A review of Matt Ridley’s Genome: The Autobiography of a Species

A review of Matt Ridley’s Genome: The Autobiography of a Species

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A review of Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by MattRidley, 344 pp., NY: Harper Collins, 2000, $26. James Brody, Ph.D.

Genome has been with us for 18 months. Nonetheless, Ridley’s prose is stillengaging, his outlooks refreshing and he has been praised widely, perhapsbecause Genome is like a newspaper: gossip and facts, teasers and insight— real life pressed into a linear order and in chunks that look familiarto most of us. First, he discusses genes in the order of their size —
bigger genes happen to have smaller numbers. He next builds a story aroundone trait that is associated with each gene. His chapter headings have agene number and a verbal icon for one of our favorite obsessions: Life,Species, His-tory, Fate, Environment, Intelligence, Instinct, Conflict,Self-Interest, Disease, Stress, Personality, Self-Assembly, Pre-History,Immortality, Sex, Memory, Death, Cures, Prevention, Politics, Eugenics, andFree Will. These are all divisions of the Times. Ridley joins multipletopics inside each chapter but without subheadings and with few crossreferences between chapters. Chapter 11: “Personality” is not unusual. Itpivots on the gene for a controversial dopamine receptor known as D4DR. In12 pages we cover the gene itself, Dean Hamer’s thoughts abouthomosexuality, hierarchic standing, bits of Jerome Kagan’s ideas, thrillseekers, Prozac, cholesterol, serotonin, aggression, and Mike McGuire onsocial status in vervets. Oddly, Ridley omitted ADHD, the second mostheritable psychiatric disorder after Asperger’s syndrome and also linked toD4DR.

There is fascinating, scattered information on trade offs that areassociated with our resistance to different pathogens. For example, genesthat make us more resistant to tu-berculosis also make us less resistant toosteoporosis but, in double doses, cause Tay Sachs disease.

We can be more resistant to typhoid if less resistant to cystic fibrosis;more resistant to malaria if less to cholera. A Nobel Prize lurks in someof Ridley’s material. The same gene, IGF2R, (Insulin Growth Factor), thatmay raise our I. Q. and help us to be a fast talker or snappy dresser alsoappears to suppress liver cancer. Ridley mentions this coincidence in hischapter on intelligence but, in a separate chapter, 30 pages later, Ridleycomments that IGF2R is maternally imprinted and opposes its mirror form fromdad, IGF2. The mater-nal version, the -R form, limits fetal growth, thepaternal increases it. The tie to intelligence? Other studies suggest thatmaternally imprinted genes in mice are more influen-tial in formation of thecerebral cortex but paternally imprinted genes give mice large bodies andlarger hypothalami but no cortex. Grow big, be fast, be impulsive, and getcancer? The possibilities are immense and nearly irresistible but no one hasorganized them unless Haig and Trivers aren’t telling the rest of us theirsecrets. There are similar opportunities in the phenomenon of immunesuppression by cortisol, mentioned in Ridley’s chapter on stress.

There’s an obvious mechanism and pay off but no one has described it yet.Things not taught in many public schools Ridley brocades facts and storieslike Robert Silvers does images and sometimes attains not only coherence butalso brilliance and passion. Eugenics, free will, genes and environments,and genomic conflict are four of many photo mosaics. Eugenics: Karl Pearsontold Joshua Wedgwood, “What is social is right, and there is no definitionof right beyond that.” The ’30s socialists decided to suppress reproductiveoptions for those of us who just didn’t fit in. Sweden sterilized 60,000people in this cause and the United States, 100,000: Britain, however, didnot because a libertarian hero held the bridge. Wedgwood, whose forebearscollaborated with Darwins and even bred with them, was an MP and appalled bythe broad assumption of power over individuals by the state. He and a fewother libertarians filibustered and tabled 200 pieces of pro-eugenicslegislation against Churchill’s and the majority’s efforts to pass them.(There’s lots more to this story, I won’t spoil it for you.)

Free Will: I spoke in Manhattan in November ’99 about reinterpreting “freewill” as the expression of our unique genetic preferences. My small but verygifted New York audi-ence didn’t think I had beat determinism by aligning mygenetic interests with my free will. They were right. Ridley independentlymade a similar interpretation about free will when he finished his lastchapter in December. He distinguishes events that are “determined” fromevents that are “unpredictable.” Find the gap between “determined” and”unpredictable” and discover freedom. I’m not sure this works either. Theword “free” is a semantic artifact of adolescent defiance. Drop “free will,”substitute “personal will” and regain consistency with behavior genetics andwith the rest of science. In any case, Ridley uses a quote that LawrenceWright (1997) originally got from Lindon Eaves: “Freedom (!) is the abilityto stand up and transcend the limitations of the environment….If you’regoing to be pushed around, would you rather be pushed around by yourenvironment, which is not you, or by your genes, which in some sense is whoyou are.” (Ridley, p. 313, exclamation added by JB). “Personal will” oughtto work better, even for Eaves’ quote. Genes and Environments: Frans DeWaal (2001) can discuss genes and environment without slighting one or theother; anyone else will take a favorite. Ridley is no exception and handlesthe task in his usual manner, aiming a salvo toward environmentaldeterminism and perhaps the followers of one U.K. biologist who, like theVatican, requires 4 initials on his display. Lewontin (2000) has a betteridea: environments only become environments after genes organize them fromsettings; organisms and settings together make “constructions.”

