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



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...


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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A quirky wonder of a book.



A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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