Colin Tudge
The Impact of the Gene: From Mendel's Peas to Designer Babies

"People in war experience extreme passions of patriotism, which often incite them to do things that in peacetime they would think horrible. . . Perhaps if people could recognize the [evolutionary/genetic] primitive roots of what they perceive to be their own nobility, they might take pause. What is 'patriotism,' except a kind of extended tribalism? And what is that but the 'desire' of some gene to spread itself by an extreme preference for kin? Why is this 'noble'? Why is it worth dying for, or sending others to their deaths? Said Horace, 'It is meet to die for one's country,' and many a young man has acted on this adage, of his own volition, or someone else's. An evolutionary psychologist would say, 'Nonsense!" and, as a generalization, would surely be right." (p. 217)
Time for another mixed review. This, with a few exceptions, was not the book for me. Not only was it internally redundant but it also covered material I was already too familiar with. To put it bluntly, I was bored much of the time.

On the other hand, someone who is unfamiliar with the subjects of genetics, cloning, and Mendel will probably find this a great place to start their understanding. I must admit to learning much about Mendel, however, as this was the first biography of more than a few sentences or paragraphs that I had read on the man. Tudge spends several dozen pages providing a good, yet overly cheerleaderish and biased, biography on Gregor Mendel. While debunking several myths surrounding Mendel, Tudge also creates a few. He views Mendel as almost superhuman and perfect. If Tudge thinks something is good then he projects that on to Mendel without bothering to show where Mendel actually said what Tudge claims Mendel thought. Tudge even tries to demolish Sir Ronald A. Fisher's claim that Mendel's numbers were too good to be true. I was interested and hoping for some solid evidence from Tudge. His analysis was more of a testimony that he "knows" Mendel was great, honest, the perfect scientist, etc. and hence couldn't have intentionally or subconsciously fudged the results. His conclusion is that

even if the peas were to fail [a test that repeated Mendel's experiments with identical conditions], I would still find it impossible to believe that Mendel was in any way to blame. His results may not seem plausible as they stand. But the idea that he cheated is even less plausible.

. . . he was great, everything since is extrapolation. (p. 108)

Let's just say that if Mendel formed a church Tudge would be the first to get baptized and the last to form a doubt about it. Mendel did do great work for his time and circumstances, but I like a more objective, balanced biography based on verifiable facts and not an author's wishes and adulation.

In several instances, including the aforementioned critique of Fisher, The Impact of the Gene doesn't prove what it sets out to. Testable hypotheses are frequently lauded or said to have been shown through experiment but then not cited or the subject is changed without finishing.

An editor should have chopped out all the repetitiveness (and the Epilogue--more on that below), rambling sections, and added references to change this 375 page book into something tighter, more believable, and well under 300 pages. In doing so it would have been made more readable both to those new to the subject and to those for whom most is a review or refresher course on the topics presented.

Finally, the Epilogue is a muddy mess. It seems like it should have been the Epilogue for a very different book. Basically a philosophical and theological hodgepodge, Tudge waffles back and forth between secularism and bashing atheism (at one point saying that "it is a pity [David] Hume seemed to present himself as an atheist" (p. 326)) and between extolling genetic technologies of the future and bashing them. In fairness, my review has probably been overly critical. The Impact of the Gene isn't a horrible book from cover to cover by any means. It will be very useful to many I'm sure. But it isn't a masterpiece either.

from the publisher:
In the mid-nineteenth century, a Moravian friar made a discovery that was to shape not only the future of science but also that of the human race. With his deceptively simple experiments on peas in a monastery garden in Brno, Gregor Mendel was the first to establish the basic laws of heredity, laws from which the principles of modern genetics can be drawn. In this fascinating account, acclaimed science writer Colin Tudge traces the influence on science of Mendel's extraordinary ideas, from the 1850s to the present day, and goes on to ask what might happen in this century and beyond.

The science of genetics holds the key to an enhanced understanding of the human makeup and allows for new ways of approaching such issues as the prevention of hereditary diseases and the effective conservation of endangered species. But genetic technologies are also instruments of tremendous power, and with this constantly expanding knowledge comes the responsibility of using it wisely. Cloning, genetically engineered crops, the research and results of the Human Genome Project, and the possibility of "designer babies" continue to force challenging choices on society. In The Impact of the Gene Colin Tudge provides new and vital insights into the ethics of modern genetics and raises the question of what criteria we must use with regard to this extraordinary and unprecedented power.

