Genetic Lessons and Other Stories
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 This is a difficult but very important book by one of the great figures in genetic research. The career of James V. Neel, Distinguished Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Michigan, began 50 years ago with classic fruit fly studies under the aegis of the likes of H.J. Muller and Theodosius Dobzhansky. It moved on to pioneering studies of sickle cell anemia in Africa, genetic studies of atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and field studies among the remaining hunter-gatherer tribes in Brazil and Venezuela. Over the course of his career, genetics evolved from the crude to the complex, from gross records of birth defects and stunted growth to refined analyses of molecular changes in the structure of genes and chromosomes. Indeed, Neel minimizes the facts of his own life in order to maximize the facts of genetic life. This accounts for some of the book's difficulty: Neel assumes that his readers have some knowledge of genetics and of the statistical underpinnings of population genetics. But what he has to say is intensely interesting, e.g., that the human genome is extraordinarily resilient, as demonstrated by the limited damage documented in the atomic bomb survivors. He also spells out the exceedingly complicated gene structure and locates the abundant sources of error: ``The approximately 3 billion nucleotides which are to be found in a human egg or sperm often appear to have been assembled by a committee that could not agree on first principles, other than to make do with whatever constellation of DNA was functional and to conserve as much from the past as possible, on the thesis that it might someday be useful.'' Neel explains all this in depth and offers admonitions for the future: Control population and increase diversity; optimize the environment (for the mind as well as the body); conserve resources; increase genetic counseling and permit abortion; be wary of overemphasizing longevity at the expense of the young; and let (expensive) gene therapy take a back seat to other priorities. Forthright, wise, and sobering advice as only someone who knows and loves his field--and wants to see the species and the planet survive. (Maps, photographs--not seen)

Pub Date: March 15th, 1994
ISBN: 0-471-30844-7
Page count: 460pp
Publisher: Wiley
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1994