Evelyn Fox Keller - The Century of the Gene

The gene--more and less than you think it is--at least according to Keller. What is the "it" though? That is one of the many questions explored in The Century of the Gene, a title that is a bit misleading as this isn't mainly a history of science type work.

Keller emphasizes, perhaps too much, that genes are not all that life is about. This seems to be a popular theme these days (especially from the likes of Lewontin and others in that camp). While such a view is certainly correct, like still begets like. The people who really need to hear this message are the media who frequently over simplify things by stating that there is a gene for this and a gene for that and usually leave it at that level.

The Century of the Gene is concise which is better than the opposite. But at the same time, parts could have used additional examples. Someone new to the subject may want a little more beef. Those interested in comparisons between biological systems and computer systems will also find much of interest here. Her quoting from a wide variety of sources is very smooth and easy to read. My favorite from the text could also be applied to the text as a whole (or any small book for that matter that delves into such a huge subject). On page 106 she states that

biologists have acquired new appreciation of the appropriateness of Max Delbruck's observation that 'You cannot expect to explain so wise an old bird in a few simple words.'

from the publisher:
In a book that promises to change the way we think and talk about genes and genetic determinism, Evelyn Fox Keller, one of our most gifted historians and philosophers of science, provides a powerful, profound analysis of the achievements of genetics and molecular biology in the twentieth century, the century of the gene. Not just a chronicle of biology's progress from gene to genome in one hundred years, The Century of the Gene also calls our attention to the surprising ways these advances challenge the familiar picture of the gene most of us still entertain. Keller shows us that the very successes that have stirred our imagination have also radically undermined the primacy of the gene--word and object--as the core explanatory concept of heredity and development.

She argues that we need a new vocabulary that includes concepts such as robustness, fidelity, and evolvability. But more than a new vocabulary, a new awareness is absolutely crucial: that understanding the components of a system (be they individual genes, proteins, or even molecules) may tell us little about the interactions among these components.

With the Human Genome Project nearing its first and most publicized goal, biologists are coming to realize that they have reached not the end of biology but the beginning of a new era. Indeed, Keller predicts that in the new century we will witness another Cambrian era, this time in new forms of biological thought rather than in new forms of biological life.

"Evelyn Keller has the disturbing ability to make you think again from scratch about things you thought you had already understood. It is a long time since I have thought so hard about fundamental problems in genetics as I did when reading The Century of the Gene."
--Richard Lewontin, Harvard University

"In The Century of the Gene Evelyn Keller gathers together her considerable skills as a mathematician, physicist, historian and philosopher and applies them to the central problem of the last 100 years of biology, namely the relation of the genes to the building of an organism. The scholarship is masterly, not only because of her wide reading of the literature, but her deep, penetrating understanding of what she reads. To cap it all she writes clearly and elegantly so that the book is a pleasure to read. This is a conspicuously intelligent book."
--John Bonner, Princeton University