Cover image for Genome : the autobiography of a species in 23 chapters
Genome : the autobiography of a species in 23 chapters
Ridley, Matt.
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperCollins, [1999]

Physical Description:
344 pages ; 24 cm
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 11.2 23.0 78259.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QH431 .R475 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
QH431 .R475 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
QH431 .R475 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
QH431 .R475 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



The human genome, the complete set of genes housed in twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, is nothing less than an autobiography of our species. Spelled out in a billion three-letter words using the four-letter alphabet of DNA, the genome has been edited, abridged, altered and added to as it has been handed down, generation to generation, over more than three billion years. With the first draft of the human genome due to be published in 2000, we, this lucky generation, are the first beings who are able to read this extraordinary book and to gain hitherto unimaginable insights into what it means to be alive, to be human, to be conscious or to be ill.

By picking one newly discovered gene from each of the twenty-three human chromosomes and telling its story, Matt Ridley recounts the history of our species and its ancestors from the dawn of life to the brink of future medicine. He finds genes that we share with bacteria, genes that distinguish us from chimpanzees, genes that can condemn us to cruel diseases, genes that may influence our intelligence, genes that enable us to use grammatical language, genes that guide the development of our bodies and our brains, genes that allow us to remember, genes that exhibit the strange alchemy of nature and nurture, genes that parasitise us for their own selfish ends, genes that battle with one another and genes that record the history of human migrations. From Huntington's disease to cancer, he explores the applications of genetics: the search for understanding and therapy, the horrors of eugenics and the philosophical implications for understanding the paradox of free will.

Author Notes

Matt Ridley is a former science editor, Washington correspondent and U.S. editor for the Economist.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Sometime this year, the entire, 23-chromosome human genome will have been recorded. Most of the vast record will consist of so-called junk DNA, which merely cushions the useful variety. Ridley homes in on the latter in 22 chapters, each focused on a single gene within a single chromosome. (Why not 23 chapters? Ridley considers the famous sex determiners X and Y together.) So doing, he writes on topics ranging from life per se, accounted for in chromosome 1, to history (i.e., mutation) to intelligence to growth to memory to free will, for which no gene has been found accountable--yet. Even politics gets considered, for it is involved in any attempts to manipulate society to cope with genetic effects, as Ridley demonstrates in the late chapter about the gene on chromosome 20 that is implicated in Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human equivalent of mad cow disease. Politics also figures in the chromosome 21 chapter, which uses the gene responsible for Down syndrome as the pretext for a history of the discredited practice of eugenics and to argue that human breeding schemes must never be coerced by government, especially, but also by scientific, medical, or social-service counseling. Throughout the book, Ridley gradually switches emphasis from the good and ill effects of genes to the benefits and dangers of genetic manipulation; he associates those benefits with science and those dangers with government programs to make society better by meddling with individual lives. Superb popular science writing and cogent public affairs argumentation. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

