Genome: A Romp to Read in Science

8:19 AM

Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg.

Let me begin with a confession: in the Spring of 1989, I took "Introduction to Biotechnology" as a first-year student at the University of Notre Dame. I vaguely recalled that I may have taken the course, but only examination of my transcript confirmed it for me. I recall none of the readings. My transcript also alerts me to the fact that I did not put the necessary effort into the class. My only consolation may be to see how far human knowledge has advanced from 1989 via Matt Ridley's excellent 2000 book: Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, although I would love to see how Ridley might update the book to reflect our learnings in the past 15 years.

Oxford educated, Ridley wrote for The Economist for nine years, then The Wall Street Journal, and now writes a column for The Times. Ridley also was elected in the House of Lords in 2013.
Matt Ridley (credit John Watson)
A graceful writer, Ridley composes Genome in 23 chapters corresponding to our 23 chromosomes, relating each chapter to a sequence on the appropriate chromosome when arranged in order of size. The book's structure fits as Ridley describes the genome as a book of 23 chapters, each chapter consisting of stories (genes), paragraphs (exons), advertisements (introns), and words (codons) written in letters (bases) (p. 7). Not simply a metaphor, the genome, Ridley contends, is literally a book, and our capacity to read the genome makes us the first creature in earth's history to know our own "recipe."

Ridley's gift, in my estimation, is to combine deep understanding of the science and broad, witty allusions to literature and culture to make readable, accessible content. Each chapter begins with an engaging quotation, often from classical literature. This appeals to my sensibilities formed in the Program of Liberal Studies, Notre Dame's Great Books program. While, as an undergraduate, I did not read enough in my biotechnology course, I did read Aristotle's De Anima, Darwin's Origin of Species, and Erwin Schrödinger's essay "What is life?" Each plays a part in Ridley's story. He also manages to include Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare. Chapter One begins lifting a phrase from Genesis: "In the beginning was the word" (p. 11). He describes the terminology of genetic embryology "like dropping into a Tolkein novel" (p. 184). Ridley makes a pop reference to Suzanne Vega and her 1987 hit: "My Name is Luka," although Ridley uses the allusion to refer to LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor) (p. 19). Genome is a romp.

Amid the fun, Ridley conveys some important concerns and hopes. The book begins (p. 6) and ends (well, not quite, but close-- chapter 20) in "mystery." He addresses ethical and philosophical concerns. Ridley takes on some of the fears around genetic research and investigation. His intention is not to rebut directly the naysayers but to describe the terrain as he sees it. He does this well.

I found many chunks to chew on, but I will share two elements here. First, amid the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, Ridley offers intriguing remarks about discrimination. He writes:
Physical discrimination is so much less acceptable than psychological. yet psychological discrimination is just chemical discrimination. It is just as material as any other discrimination. (p. 167)
Elsewhere he writes: "Discriminating on the basis of APOE genes is like discriminating on the basis of skin color or gender (p. 269)." We must pay attention to the particularity of the experience of discrimination. The capacity to hear that "Black lives matter" is essential. Ridley, here, urges a reconsideration of the lives of those whose genome is different, like those who live with (or will live with) Down's Syndrome. Ridley here concludes that it is "an individual decision" (e.g., the parents'), rather than a coercive state (p. 298). Secondly, perhaps we may be more forgiving of the "defects" in others if we were to realize more fully that "We are all of us mutants" (p. 165). Our genome is not static, but changing from generation to generation, but even within us as we live. Some parts of the code misread, some parts discarded, some parts damaged and changed. Perhaps we all deserve a place at the school for the X-Men of Dr. Charles Francis Xavier.

With Ridley's embrace of genetic research, I should add that he rejects the concerns of global climate change. I find this curious. He wrote a column critical of Pope Francis and Laudato Si'. Naturally, I am inclined to see eye-to-eye with the Pope on this matter. Nonetheless, I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg has introduced me to Ridley's work, and I look forward to reading more in the future.

While Zuckerberg reveals little about where his book selections are heading, and it is not even clear that he specifically knows what is next, the selections do not feel haphazard. Many of the writers have been in dialog with one another. Ridley's descriptions of the scientific debates in biology are better understood by Thomas Kuhn's paradigm theory. Steven Pinker makes repeated appearances in Genome. Ridley and Noah Yuval Harari cite some of the same evidence in their works, including Harry Harlow's experiments with nursing monkeys (p. 92). Ridley even cites Zuckerberg's next pick, William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). I have enjoyed the journey with Zuckerberg so far, and I look forward to seeing where we shall go in the next four months.

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