A comprehensive and entertaining work that combines scientific history with a compelling discussion of the future trends of genetic technologies, The Impact of the Gene examines how the ideas that underpin the spectrum of all genetic issues are interrelated, and proposes that with a basic understanding of Gregor Mendel's theories and discoveries, all modern genetics falls easily into place. From a monastery garden in Brno to the laboratories of the twenty-first century and beyond, The Impact of the Gene provides a vital overview of the science of genetics.

Colin Tudge is the author of, most recently, The Variety of Life: A Survey and a Celebration of All the Creatures That Have Ever Lived and The Second Creation: Dolly and the Age of Biological Control, with Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell. One of Britain's leading science writers, he is currently a Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Philosophy at the London School of Economics. He lives in London.

"Clear . . . Entertaining and instructive . . . A useful guide for anyone concerned with these issues." --Brian Charlesworth, Nature

"Challenging . . . Tudge makes a valuable contribution to a charged and often acrimonious debate." --Alex Banzle, Scotland on Sunday

"Fascinating . . . A readable combination of scientific fact and history alongside reflections on the impact of genetics on evolutionary theory, present society and future trends." --Dr. Chris Evans, chairman of Merlin Biosciences, in Management Today

The following is an excerpt from the book The Impact of the Gene: From Mendel's Peas to Designer Babies by Colin Tudge.


The Future of Humankind and the Legacy of Mendel

Heredity matters. It is perhaps the central obsession of humankind, and indeed of all creatures. We care who our ancestors were, and -- probably even more -- who our descendants will be. If it were not so, there would be no arranged marriages, no patricians and plebs, no feudalism or apartheid, fewer random beatings in lonely parking lots, and a great deal less genocide. Great swaths of modern law and politics and many thousands of hours of fraught debate would instantly become redundant.

Nowadays, it seems, we understand heredity. Of course, understanding can never be complete: that is a logical, as well as a practical, impossibility. Any feeling of omniscience that may creep over us from time to time is always an illusion, and a dangerous one at that. Our understanding, nonetheless, already gives us enormous control over the shape, size, color, and even the behavior of our fellow creatures. Soon we might have crops like metaphorical Christmas trees: a basic plant whose species hardly matters (it might be a wheat, it might be a carrot), genetically adorned with whatever extra capabilities and quirks our fancy cares to impose. In a hundred years or so (technology takes longer to come on-line than its proponents are wont to suggest!) we might produce livestock like balls of flesh, churning out milk and eggs like termite queens; at least we could do this, if we allowed expediency to override sensibility. Most shockingly of all, we could, in the fullness of time, redesign ourselves. We might refashion the human species to a prescription: a height of eight feet for better basketball; an IQ of 400 to talk more freely with computers, win lost and unjust causes in courts of law. Plastic surgery will seem childish indeed when we can restyle ourselves from the genes upward.

Clearly, such technical power -- not present-day, but pending in principle -- has implications that stretch as far as the imagination can reach. No aspect of economics, politics, philosophy, or religion is untouched by them. What prospect could possibly be more momentous than the redesign of humankind? It is hardly surprising that the notions that have to do with heredity -- its theory and the technologies that spring from it -- account for much of the content of every modern newspaper. In the past few years in Europe and America, consumers, farmers, politicians, bankers, environmental activists -- everyone -- has been talking about "GMOs": genetically modified organisms, which, in effect, are the first generation of crops qua metaphorical Christmas trees. The birth of Dolly, the cloned sheep, at Roslin Institute near Edinburgh in 1996 (and the birth the year before, though fewer people noticed, of Megan and Morag) raised the possibility of human cloning. Far more importantly -- though most commentators missed this point -- the technology of human cloning paves the way for the "designer baby": the human being that is genetically "engineered" to a specification. More broadly, the emotions that spring from matters of heredity continue to ferment and fester: racism and genocide, which surely are as old as humankind (and probably much older), dominate the world's international news.