HSoon we'll know what's in our genes: next year, the Human Genome Project will have its first-draft map of our 23 chromosomes. Ridley (The Red Queen; The Origins of Virtue) anticipates the genomic news with an inventively constructed, riveting exposition of what we already know about the links between DNA and human life. His inviting prose proposes "to tell the story of the human genome... chromosome by chromosome, by picking a gene from each." That story begins with the basis of life on earth, the DNA-to-RNA-to-protein process (chapter one, "Life," and also chromosome one); the evolution of Homo sapiens (chromosome two, which emerged in early hominids when two ape chromosomes fused); and the discovery of genetic inheritance (which came about in part thanks to the odd ailment called alkaptonuria, carried on chromosome three). Some facts about your life depend entirely on a single gene--for example, whether you'll get the dreadful degenerative disease Huntington's chorea, and if so, at what age (chromosome four, hence chapter four: "Fate"). But most facts about you are products of pleiotropy, "multiple effects of multiple genes," plus the harder-to-study influences of culture and environment. (One asthma-related gene--but only one--hangs out on chromosome five.) The brilliant "whistle-stop tour of some... sites in the genome" passes through "Intelligence," language acquisition, embryology, aging, sex and memory before arriving at two among many bugbears surrounding human genetic mapping: the uses and abuses of genetic screening, and the ongoing debate on "genetic determinism" and free will. Ridley can explain with equal verve difficult moral issues, philosophical quandaries and technical biochemistry; he distinguishes facts from opinions well, and he's not shy about offering either. Among many recent books on genes, behavior and evolution, Ridley's is one of the most informative. It's also the most fun to read. Agent, Felicity Bryan. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Written in 23 chapters corresponding to the 23 pairs of chromosomes comprising the human genome, this is an engrossing account of the genetic history of our species. Each chapter focuses on a newly discovered gene on each chromosome, tracing its genetic contribution to such areas as human intelligence, personality, sexual behavior, and susceptibility to disease. Ridley (The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature) is a zoologist-turned-science writer. As the Human Genome Project nears completion (the first findings are expected to be released February 2000), this book will be particularly relevant to lay readers, providing insight into how far we have come and where we are heading in the understanding of our genetic heritage. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--Leila Fernandez, Steacie Science Lib., York Univ., Toronto (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Genome The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters Chapter One Chromosome 1 Life All forms that perish other forms supply' (By turns we catch the vital breath and die) Like bubbles on the sea of matter borne' They rise' they break' and to that sea return. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man In the beginning was the word. The word proselytised the sea with its message, copying itself unceasingly and forever. The word discovered how to rearrange chemicals so as to capture little eddies in the stream of entropy and make them live. The word transformed the land surface of the planet from a dusty hell to a verdant paradise. The word eventually blossomed and became sufficiently ingenious to build a porridgy contraption called a human brain that could discover and be aware of the word itself. My porridgy contraption boggles every time I think this thought. In four thousand million years of earth history' I am lucky enough to be alive today. In five million species, I was fortunate enough to be born a conscious human being. Among six thousand million people on the planet, I was privileged enough to be born in the country where the word was discovered. In all of the earth's history, biology and geography, I was born just five years after the moment when, and just two hundred miles from the place where, two members of my own species discovered the structure of DNA and hence uncovered the greatest, simplest and most surprising secret in the universe. Mock my zeal if you wish; consider me a ridiculous materialist for investing such enthusiasm in an acronym. But follow me on a journey back to the very origin of life, and I hope I can convince you of the immense fascination of the word. 'As the earth and ocean were probably peopled with vegetable productions long before the existence of animals; and many families of these animals long before other families of them, shall we conjecture that one and the same kind of living filaments is and has been the cause of all organic life? asked the polymathic poet and physician Erasmus Darwin in 1794. It was a startling guess for the time' not only in its bold conjecture that all organic life shared the same origin, sixty-five years before his grandson Charles' book on the topic, but for its weird use of the word 'filaments'. The secret of life is indeed a thread. Yet how can a filament make something live? Life is a slippery thing to define, but it consists of two very different skills: the ability to replicate' and the ability to create order. Living things produce approximate copies of themselves: rabbits produce rabbits, dandelions make dandelions. But rabbits do more than that. They eat grass' transform it into rabbit flesh and somehow build bodies of order and complexity from the random chaos of the world. They do not defy the second law of thermodynamics, which says that in a closed system everything tends from order towards disorder, because rabbits are not closed systems. Rabbits build packets of order and complexity called bodies but at the cost of expending large amounts of energy. In Erwin Schrodinger's phrase, living creatures 'drink orderliness' from the environment. The key to both of these features of life is information. The ability to replicate is made possible by the existence of a recipe' the information that is needed to create a new body. A rabbit's egg carries the instructions for assembling a new rabbit. But the ability to create order through metabolism also depends on information -- the instructions for building and maintaining the equipment that creates the order. An adult rabbit, with its ability to both reproduce and metabolise, is prefigured and presupposed in its living filaments in the same way that a cake is prefigured and presupposed in its recipe. This is an idea that goes right back to Aristotle, who said that the 'concept' of a chicken is implicit in an egg, or that an acorn was literally 'informed' by the plan of an oak tree. When Aristotle's dim perception of information theory, buried under generations of chemistry and physics, re-emerged amid the discoveries of modern genetics' Max Delbruck joked that the Greek sage should be given a posthumous Nobel prize for the discovery of DNA. The filament of DNA is information, a message written in a code of chemicals' one chemical for each letter. It is almost too good to be true' but the code turns out to be written in a way that we can understand. just like written English, the genetic code is a linear language, written in a straight line. just like written English' it is digital, in that every letter bears the same importance. Moreover' the language of DNA is considerably simpler than English, since it has an alphabet of only four letters, conventionally known as A, C, G and T. Now that we know that genes are coded recipes, it is hard to recall how few people even guessed such a possibility. For the first half of the twentieth century, one question reverberated unanswered through biology: what is a gene? It seemed almost impossibly mysterious. Go back not to 19 5 3' the year of the discovery of DNA's symmetrical structure, but ten years further, to 1943. Those who will do most to crack the mystery' a whole decade later, are working on other things in 1943. Francis Crick is working on the design of naval mines near Portsmouth. At the same time James Watson is just enrolling as an undergraduate at the precocious age of fifteen at the University of Chicago; he is determined to devote his life to ornithology. Maurice Wilkins is helping to design the atom bomb in the United States. Rosalind Franklin is studying the structure of coal for the British government. In Auschwitz in 1943, Josef Mengele is torturing twins to death in a grotesque parody of scientific inquiry. Genome The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters . Copyright © by Matt Ridley. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgementsp. 1
Prefacep. 3
1 Lifep. 11
2 Speciesp. 23
3 Historyp. 38
4 Fatep. 54
5 Environmentp. 65
6 Intelligencep. 76
7 Instinctp. 91
X and Y Conflictp. 107
8 Self-Interestp. 122
9 Diseasep. 136
10 Stressp. 147
11 Personalityp. 161
12 Self-Assemblyp. 173
13 Pre-Historyp. 185
14 Immortalityp. 195
15 Sexp. 206
16 Memoryp. 219
17 Deathp. 231
18 Curesp. 243
19 Preventionp. 258
20 Politicsp. 271
21 Eugenicsp. 286
22 Free Willp. 301
Bibliography and Notesp. 314
Indexp. 337