Language of the Genes Paperback – Sep 18 2000
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About the Author
Steve Jones is Professor of Genetics at the Galton Laboratory at University College London. His first book, ‘The Language of the Genes’ (1993) won the Rhone-Poulenc Prize for the Best Science Book of the Year and the ‘Yorkshire Post’ Prize for Best First Work. It was based on the Reith Lectures he gave in 1991.
Professor Jones was born in Wales, educated in Scotland and now lives in London. He is Co-Editor of the ‘Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Human Evolution’, and joint author of ‘Genetics for Beginners’ and of the Open University’s final-year genetics textbook. On balance, he prefers snails to humans.
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In his Preface, Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics at University College, London, stresses that even in the seven years since the first edition appeared in 1993 "genetics - and public concern - have each exploded (p. xiii)... the biggest change ... has been in attitude. In the public mind, genetics is no longer a science but a faith, a curse or a salvation ... Biochemistry has become a branch of the social sciences and, some say, life will be explained in genetic terms. Many welcome the idea, some are filled with horror ... (p. xv)"
This book is not a textbook on the biochemistry of genes. Rather, assuming that the biological evidence has established beyond dispute the genetic similarities that link all living beings, from the humblest cell to rational man, Jones goes on to run through, in a friendly but scientific way, much of what we are vaguely conscious of in the history of homo sapiens from his/her appearance 100,000 to 150,000 years ago, probably in Africa, and to discuss the genetic traits of various human populations now spread throughout the world. He tells us about how and when that spread - and subsequent population interminglings - occurred. Of great interest is the effect that differentiated genetic development has on the propensity to contract various diseases, or the ability to resist them. Also, whereas for the hunter/gatherers or farmers thousands (even merely hundreds) of years ago, human life was often shortened by external factors like plague, starvation, cold, or being eaten by a tiger, nowadays it is mostly the running-down and failure of the basic internal genetic make-up of the elderly that causes death - hence the dominant importance of the study of the genes in medical research.
Jones's book is a very good read. However, I give it only two stars because I believe that it will leave the reader who is not a specialist scientist or philosopher with the substantially false impression that the 'language of the genes' explains EVERYTHING about humankind. Jones says: "Now that genetics has matured as a subject it is beginning to reveal an extraordinary PORTRAIT OF WHO WE ARE, WHAT WE WERE, AND WHAT WE MAY BECOME (my emphasis). This book is about what that picture contains (p. 18)."
My problem with this book emerges clearly from how Jones summarizes his book, near the end. This both confirms and contradicts his page 18 statement. Jones says: "This book has been a tale of HOW HUMANKIND HAS EVOLVED BY THE SAME RULES AS THOSE THAT PROPEL LESS PRETENTIOUS BEINGS (my emphasis; this confirms his earlier statement)". But Jones immediately continues: "HUMANS ARE, OF COURSE, MORE THAN APES WRIT LARGE (my emphasis). We have two unique attributes: to know the past and to plan the future. Both talents guarantee that OUR PROSPECTS DEPEND ON MUCH MORE THAN GENES (my emphasis; this contradicts his earlier statement) (p. 300)".
I have made a list of over twenty statements by Jones, which I will reproduce in full in a later comment, which are like the one just quoted from page 300, which denies that genes are all. I quote one more: "Gene sharing, from bacteria to humans, proves the unity of existence. It also defines the limits of what biology can say. A CHIMP MAY SHARE NINETY-EIGHT PERCENT OF ITS DNA WITH OURSELVES BUT IT IS NOT NINETY-EIGHT PERCENT HUMAN; IT IS NOT HUMAN AT ALL - IT IS A CHIMP (my emphasis). And does the fact that we have genes in common with a mouse, or a banana, say anything about human nature? SOME CLAIM THAT GENES WILL TELL US WHAT WE REALLY ARE. THE IDEA IS ABSURD (my emphasis). WHAT IT MEANS TO BE PART OF HUMANKIND ... calls for a lot more than a sequence of DNA bases and LIES OUTSIDE THE REALM OF SCIENCE ALTOGETHER (my emphasis)(p. 35)".
I am left puzzled. I do not think that I misread the book if I say that all along (apart from these startling denials that genes explain everything) the book assumes that genes do explain everything. The denials (though not infrequent) are never more than one or two sentences written in passing, and never ever a proper discussion; and there is never ever a single word to suggest what it is that makes a human being to be a human being, "not a chimp; more than an ape writ large". Is Jones defending two incompatible positions: genes are all, genes are not all? In the eight years since Jones published this updated edition, so much more has changed that another update is urgently required, telling us what he really thinks about the limits of Darwinian evolution, about Intelligent Design, about the inescapable need to admit the existence of a Designer, about the whole 'evolution'/Christianity debate.