Identically Different: Why You Can Change Your Genes, Tim Spector
I wasn’t sure how this would turn out, since it mentions the widely ridiculed Lamarckian theory of inheritance, and the subtitle “Why You Can Change Your Genes” might sound a tad self-helpy. Luckily, it is actually a sound examination of current epigenetic theory, based on MZ and DZ twin studies looking at heritability. It makes an excellent follow-up to James Watson’s DNA, in that it moves on from the gene-centric view of biology to the more nuanced ideas we have now.
I’ve always been fascinated by epigenetics. The whole idea is what made me interested in potentially becoming a geneticist: the idea that Lamarck wasn’t entirely wrong, that events within a person’s life can be passed on to their children and grandchildren. (The famous giraffe neck example was unequivocally wrong, however.) The example given then, and raised in this book, is that of potential epigenetic changes caused by IVF treatments, and the general lower health of children conceived via IVF.
What really fascinates me now is that maybe my anxiety issues are related to the methylation of some of my DNA, preventing transcription of some proteins. And that would probably be a self-feeding process, with stress causing the original methylation and then decreased availability of a particular neurotransmitter causes more anxiety (less ability to regulate emotion) and more stress. If I could only remove those methyl groups from my brain cells, I could stop taking my medication and get on with my life. If I could magically go into research right now, that is undoubtedly where I’d go.
The book covers a lot of different topics — sexuality, gender identity, athletic ability, talent, religious belief — and manages to do so without stepping on too many toes, to my mind. It presents a much less deterministic version of genetics and the epigenome than Watson’s DNA does, which people may find more palatable.
It was basically the sort of book where I spent a lot of time texting people saying “did you know…?” I found it an easy read, and it has copious amounts of footnotes and opportunities to do further reading. Another one I heartily recommend!
This is much, much better than James Watson’s 1968 The Double Helix, which is full of unbearable ego and sexist opinions. It even contains a chapter which explains the discovery of the double helix sans most of the commentary that made the earlier book annoying. Watson has definitely matured, thank goodness, and into a man I wouldn’t mind discussing genetics with. For example, he emphasises choice for pregnant women who know their babies have genetic disorders, insists that women have a right to decide on abortion which it is barbaric to deny, which I wouldn’t have predicted from his earlier book and which suggests a more liberal outlook than I expected.
In terms of the science alone, minus any comments on the writer, this is an excellent primer on DNA, covering most of what we currently understand about DNA. Being published nearly a decade ago now, it doesn’t comment on newer discoveries like the epigenetic control of gene expression, but it does cover just about everything in my college level online genetics class right now, with the added benefit of being something you can take at your own pace and without the horrible quantity of math that actually putting theories into practice requires (for example, he talks about finding a gene by reference to its association with a marker: I can calculate that if you give me half an hour, a calculator and a piece of paper — and allow me to cuss a good bit). It’s accessible to the layman, I think, but I still found it of interest despite my genetics classes and general interest in the field.
Some books leave me feeling that I’ve taken the wrong path in life. This is one of them. We know so many amazing, beautiful, astonishing things about DNA — and we have so much more to learn. This book made me long to have taken the other path in which I forced myself through the sciences for my A Levels, took a degree in genetics or something related, and became a geneticist. Watson clearly evokes the potential for this knowledge, and makes me wish I could add whatever intelligence I have to the process.
Skip The Double Helix, except as a historical document, but I do recommend DNA: The Secret of Life with little reserve.
What did you recently finishreading? It hasn’t been such a busy week this week, reading-wise. The last thing I finished was The Double Helix, James Watson’s account of the discovery of DNA. God, he has an ego on him, and he’s sexist about it too, at least back in 1968 when it was published. Rosalind Franklin, “Rosy”, would have been much improved by doing something novel with her hair, apparently.
What are you currently reading? The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield and DNA by James Watson. Yes, that same James Watson. It’s better because it’s not focused on himself, and it even includes the account from The Double Helix in miniature, so just… stick to that one. I understand everything in it without a struggle: sometimes I think he does get beyond what most people are used to, like recombination, but heck, I’ve done the math on recombination — if a simple description stumped me, my genetics grade would be in trouble.
The Thirteenth Tale is quite good. It’s reminding me of something else, several somethings, but that doesn’t bother me too much — in some cases, I think the allusions are intentional anyway. It’s definitely better than Bellman & Black. And I love the book-obsessed main character largely because her thirst for books mirrors my own.