Similarly, Plomin and others carefully tell us how human genes pick fromenvironments (Brody, 2001; Plomin et al, 2000; Rowe, 1994, Scarr, 1992).Turner (2000), Dawkins 1982) and other scholars do likewise for the genes inother species, including plants, that build modified environments forindividuals and for whole communities. This “active” Darwinism (Popper,1994; Brody, 1999) complements our traditional understanding of naturalselection. In stable conditions, the features of niches are selected,amplified, and retained across generations according to the receptorpreferences of their occupants (Turner, 2000; Lewontin, 2000). Ridleymentions NONE of this literature or very few of the exciting developments inmet-rical genetic traits and quantitative trait loci, physically dispersedgenes that act as a common node to vary a particular behavior trait (Plominet al, 2000). Through these in-sights, contemporary behavior genetics hassharply reduced our need for diseases to make genes interesting. GenomicConflict: I am grateful for a quote from William Hamilton on p. 120:”Seemingly inescapable conflict within diploid organisms came to me both asa new agonizing challenge and at the same time a release … My ownconscious and seem-ingly indivisible self was turning out far from what Ihad imagined … I was an ambassador ordered abroad by some fragilecoalition, a bearer of conflicting orders from the un-easy masters of adivided empire… I am pretending to a unity that, deep inside myself, I nowknow does not exist. (Hamilton, 1996, pp. 134-135). There really should bea Nobel for Hamilton because of this paragraph. As Haig (1997) expressed it,genes form political organizations that make selfish decisions and lie,cheat, and steal from one another. Further, we are becoming knowledgeable ofthe con-flicts that occur between genes donated from our mother and thosefrom our father and we sense these conflicts when we notice indecision orguilt about our daily conduct (Haig, 1999).

However, Ridley split the material on genomic conflict and didn’t list it inhis index al-though he listed David Haig. You have to paste some of ChapterXY (between 6 and 7) to some of Chapter 15: Sex. Genomic conflict could alsohave been an element in his chapter on free will. I would have liked GCbetter in one segment and as a foundation to human moral conflict, a basisthat we can share with a chimpanzee or with my cat. This step further joinshumans into life’s web, that we no longer have a monopoly on obligation orguilt. Surprises The index is lousy. Furthermore, the notes are organizedby gene number but without mentioning page numbers; the page headings in themain text are by chapter title, not gene number. In either the index or thenotes, you gotta look around more to find what you want. This seems cheapand careless in a $26 bestseller that begs for personal cross-referencing.Further, there are some odd conclusions in Genome. Ridley sketches anargument that serotonin mediates not assurance but anxiety. This is oppositethe prevailing weight of research whether from humans or from worms. Helinks decreases in cholesterol to in-creased aggression and suicide; I’veseen those behaviors tied to the reduced availabil-ity of fats, especiallythe omega 3s. He almost resurrects canalization and the Baldwin Effect.Ridley’s Cambrian explosion is dated at 1 billion years ago, about 500million be-fore the rest of us had ours. And recent discoveries hint thatthere was no such thing for any of us. Ridley discounts the Aquatic Apetheory, that our ontogeny may have fol-lowed a shoreline, but he does itwithout mentioning Elaine Morgan or Marc Verhaegen. Finally, ourautobiography as a species may exist but Matt lied, it’s not in Genome. Wewill have to check the crib notes left in other species before we can putour own into or-der. Summary Ridley remarked in a “Publishers Weekly”interview that he wanted to write a book “a mile wide and an inch deep.”Thus, Genome has an Internet style that contrasts with the architecturalprose of Jacob or Lewontin, or of de Waal in his latest book, “The Ape andthe Sushi Master.” Genome is about news and can be as fun as a SundayTimes. You can select news that fits your bias and there’s enough in Genomefor anyone to find many points of agree-ment. You can clip what you like,scribble in red, and ignore the rest, including the stuff that irritates youbecause it’s in your specialty and you know more than Ridley. Also like theTimes, some of Genome will be out of date before the ink dries. For example,the estimated size of the human genome plummeted from 100,000 to 32,000genes, each of which may have 12-14 versions, and proteins have become thenext frontier in emergent biological organizations. The book’s structure isawkward because Ridley forces the interactive net of our genes into a linearsequence. Emergent products, however, have many paths so that nets loopforever while, in contrast, trees, books, and human narratives have a startand a finish. Jacob (1998) used a different model, combinatorial mosaics ofgenes that work together and that work through receptors to pick, build, andmodify environments (Lewontin, 2000). These two works form a triangle withRidley’s, giving his ideas a much-needed, more interactive, structure.(Also, Time, Love, Memory, Weiner, 2000, is crafted in ar-gument and styleand should be very high on your list, complementing Genome.) Could Genome berecreated but in a web format? Or in an electronic version that lets thereader make personal links? (Harper and Collins, are you listening?) Genomewas “…being completed, a few months before the end of a millennium…” (p.301) and made it to my bookseller in January. Amazing! Further, Genome hasan Amazon sales rank of 7601 and was in their Top 10 for 2000. Even NewtGingrich loved Ge-nome in his April review. (De Waal was similarly blessed:Newt gave copies of Chimpanzee Politics to the freshmen members of Congressin 1994.) Matt, his publisher, and both of their accountants MUST be smilingand none of them thinking about his skipping a final editor.


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James Brody is a psychologist in private practice near Philadelphia andEditor for the Evolutionary Psychology/Clinical Sociobiology Forum onBehavior.Net.