Review: Genome

The crude distinction between genes as implacable programmers of a Calvinist predestination and the environment as the home of liberal free will is a fallacy.

This sentence is the sum of what Matt Ridley does so well in Genome. He takes conventional wisdom and turns it on its head. He doesn’t shirk from the most dangerous ideas that can accompany genetic determinism — eugenics, selecting for ability — but he also wraps up his book with a very good argument that free will and determinism are compatible. Yes, you may have a gene that makes it means that likely develop Alzheimers. But that doesn’t have to run your life. And then he flips it around: isn’t it better for you — including your genes — to determine what you become than for someone else — the state, your peers, or even your parents — to proscribe a path for you? I have my own Libertarian tendencies (strongly tempered by communitarian Orthodox Christianity), so I find his reasoning pretty compelling. Matt Ridley is a special kind of journalistic genius. He can wade through volumes of technical arcana and create something like Genome, a very readable, very enjoyable, book. If you want an overview of what we know about genetics (or what we knew 10 years ago, at least) this is a great place to start. But, the book is over 10 years old. A lot has happened. He hints as much when he talks about developments in genetics that happened in the decade leading up to the publication of the book — sometimes dramatic developments. The story wasn’t finished when he wrote it and I am starting to look around for something more up-to-date than this. Like any good author, he has captured me and left me wanting more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.