Showing posts with label Adam Rutherford. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Adam Rutherford. Show all posts

Saturday, October 21, 2017

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Erratum:
P345 has a tandem repeat in the footnote! A sentence fragment is duplicated! It’s a mutation! Now that there's spare DNA in the text, evolution can work on this without tampering with the original sentence! Clearly this sentence could evolve into something else! Keep an eye on it!

This book seems like it has a very ambitious title until you read the subtitle: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes, and that's exactly what this is. It might be a bit technical for some, but I think in general it's written well, clearly, and it's easy to understand, with a nice line of humor running through it. There was the usual foreword, author's note, and introduction which seem to always lard books with somewhat academic leanings. I skipped all of these as I routinely do. These are antiquated forms not most wondrous and I do not wish them to unfold, not on my time. After those, it got interesting.

I loved the way the science-free creationists are given short-shrift and sent packing. In the natural order of things, these people are parasites. They do no science of their own. Their idea of science is to sit on their lazy asses and pick over the published papers of hard-working scientists.

No, actually, they don't even do that much; they simply scan the clueless media headlines, assume that those represent the actual science paper accurately, and run with it. This book warns against taking seriously those sensationalist headlines about 'the little gene that could', but creationists are as heedless to those caveats as they are to injunctions against jumping to conclusions, and to not telling lies about evolution.

They either claim that the reported science supports the creation position (without making any effort to demonstrate how this is so), or if they dislike it, no matter how solid and well-supported it is, they claim it's all lies, and hoaxes - done by the very same scientists they previously got through praising for supporting the creation position in a different paper! LOL! These people are hypocrites at best and idiots at worst.

But this book isn't about creationism, which is why it's given short-shrift. This book is about the genome, particularly where it's been, and even where it's going (which is somewhat harder to assess!), and how it all plays into making us who we are, with all our peculiarities, habits, and even our looks and thoughts.

I found some bits of the book a little tedious and some of them superfluous to my mind, but overall this topic fascinates me and I had an easy time reading this all the way through. There are some awesome revelations (at least they were to me!), some intriguing insights, and it's grounded in solid, rational, intelligent science throughout. For me that was the best part of it. Yes, I'm biased - and unashamedly so when it comes to science.

The chapters might feel a bit long, especially if this does seem technical to you, but they're well-worth making the effort. Around every corner is something to make you stop and think, and wonder, and marvel. Each chapter is dedicated to an aspect of the genome and how it plays out in real life (if we know that much about it - there are still mysteries to solve and maybe you or your children will solve them!), and to the most intriguing parts of it and how they work together - or how they fail and cause us problems.

This book isn't just about genetics though - it's about people primarily, and how we got to be who we are. How our genes make us work, or in some cases malfunction. How we're quite literally more or less related to all life, but especially to other humans, including extinct relatives such as Neanderthals and Denisovans, and how we're inextricably tied to all life via the evolution of the genome in assorted species that lead through time from the first cell to us and everything else alive today. As the well-known Theodosius Dobzhansky, a Christian, said, "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution." He didn't add, but maybe should have, that the dark of creationism offers only nonsense.

Even as a science aficionado, this book answered questions I had not thought of asking, and questions I have thought about asking, but never got off my butt to do the answering - such as why are men more prone to color-blindness than women? The answer is simple, and you can probably figure it out with some little thought, but in case you never got there, like me, it's in this book along with lots of other answers.

The truly intriguing part though was what an adventure the human genome is - and no: don't believe popular political announcements of how it's been finally mapped. It's mapped in the same way that old world maps of the globe were - the basic overall geography is right (near enough) but the detail is still being filled in, especially when it comes to the detail of how it all works together and how the genes (and the relatively recently discovered epigenetic markers) work together or even dissonantly.

To me, rather than a map, it was more like one of those high resolution Internet images which sometimes appears on your screen, and at first it's highly pixelated so it looks blocky and blurry, but as you watch, new scan lines are added and the image slowly comes into sharper focus by stages. That's exactly where we're at with the genome! We have that initial chunky download and now we're in the first phase of those extra scan lines being added so the resolution is slowly becoming clearer, but we still have many more 'scan lines to add' before the picture is sharp enough for science be happy with. Meanwhile the creationists still remain as idle as they are clueless.

On the topic of the increasing resolution of genetics, I learned yet more information about how humans are not binary. I mean to open minds, it's obvious to begin with, but contrary to creationist claims of perfection, we are seriously messed up when it comes to genetics and reproduction. The majority of people end up with one X and either an X or a Y, but some do not. Some get an extra X or an extra Y or only one X and no Y. There are other combinations, too.

