this book is still an excellent read. Riley decode the story of the human genome for the reader and gives a good over view of what each of the 23 chromosomes correlate to according to what we know now about genetics. ...good book would recommend
Michelle_Bales on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ridley's book presents some very interesting ideas and theories about genetics and inheritance. The question of Nature vs. Nurture looms large. Some of the facts in this book are kind of freaky. For example, the war between the X and the Y chromosomes is hard to wrap my brain around. Ridley's writing style is very British, and some of the references he makes are completely lost on me (perhaps because I am not British?). It took me a few chapters to get used to his writing style. However, then the book became a page-turner. Not all of the chapters are equally interesting. Ridley is extremely opinionated and does not openly admit it. This makes me wonder about everything he has presented. I would like to do some fact-checking of some of his assertions.
norabelle414 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As a genetics major in college, I've read many, many books on the subject, and this was by far my favorite. It's not dumbed down and all of its explanations are thorough and specific. However, it's still a really fun and amusing read. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in learning a little about genetics, especially the political and ethical aspects.