We are now subject to a steady flow of news about decoding the human genome and its 100,000 genes. Kevin Davies recommends Matt Ridley as a guide through the mazeby Kevin Davies / January 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
The cover of a recent issue of Time featured an infant clutching a model of the double helix, under the headline: “The IQ Gene?” The magazine reported that Joe Tsien, a professor at Princeton, had engineered a strain of super-intelligent mice, simply by inserting a few extra copies of a single gene (which carries the code for a key protein involved in transmitting chemical signals between neurons in the brain). Employing a battery of psychological tests appropriately adapted to mice-finding hidden platforms in water tanks, sniffing out unfamiliar objects in cages, and so on-Tsien recognised that his genetically modified mice could store and recall information far better than their littermates. Accordingly, Tsien nicknamed his strain of supermice “Doogie,” after the precocious title character of Doogie Howser, MD, a truly unmemorable American sitcom. Tsien’s results, published in the journal Nature, leave no doubt that tinkering with the chemistry of the brain can boost short-term memory. In rodent terms, at least, that’s enough to put you at the head of the bell curve.
It is fair to point out that Time also printed a comment by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, criticising the na?ve notion of a gene controlling IQ in humans. But the “Doogie” mice have become the latest scoring point in the tedious debate between those who argue that behaviour is genetically hardwired, and those who insist that cognitive development is the product of nurture, not nature. This fracas has been simmering for years, heated by a stream of media headlines invoking genes for almost every facet of human development and behaviour. While some of these claims have merit, others begin to sag under further scrutiny. Earlier this year, for example, Dean Hamer’s celebrated “gay gene” hypothesis suffered a serious blow when a Canadian group failed to replicate his controversial 1993 findings.
Tedious or not, controversy about the role of genes in shaping human nature is intensifying as the race to decipher the complete sequence of the human genome-3 billion letters of DNA-reaches its conclusion in the next year or so. It is incontrovertible that the impact of identifying all 100,000 human genes will be profound on medicine, on our understanding of the human mind and on our view of humanity in general. So the arrival of Matt Ridley’s book, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, is well-timed. It offers one of the most perceptive and…