This was intriguing to me because I learned from this book that women don't use both X's. They use only one. The other one gets those epigenetic markers and becomes methylated! That doesn't mean the same as drunk or drugged-up; it means it's muted. What I had hoped to read is that when a person gets only one X and this causes problems is it because that lone X is muted so they effectively have no X? If so, can it be un-muted and will this fix the problem? Maybe we still have to discover that, and this is why genetics is such a big industry, and such an important and massive frontier for science. There is so much more to learn, and this book is a great primer on this new ocean of discovery into which we've just begun to dip our toes.

I recommend this with the slight caveat about regarding the overall formatting. I've noticed that academically-inclined books seem to be published largely by tree-hating organizations. I'm forced to this conclusion because of the vast amount of white space I see on every page. Clearly the aim here is to use as many pages as possible and this kills trees. And such academic books tend not to be printed on recycled paper.

Chapter one begins on page 28! When we reach it, at last I can say that it doesn't start halfway down the page, but it has wide margins on all four sides of the page and the lines are quite widely-spaced. I don't know what format the print book is in (judged by the lack of links in the text, this is clearly intended as a print book.

All we amateur reviewers ever get is the ebook, which isn't always a fair representation of the print version, especially if it comes formatted for reading in Amazon's crappy Kindle app which often mangles books. But the measurements I am about to report are taken directly from the iPad screen. Since I'm going to talk percentages, it doesn't really matter very much exactly how big the print book is.

Fortunately this one came in PDF format - which I preferentially read on a tablet after the phone fiasco, in an app called Blue Fire Reader, which is a decent reading app. I tried it in the same app on the phone, but since I do not have the genes for Falcon's eyes, the text was far too small for me to read comfortably unless you turn the phone in landscape mode when the text is legible, but then you have to try to navigate up and down the page, and because the phone is so twitchy to finger movement on the screen, if you swipe or pinch or spread at the wrong point, it can flip to the previous page or to the next page and you're lost, so it's a nuisance for phone reading.

On the iPad, the page is slightly over 19.5cm tall and 13cm wide. The left margin is 2cm, the right 1.75cm, the top margin 1.5cm, and the bottom 2.5cm - when there are no footnotes - and there were lots of footnotes which in my opinion for the most part could either have been either done away with altogether, or if deemed really necessary, incorporated into the text for a much more pleasant reading experience. Didn't that last observation make for a better reading experience with it being inline with the text rather than my sending you to the bottom of the page to read it? Just sayin'!

You may guess that I'm not a fan of footnotes at all. They're simply annoying - especially when they contain more text than does the actual page they're on, which means the footnote ridiculously goes over to the next page! I can't think of anything more stupid than that, and this is in an age of: electronics, URLs, ebooks!

Don't get me started on how appallingly short-sighted it is to continue to produce books in blinkered print mode when e-mode can be employed. For a publisher to think that those print versions can be simply moved to the e-version without a second thought is idiotic. Believe it or not, footnotes/chapter notes/end notes can all be links these days!

If you're interested, you touch the link and can go to it. You touch the note, and it brings you right back to where you left off in the body of the text. You never forget the place where you left the text. This doesn't work in a print book, yet publishers - especially of academic books - are obsessively-compulsively addicted to print books. I guess they make more money on them even as trees die for their obsession.

You can say you can't blame the author for this because these are publisher decisions, but authors can choose to go with a publisher which is more reverential of trees and is also interested in keeping up with modern times. Or they can choose to self-publish.

There are of course arguments to be made for dedicated ebook readers being wasteful of resources and pollution sources themselves, but you can read a few hundred if not a thousand books before you trade in or recycle your ebook reader. That's a lot of trees saved. That's especially true if you read them on your phone which also serves as your phone, your web browser, your camera, your alarm clock, your meeting tracker, and so on.

But I digress! So the page is 19.5 x 13cm which rounds down to 250cm². The text was 15.5cm x 9cm which rounds slightly up to 140cm². This means that forty-five percent of this page is white space! The margins could have been smaller and fewer pages employed in this book while still saying exactly the same thing! And this days nothing about adjusting line-spacing.

That does not mean I advocate cramming the text in and eliminating all white space, which would be a nightmare. I had to read a book rather like that once recently, and it wasn't pleasant, but just employing a little less white space will make a big difference in a 400-some page book.

Believe me, I know this. My novel Seasoning ran to 760 pages as originally formatted, but I brought this down three hundred pages by formatting it more wisely. That's almost half the original size! It also had the effect of making it cheaper for potential purchasers. I believe I can improve even on that next time I tinker with it, yet the novel will still look appealingly formatted. You only need the will to do this, and it's done. It's not rocket science; it's caring for the environment. That's all it requires. It's well worth thinking about.