Member # 1
posted 14. June 2004 16:51
Nature May 13, 2004
A review of Jacob's Ladder: The History of the Human Genome
by Henry Gee
Summary: Jacob's Ladder opens with an account of human embryonic development. It's a wonderful piece of writing, its lyricism inspired perhaps by Henry Gee's choice of his own daughter as the focal fetus. And it nicely sets up the book's theme: the "question of what it is that produces form from the formless". What follows is an engaging mix of history of science, evolutionary biology and molecular genetics. Much of it is familiar: we see Mendel pottering in the monastery garden, Darwin being seasick on the Beagle, and Hox gene products binding to DNA regulatory regions. But Gee, a senior editor at Nature, has stitched the material together in interesting ways and has plenty of points of his own to make.
One of Gee's messages is that, although "the story of biology can be told in an unbroken skein", the discipline's intellectual history is wilfully ignored. Too often the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859 is deemed the starting point of modern biology, to the extent that "if we hear anything at all of biology before Darwin, it is brought up only to be belittled." Gee, then, is on a mission to restore the reputations of the pre-darwinians, and the first part of the book duly pushes a 'nothing new under the sun' thesis.