An accessible contribution to what the author calls “genetic literacy” and a satisfyingly hard-edged work of popular science.

DNA IS NOT DESTINY

THE REMARKABLE, COMPLETELY MISUNDERSTOOD RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN YOU AND YOUR GENES

Does the human genome include a thread for the likelihood of falling for hype? If it does, then it would be fine vindication for this sharp book on the limitations of genetics in understanding what makes us tick.

What makes people tall? What makes people smart? What makes some people more likely to develop breast cancer than others? The common shorthand these days would be to lay blame or responsibility, depending on the matter at hand, on one’s genetic makeup. However, as Heine (Social and Cultural Psychology/Univ. of British Columbia; Cultural Psychology, 2007) writes, that’s a two-edged sword of an answer, for while understanding genetic issues has led to some moments of détente in the culture wars—e.g., acceptance of homosexuality as an expression of biology—it is also not necessarily complete. For instance, he argues, genetics itself cannot fully explain why people grow taller when their diets improve or why people raised by affluent adopted parents score higher on IQ tests than their less affluent peers. Such issues can be thorny, and to his credit, Heine does not shy away from them even as he takes on the popularity of consumer-level genomics to predict the propensity for disease, which he reckons to be about as accurate as “the fortune-teller down the street, and at least she isn’t claiming any scientific foundation to her predictions.” The author is generally affable, but he also is impatient with pseudo-science; he writes, for instance, that the more people actually know of genetics the less likely they are to be worried about genetically modified food, while terms such as the “breast cancer gene” or the “height gene” are worse than misnomers, since many more genes than one are implicated. To increase a baby’s height, by Heine’s reckoning, you would need to effect “almost 300,000 genetic alterations to the embryo, and you would still only be halfway there.”

An accessible contribution to what the author calls “genetic literacy” and a satisfyingly hard-edged work of popular science.

Pub Date: April 18, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-393-24408-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: March 7, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2017

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Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and...

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS

A dense, absorbing investigation into the medical community's exploitation of a dying woman and her family's struggle to salvage truth and dignity decades later.

In a well-paced, vibrant narrative, Popular Science contributor and Culture Dish blogger Skloot (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis) demonstrates that for every human cell put under a microscope, a complex life story is inexorably attached, to which doctors, researchers and laboratories have often been woefully insensitive and unaccountable. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five, was diagnosed with what proved to be a fatal form of cervical cancer. At Johns Hopkins, the doctors harvested cells from her cervix without her permission and distributed them to labs around the globe, where they were multiplied and used for a diverse array of treatments. Known as HeLa cells, they became one of the world's most ubiquitous sources for medical research of everything from hormones, steroids and vitamins to gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, even the polio vaccine—all without the knowledge, must less consent, of the Lacks family. Skloot spent a decade interviewing every relative of Lacks she could find, excavating difficult memories and long-simmering outrage that had lay dormant since their loved one's sorrowful demise. Equal parts intimate biography and brutal clinical reportage, Skloot's graceful narrative adeptly navigates the wrenching Lack family recollections and the sobering, overarching realities of poverty and pre–civil-rights racism. The author's style is matched by a methodical scientific rigor and manifest expertise in the field.

Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and Petri dish politics.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-5217-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2010

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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