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Book Review   |    
Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters
Ming T. Tsuang, M.D., Ph.D.
Psychiatric Services 2000; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.51.11.1457
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by Matt Ridley; New York City, HarperCollins Publishers, 1999, 344 pages, $26

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We have often heard over the past century how advances in technology will change our lives. Matt Ridley's book Genome follows that tradition by underscoring the importance of the Human Genome Project to our understanding of ourselves and to many of our long-held aspirations, like the development of treatments for disease.

Actually, the book is not about the genome project per se. Rather, it uses the project as a launching pad to explore the types of knowledge that we have gained, or hope to gain in the foreseeable future, from understanding our genetic makeup. Ridley's enthusiasm for his subject is evident, and it is reminiscent of a chorus of optimistic voices of earlier generations who told us that everything would be different now that we could fly, could use electricity to light our homes and power our appliances, could inoculate our children against polio, or could walk on the Moon. In fact, he tells us that as we identify our genes, we are "living through the greatest intellectual moment in history."

Is he right? Ridley, a science writer who has written previous books on genetic issues, certainly makes a good argument for the importance—and excitement—of his topic. Each chapter of the book corresponds to one of the chromosomes, focusing on one or more genes associated with it for the purpose of exploring a particular issue. Some chapters focus on our prehistory, for example, while others explore topics such as aging, intelligence, memory, disease, personality, stress, conflict, and sex. In addition, Ridley describes the process by which the information was obtained and the people most responsible for our progress in each area. All of these themes are intertwined in a casual style of storytelling that makes complicated material quite understandable.

Ridley does an excellent job of integrating scientific jargon with the thrill of a scientific detective story and the underlying importance of the material to the larger society. That is essentially his goal, and in meeting it he succeeds admirably. His style is like that of a tour guide who is caught up in the excitement of the material he is presenting, has a lot to say, and wants to get it all out in a short period of time.

This approach is both a strength and a weakness of the book. It is a strength in that the general reader can get a sense of what the excitement in human genetics research is all about without needing an extensive background in the topic. It is a weakness in that the book does not focus very long, or with very much breadth, on any particular topic. Consequently, much of the information may not "stick" with readers, especially those with less knowledge of the topic. There are certainly topics of interest to mental health professionals, but this group is not the intended audience of the book.

Overall, Genome is very good on its own terms, but those looking for an in-depth exploration of the genetic basis of particular areas, such as psychiatric disorders, may want to look elsewhere.

Dr. Tsuang is Stanley Cobb professor of psychiatry and head of the department of psychiatry at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston.




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