"The Language of the Genes"
by Steve Jones
Reading history and reviews
Finished in 2008Another book that I found at the Daresbury Lab library, this was my second attempt at reading it after the first attempt was cut short by the book being recalled by someone else. It seemed fitting in a way to follow a book on the evolution of written language with a book about the "language" of life itself - in fact in one chapter Jones explicitly draws the parallel himself, and gives a pretty good potted history of the alphabet as an illustration of how genes also evolve.
This was an interesting read and certainly covers a lot of ground, as well as including lots of succulent snippets of trivia, and the opening and closing chapters (particularly the last one, which talked about the future evolution of the human race) I thought were particularly strong. However I felt that I lost my way a little in the middle sections of the book, which seemed to suffer from "gene shopping list syndrome" (an affliction that also affects other books on a similar subject) - the tendency to quote lots of different genes and the conditions that are associated with them. It's this shopping list approach which I have always found hardest to deal with - there's no underlying rules, and it makes the job of biology feel more like simple categorisation than an attempt to get at some more fundamental truth. But maybe that's just my prejudice as a physicist! and of course this isn't supposed to be a textbook.
Overall I found this book thought-provoking and in places it gave me a genuine new insight into things that I thought I already understood, and I think that I'd recommend it to the lay person who wanted a broad and readable introduction to genetics.
*Postscript:* while I was reading this book I was reminded of a paper that I'd read some time last year after hearing a reference to it in a seminar. The paper is "Can a Biologist Fix a Radio? - or, What I Learned while Studying Apoptosis" by Yuri Lazebnik. It's been published at least twice, the version I read is a reprint from Biochemistry (Moscow), Vol. 69, No. 12, 2004, pp. 1403-1406.
From what I remember, in the article Lazebnik offers an analysis of how biologists go about trying to determine gene function by considering how the same methodology might be applied to fixing a transistor radio. It's very interesting and as well as being very funny, and also offers a number of insights into the culture of scientific research.