See review in Laboratory News.
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Biologist

Book Review

Genes, the Fight for Life

Genes (p/b)

by Jack Cohen

Brian is a sparky, witty Fellow of our Institute, and his latest book has
these virtues.   But it has characteristic problems too:  it is carelessly
edited (the publisher's fault, but the author's responsibility) and its
major argument, that the lives of cells, even of prokaryotes should be
models for our explanations of human behaviour is at least paradoxical. 
We all like to metaphorically compare polities with bodies (Head of State,
Arm of the Law) and it is indeed very tempting to compare cellular
mechanisms like the rejection of unlike-self with social mechanisms like
discriminating against foreigners. But I think it requires contradictory
assumptions: on one side, that "we are communities of single cells" (human
bodies, and our cultural systems, are only trivially more complex than
Volvox) and that this reductionist approach can find the deep causes of
what we are and do in properties of our constituent and antecedent cells;
and on the other, he finds our differences, and differences between
organisms in general, laudable and this must be caused by other than our
common multicellularity (I say "cellularity", and I also favour
"non-cellular" rather than "unicellular" for protists - Brian only
occasionally calls prokaryotes "cells" ...).   I respect this stance,
though I don't agree with it, and this book is enormously informative about
a vast range of biological topics and will instruct non-biologists because
this stance will hold their interest.  From microbes in water treatments,
through historical and contemporary sense about diseases, to compost and
cancer, he tells good stories.  So, on the whole, this book is a Good Thing
for biology!  It defuses the fears of agricultural gene technology
beautifully, for example, by lauding ancient domestication:  "If
geneticists had produced a pekinese or a cauliflower the media would be up
in arms.". Yet it warns appropriately too, about Legionella and
monkey-viruses.  However, it is over-opinionated in places (Mendel "made
up" his numbers!), surprisingly uninformed about human gamete technology
(he says human sperm head is implanted), and full of little mistakes
(amino-acids in DNA, antibodies cultured in E.coli, DNA reproducing itself,
100mg/l oxygen = 10 ounces/gallon) and naughty usages ("vary" for
"differ").   In several places he is less than politically correct about
human races too, though he's firmly on the side of the angels; he lauds our
diversity.   We should too, and welcome both this book's lively style and
its heterodoxy.


From Biologist 47 (1): 51, January 2000.

See also Scientist claims war is in our genes, 1999 .