Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Epigenetics Revolution – Nessa Carey ****

There have been lots of popular science books about genetics and evolution, and that’s fine – but there really hasn’t been anywhere near enough coverage of epigenetics, which is why Nessa Carey’s book is so welcome. Over the last 30 years or so it has become increasingly obvious that the idea of genes coding for proteins – the basic concept of genetics – is only a starting point for the way DNA acts to provide control software for the body’s development. There is also RNA that is coded by ‘junk’ DNA and the way genes can be switched on and off by various external factors – all together this is far more than genetics alone. This is epigenetics.
Without doubt this is a fascinating subject, and Carey provides plenty of examples of how epigenetics effects our development, our diseases and the way we inherit characteristics. I was genuinely surprised and delighted by many of the revelations. This is really significant stuff, that hasn’t made its way into many of the popular science genetics titles. What’s more Carey’s style is highly approachable and readable. I was convinced part way through the book that this was going to be a five star, top book.
To be honest, the only reason it’s not five star is the nature of the beast. (Okay, I did find Carey’s hero worship of a handful of key biologists a little irritating, but that wouldn’t have influenced the rating.) I’m reminded of Richard Feynman’s comment when studying biology because his physics work wasn’t taking up enough of his time. He was giving a presentation to his classmates, I think on the nervous system of a cat, and started by drawing a ‘map’ of the cat and giving the names of all the relevant components. He was told he didn’t need to tell them all these names, because they were required to learn them. No wonder, concluded Feynman, it took so long to get a biology degree – so much of it was memorizing names, unlike physics, which was much about working out what was happening and required relatively little memorizing.
What I found in Carey’s book was I was getting swamped with all the names of different genes and proteins and goodness knows whats. Some of the pages are dense with these, and after a while I found my eyes bouncing off them. I’d rather she had told us a lot fewer names (you can always, as Feynman pointed out, look them up) and concentrated on the processes and understanding of what’s happening. But, as I say, this is not so much her fault as the nature of biology.
Overall, then, despite occasional parts you might find yourself skipping through, this is a truly eye-opening and exciting book on an important and under-reported topic. For some reason so many books on human biology concentrate on emotions and morality and other aspects on the edge of brain science – it was great to find a book that really took us back to basics, but in a new way.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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