You may recognize the author’s name because of his previous bestselling book about the periodic table, The Disappearing Spoon. In this book, he tackles genetics, doing a fine job in explaining a very complex subject bit by bit, with clever analogies and a good deal of humor.
There are loads of interesting tidbits:
Of all the survivors of the World War II atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some 150 were caught near both cities on both days! (Talk about a run of bad luck!)
In the 1940’s and 1950’s, many female scientists were nuns, because, as Kean explains,
Women at the time usually had to relinquish their careers upon marrying, while unmarried women…provoked suspicion or derision and sometimes earned such low pay they couldn’t make ends meet.”
Humans share about 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, making them our closest living relatives.
But male chimps have something humans don’t: little bumps called spines on their penises. According to Kean, “this loss decreases male sensation during sex and thereby prolongs copulation, which scientists suspect helps humans pair-bond and stay monogamous.”
Kean explains why Arctic explorers can risk death by eating the liver of polar bears, or why some people who have one cat start getting more cats. He also talks about the phenomenon of epigenetics: how genes can, in fact, be influenced by the environment, with the effects actually passed on to progeny, much as theorized by the discredited Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. He even explains how why the beliefs of some religions couldn’t possibly be true: the genetic evidence tells a different story.
Evaluation: This book is full of fascinating anecdotes, as well as a lot of science, which you can actually just scan if you prefer, without it detracting from the general thrust of the book.
One big criticism: When I read a nonfiction book, I depend heavily on the index to help me refer back to ideas I just read 20 minutes ago but forgot already. The index in this book is extremely inadequate. Want to look up that bit about cats, for example? Well, you won’t find anything under “cat” or “feline”: unless you remember that the organism which is the culprit is called Toxoplasma gondii, you’re out of luck!
Otherwise, it was a very entertaining read; once again Kean has succeeded in making science fun, which is absolutely a good thing!
Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2012