What do you think you’ll read next? The plan is to finish reading Retribution Falls (Chris Wooding) and Augustus (John Williams). But I think everyone’s pretty used to how little my plans relate to what actually happens.
Hmmm, The Origins of Virtue is an interesting examination of the possible evolutionary causes of virtue, mostly defined here as altruism. It works quite well as a supplement that falls somewhere in between three of my current classes on Coursera: one with an anthropological bent, one largely genetic, and one about morality. It draws some of those themes together quite well, for me, and explains some of the studies — and some of the pitfalls of the studies, and wishful thinking.
It’s also pretty well written: it’s divided into both chapters and sections, which makes it easy to digest and keeps the argument focused.
On the other hand, it’s a little old now (1996), and Ridley’s ideology is very obvious to the attentive reader, although camouflaged by his scientific tone. At least the last chapter unveils his ethical principles: anti-government, anti-socialism (including such familiar institutions to Brits as the NHS), pro-small collectives and curated communal living. To be fair, he does analyse some of the ways this falls down, but he mostly focuses on why government-run things doesn’t work.
I mean, I love the NHS unashamedly. I went from the diagnosis of gallstones to medication to having my gallbladder removed in the process of a couple of months, without paying for anything at the point of use, at a time when I couldn’t support myself and was in agonising pain. Throughout my life I’ll pay back into that system with my taxes, and I don’t begrudge it at all, whatever Ridley’s conclusions told him.
Mmm, a pretty busy week reading-wise since I last checked in!
What did you recently finishreading? Taking “recently” as “today”, a fair few things. I read Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, which… hmm, it’s pretty, but I don’t love it. Review coming up on the blog tomorrow. Also Anatomies by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, which was okay but more a cultural history than anything scientific. And then also Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. which is just nuts and I’m still not sure what I read, but it was pretty fun.
Monica Rambeau for the win, anyway, even if Carol Danvers is my Captain Marvel.
What are you currently reading?
A lot of things, as usual, but the one at the head of the queue is The Origins of Virtue (Matt Ridley). I’m trying to focus on the dead tree books I’ve brought with me from Cardiff or bought while I was here, or left here on previous occasions, so I don’t have to drag them back there with me when I get the train. Looks like I’ve also got a bookmark in Augustus (John Williams) and Dreadnought (Cherie Priest).
What do you think you’ll read next?
Let’s be realistic, I hardly ever answer this question accurately. I’m gonna guess that comics-wise I’ll dig into some of my Captain America comics, and maybe read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Otherwise, I’m focusing on books acquired in 2014, because for the first time in years I’m sort of keeping up with my purchasing rate. So eyeballing that list, I’m probably going to go for the one I’m least interested in right now and try and get myself interested, so that’d be Michael Stackpole’s A Secret Atlas.
Other than that, maybe Liliana Bodoc’s Days of the Deer, because Ursula Le Guin thinks she’s the best thing since sliced bread and I meant to read it in January.
Although on the other hand I should probably just work on some of the books I’ve got started already. Katharine Beutner’s Alcestis has been giving me accusing looks for months.
I don’t get people who find this too dry, or lacking in a sense of wonder about the world. It’s full of a sense of wonder, no less potent because Sagan was agnostic (not atheist, as some people say), and he expresses this almost poetically. While some of the science is falling out of date now, it’s still worth reading Cosmos — as a primer, and for Sagan’s clear explanations of how the world works, and how our understanding got to this point.
I actually have the DVDs of the series as well, and while I know from seeing clips the book and the series are very similar, I’m gonna have to get round to seeing it soon. And if you’ve never heard of Symphony of Science, I definitely recommend it — my favourite is ‘A Glorious Dawn’.
One of the things reading this really made me wonder is what Sagan would think of what we’ve made of the world in the last two decades. We haven’t destroyed ourselves yet, but we haven’t yet disarmed, we haven’t even convinced everybody that climate change exists, and we still haven’t gone any further from our own small planet. I wish we still had Sagan, speaking clearly and rationally about all the problems we face — particularly because he had hope for us, as well as a warning.
Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, Neil McKenna
Despite the claims of meticulous research, Fanny & Stella seems to be mostly a sensational recounting of some admittedly quite sensational events. On the one hand, I felt that there was a lot of delight taken in talking about the “sordid” details — pretty thorough accounts of physical examinations for sodomy, and also a bit of an obsession with the sex as well. It’s also written in many places as if it’s nothing but a story, and it certainly doesn’t keep in mind that for Stella and Fanny, this trial was potentially a death sentence.