Yet at the same time, on a more positive note, scientists known as evolutionary psychologists are using what are essentially genetic insights to reexplore the principal theme of the Enlightenment: the true nature of human nature. Already there are encouraging signs that evolutionary psychology can improve on the forays of the eighteenth century, noble as they often were. The point is not to be "genetically deterministic," suggesting that human beings are run by their genes, as the critics continue to proclaim. The point is that if we can understand ourselves more fully, then we have a greater chance of devising social structures that are humane and just on the one hand and robust on the other; social structures, that is, that can persist through time and retain their basic humanity and justice through all of life's setbacks and vicissitudes. The criteria of humanity and justice must of course remain the products of human intellect and emotion, as has always been the case: they will not derive directly from greater knowledge of our own biology. But social robustness does depend on such knowledge. There really is no point in devising utopias that require people to behave in nonhuman ways. Many have tried to do this, throughout the twentieth century, and millions died as a result. The possibility of utopia, or something very like it, seems a proper ambition. But it will not be achieved unless we first understand how we really are. The vociferous critics of evolutionary psychology should do some homework, to find out what it is really about. If they did, they would surely be ashamed of their own obduracy.

Then, of course, there's the matter of our fellow species: wildlife conservation. I believe this ranks in importance with the fate of humankind itself. The nature of the task for the twenty-first century and beyond is to create a world in which we can thrive alongside our fellow creatures. If we succeed at their expense, then this will at least be a partial failure; but of course it is absurd to suggest (as some unfortunately do) that other creatures should survive instead of us, as if human beings should or would commit mass hara-kiri. We and the rest of creation must be catered to, as harmoniously as possible. Wildlife conservation has a huge and necessary emotional content and is indeed driven by emotion, for if people do not care about other creatures, then they are doomed. It's unfortunate, though, that some of those who profess to care most deeply also feel that emotion is incompatible with what they see as the cool rationality of science. Yet poetry alone will not save our fellow creatures, either. Wildlife cannot survive without good science. Genetics, the science of heredity, is not the only discipline that's needed, but it is certainly essential. To focus our efforts effectively, we need to know which species are most endangered and in greatest need of immediate help. We cannot begin to make that judgment without knowledge of genes. Sometimes, too, we need to supplement all efforts in the field with specific breeding plans, and these are bound to fail unless guided by genetic theory.

Overall, the present discussion of all these issues, sensible and otherwise, must be welcomed. Nothing can be more important to life on Earth. No human concern is left untouched. In democracies, at least, and most people apparently prefer democracies, we should all talk about and have some input into the ideas and policies that affect our lives. The idea that we should leave everything to "the experts" is an invitation to revert to the worst of the Middle Ages. In the bad old days, the peasantry were expected to take the word of the priest as gospel, while we are now invited to take our lead from scientists and politicians. At least, this is sometimes the case, although some scientists, more sensibly and humbly, are con- tent to take guidance from the societies of which they are a part, and to contribute merely as citizens, like the rest of us. We might indeed argue that it's our duty to discuss these issues. The effort is the price we pay for democracy.

However, the issues that now need to be discussed are hugely various: breeding of crops and livestock, cloning, genetic counseling, designer babies, conservation, animal welfare, the nature of human nature. Worse: each of them is, or can be, highly technical. There are entire institutions devoted to each. Specialists in any one field disclaim any worthwhile knowledge of any other. How can the rest of us, who aren't experts at all, hope to keep up? Worst of all: much of the discussion is heavily overlaid with politics of one kind or another. Most perniciously, some biologists seek openly to misrepresent some of the current endeavors, or at least display a sublime lack of understanding; and yet they are believed because they are perceived to have authority. Thus confusion is loaded onto what is already complicated. So what hope is there? Perhaps we should be content to mount discussions in the manner of a party game, to chatter away in the pub for the fun of it, but let "the experts" run the show after all. We could do this, except for the nagging suspicion that the experts aren't as expert as they sometimes make out, and they don't all agree with each other so they can't all be right, and they often seem to say things that leave us feeling uncomfortable. Besides, we don't live in the Middle Ages any more, and although we may feel that priests are important (I certainly do), we should not be content to let them, or scientists masquerading as latter-day priests, tell us what to do. That way of running society is no longer acceptable. But how can we improve on this, if the issues are so disparate and difficult?

Well, I have been looking at aspects of genetics and related issues for about four decades (I am alarmed to discover) and have concluded, after so many summers, that the problems are not as disparate and difficult as all that. It's important only to grasp the underlying principles. Once you see how genes really work -- or seem to work, in the light of present knowledge -- then all the biology seems to fall into place.