A Book Review
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Biology is truly an amazing thing, from the simplest life forms from 3.5 MYA (if not earlier) to today’s vast range of species and creatures, as well as fauna. All of this is powered by something called “genes”. Genes are inherited from our ancestors and parents, and what they do, is code for proteins that allow our body to function in its expected ways. But it gets much more complicated than that, and for a long time, I was taught the Mendelian Principles, which of course still apply, but as I mentioned only breach the surface. We have learned a lot since the days of the Czech Monk. A great deal. I am sure he would be amazed at what we have learned, and stunned at where we are going. So where does this all lead up to? Enter the world of Epigenetics with Richard Francis, who delivers this information in an informative, and understandable way for those who have little experience in biology or genetics. Where to start? How about, everything you know about how behavior and traits are passed on is wrong? Yup.
I remember my first Biology class, it was 7th grade, and I learned something I will never get out of my head, based on the ideas of Lamarck, Giraffes, as a perfect and often used example, the Giraffe with the longest neck, or the one who learns to stretch its neck to reach into the higher recesses of a tree, where either more food in general lays, or possibly even more nutritious food. We were taught, that what the Giraffe did, did not affect the genes they would pass down. If the father had a short neck, the child had a 50% chance of having that as well. But is it so simple? In a short answer, no. Certain behaviors do leave markers on our genes, and loci, and lead to changes in the production of proteins. Significant enough changes can lead to phylogenetic changes in a species or subset of individuals. Now we have the idea, which was always there, just suppressed for simplicity’s sake, arising once again in modern culture. There are a lot of rumors, and ideas about what Epigenetics is, and especially what it is not. Unfortunately from the intense study of Genetics and Epigenetics, we also get Eugenics, which we do not need to talk about here. While this last topic is not touched upon very heavily in the book, the author does make it very clear how perverted the early science of genetics became, and the danger it put the entire world in. But the world was not done with genes or genetics, and the Author continues to go on to explain the basics of how genes function, come from the DNA, and are made to code for proteins, etc. The basic process is gone over, which is great for those new to the subject. This made reading the book fun, and easy. I think the author did a great job of taking complicated scientific ideas and making them so that the student, or layman can understand what he is trying to convey. So since we are now introduced to Epigenetics, what exactly are they, and how well does the author explain them, and convey their meaning?
One of the important things to understand about this book, and most books on genetics, and the author goes into specifics about this, is how simplified the concepts of dependence of genes, behaviors, and patterns have become. We have the technology and have learned an astonishing amount about our genetic makeup over just the last decade, but science communication has not kept up, and even in many research situations laboratories are still not using what we have learned from genetics. There are still those out there that will argue that there was no admixture between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. The author believes that it’s time that we shed a light on all of this, and become science communicators who be a guiding hand to those who are interested in learning about these very complex and complicated ideas. Francis has a few ideas on how to mitigate these issues, some more viable than others but he is at least trying to be, what in 2012 was a “shocker”, an open researcher and scientist. Spreading his teachings and working with other scientists to refine his ideas and learn as much as he could, all so he could transfer it to us. Students and Professors like you and I. Science Communication is the future of our society in my humble opinion, the literacy to understand who and what we are, and why we are here, is the ultimate mystery and goal. There are clues, hidden in the sands of Africa, and in our very own DNA to a level so basic it is not even an organelle. There are various common issues that the author described encountering, such as those who steadfastly agree that genes can code for behavior, when only in very specific circumstances, such as in innate behaviors, our DNA is not affected by the life of our parents, save in small ways. We must get rid of the idea that one gene codes for one thing, such as eye color. Many genes, and loci, and DNA goes into deciding that, it is just not so simple.
So, what’s next? What does the author see for the future of genes and Epigenetics? Well, as with most things we have addressed today, there is an easy answer, and a more difficult one. The easy one is that we spread as much education as possible, gather as much data as possible, and bring everyone into it, and get them involved. On the other hand, we still only know so little about Epigenetics, should it be left up to the “experts” in the Ivory Tower? Or should the people be a part of the process? How do we change decades of misinformation on genetics taught in schools around the world, simply because it was “more simple”. Despite all of this, however, the future is bright for Epigenetics, with recent discoveries and the capabilities of stem cell research, severe research into how genes, loci, cells, and nuclei work. We learn more and more each day, but as anyone involved with Anthropology will find, as soon as you find the answer to one question, it just raises many more! So what does the author want us to take away from this book? A few things I think, firstly and most importantly the idea that genetics is nowhere near as simple as we have been lead to believe, or that our common education system informs us of. Epigenetics is not new, it’s just something that has been pushed under the rug due to a dirty past, and yet is a crucial part of understanding how our bodies work in and out. I think it’s important to know that not everything from 1800’s England was right, and some of the people we take theories and ideas from as if they are from the gods, are fallible. Lamarck has been mocked for hundreds of years for his “completely inaccurate” portrayal of genetics as my 7th-grade teacher said. It’s time we open our minds to the possibilities that there is more out there we do not understand, in fact far from it.
So, that brings us to the end of this little write-up/review. All said and done, “Epigenetics, How Environment Shapes Our Genes” by Richard C. Francis is an excellent read for anyone interested in why humans do what they do, down to the bare biological mechanicals of it. What you grew up (assuringly) knowing about genes and genetics is simplified, and albeit not completely wrong, but a very watered-down explanation. Now that we find ourselves where we do now, it’s time to take a look back, at Lamarck, Darwin, Wallace, the big names in the Victorian Age of Science, but how right were they? Did they get the story right? It seems they possibly may have gotten some of it correct, each of them a different little part. Since then, and with the invention of modern technologies and computers, we have been able to discover so much more, and it has lead to so many answers, but so many more questions. We discovered Epigenetics, and the horizon is endless.