On the other hand, from the descriptions here (admittedly this could be the author’s work rather than reality), the two would have loved the attention, the tell-all details, outside the context of, you know, being in great danger. And I certainly learnt about the LGBT community in the Victorian period, and some of it rather surprised me.
The fact that Fanny and Stella were referred to by those names, more or less consistently, and by female pronouns… I couldn’t decide if that was meant to be respectful to them (what were their gender identities? Would they even have had a concept of that as we do?) or if it was meant to drive home at every point the whole “He-She Women” thing going on. Adding to that was the way the author presumed to know what was going on in their minds…
All in all, it’s entertaining but I wouldn’t trust it as solid scholarship, and I’m a bit leery of the author’s motives in writing it. Certainly it felt like there was a lot of prurient interest going on.
The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, Paula Byrne
I have never really been a big Austen fan, which along with my relative indifference to Shakespeare and Chaucer when I began my first degree reaaaally made other lit students look at me askance. I still think that those three are pushed upon us to a ridiculous degree, and often its not even their best work that is touted as The Book To Read (for example, I favour Troilus and Criseyde over The Canterbury Tales, and pretty much anything over Romeo and Juliet). But anyway, I’ve slowly come to appreciate them a little bit more, which will probably horrify my mother (at least where Austen is concerned). Sorry, Mum.
Paula Byrne’s biography of Jane Austen is quite a common sense one. Instead of looking first to her fiction and then trying to extrapolate out to her life, it looks at the objects that surrounded her or inspired her and teases out things from there. I’m not really a scholar of the period in any sense, so I can’t speak as to the accuracy of it, but it reads well and I appreciated this view of Jane Austen as a practical, witty and determined woman, fully supported by her family and with no doubts about her chosen course in life. It debunks ideas like the picture some people have of her being very sheltered and not in contact with the world, putting us in touch with the politics she would have been aware of and the places she went. It has some nice inserts with some of the objects mentioned pictured in colour.
I’m not keeping this book, but I’m certainly donating it to my library — I know that someone who is more of an Austen fan than me will doubtless appreciate it even more, and I’m willing to bet there’s a member of even our tiny little library who fits the bill.
The British: A Genetic Journey, by Alistair Moffat
I generally enjoy Alistair Moffat’s non-fiction writing (I don’t know if he’s written any fiction), although I don’t agree with his outlook on the Arthurian legends (which he even manages to slot in here). It’s very much popular science, or that’s how it feels with the inserted text boxes of “interesting facts”, but the level isn’t really “complete beginner”. I mean, it talks about mapping population movements via comparing particular unique markers, which must mean single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), but it doesn’t really contextualise that much. To me, my classes in genetics and anthropology contemplated this really well. It also talks about mitochondrial DNA and things like that, again without much explanation.
It starts off being general, rather than really a genetic history of the British, because of course, it goes back to the last common ancestors of mankind. It narrows down later on, looking at the various different inflows of new DNA, e.g. to what extent the Romans or the Normans mixed with the people already in Britain. What I was more interested in was the discussion of how Britain’s population got there. I didn’t know, for example, about the land that joined Britain to mainland Europe at one time, Doggerland, so all of that was new to me.
All in all, it didn’t give me many surprises, but it’s pretty up to date (includes stuff about recentish finds like the Denisovans) and, for the British population, pretty comprehensive. I’d have liked a little more about the separate populations of Britain: there are genetic differences, generally, between Scottish, Irish, Welsh and English people, and I’d have been interested to know more about how those groups formed and remained intact.
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson
Caspar Henderson’s 21st Century Bestiary is not an encyclopaedia, as some people might expect, but something more in the medieval tradition of bestiaries, mixing information with philosophical and moral comment. It’s interesting, and Henderson’s ideas are well expressed, and I imagine a full colour version of the book must be stunning (my own is the paperback, all in black and white, but I seem to recall seeing a colour edition). It’s definitely not all that scientific, in places, relying on anecdote and going off on tangents into what an organism might have to teach us.
One of Henderson’s major concerns is the environment, and the preservation of Earth’s current biodiversity, for which he makes a good case. Ultimately, if your interest is science, this will probably be unsatisfying: it’s here to demonstrate some of the scope of biodiversity, not to explain it, or even to go very deeply into any one scientific principle (though it touches on plenty).
I do wish it had been better edited — the typos and such are extremely distracting. All in all, it isn’t quite as good as I’d expected from the rave reviews and my quick glance over it in the shop, but it is interesting.