01 June 2008

Genome - Matt Ridley

Review by Newt Gingrich

A brilliant and eminently readable introduction this book explains the concept of the human genome. Ridley does a remarkable job of introducing you to how genes work, what their interactions seem to be, and the relationship between heredity and free choice. He makes a compelling case that in the end our genetic code contains limits (humans can not fly on their own) and probabilities (how likely we are to get breast cancer or Alzheimer's) but there are so many specific individual choices that no two twins are identical. If identical twins with identical genetic inheritances interact with their environment and their life experiences to become two substantially different people then imagine the range of differences between all of us.

There are so many thought-provoking sections of this book that it is hard to single out any one item. Let me just note that the chapter which discusses mad cow disease and its human analogue, the laughing disease of New Guinea which was a major cause of death among the Fore Tribe. Ridley's explanation of the role prisons play in causing these diseases is lucid and yet the science behind it is daunting.

For those who care about science education Ridley's approach to the mystery of knowledge explains a great deal about why the fact and memory based modern American approach to teaching science drives children away from the field. Consider just this passage: "The theme of this chapter is mystery. A true scientist is bored by knowledge; it is the assault on ignorance that motivates him -- the mysteries that previous discoveries have revealed. The forest is more interesting than the clearing." We need a science education based on learning about the unknown rather than memorizing the known. Ridley explains these principles again and again throughout the book.

If you care about the most important scientific revolution of the last twenty years this book is a very good starting point.

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