The original, French edition of this book, La Part des Genes, was published
in 1998, but the content has been updated for this English edition. The author of a history of molecular
biology, Morange succeeds in this book in introducing lay readers to the role
of genes in biological processes and the complexity of genes and their
interrelationships with cellular events.
For most readers, there will be less mystery and black box thinking
about genes after they finish reading this elegant, well-written and short
Morange begins with a preface, thought-provoking
quotes from the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, and then an introduction. Chapters on the concept of the gene and the
validity of the concept follow, along with a chapter on what genes actually
do. These fifty pages are worth reading
on their own for anyone interested in a short introduction to the role of genes
At this point, the book becomes more
thought-provoking, with chapters on experimental mutagenesis, how molecules are
synergistically employed in higher functions, including mind and brain, genes
which control life and death, genes which affect behavior, and then two
outstanding concluding chapters, one on what will happen to the concept of
genetic determinism and one on eugenics and human evolution. All this in 185 pages!
The initial part of the book could stand on its own
as a monograph it is simply a very up-to-date account of molecular biology
and the central role of the gene in it, written for intelligent lay readers,
and it is a masterpiece of precise, careful and sparse writing.
The rest of the book is much more fun.
I especially liked the chapter, Molecules to Mind,
which provides an excellent, brief overview of the role of genes in memory
formation. This chapter is less about
the role of genes in determining fixed structural aspects of the brain than the
roles they play in changing synaptic connections in relation to environmental
situations the ever changing plasticity of the brain. As Morange states in just a slight stretch,
Memory-formation genes determine the indeterminacy of higher nervous
The chapter on Genes controlling life and death is
sophisticated and well argued. Morange
discusses some forthright examples of genes related to death and develops a
much more complex argument that, in death during old age, we are again dealing
with a complex gene-environment interaction, based on the observation that the
most obvious deficit of age
is the inability to respond to the external
The chapter on genes affecting behavior is a complex
one and begins with genetic control of circadian rhythms. The section on genes and personality is
excellent. The author spends some time
examining the role of genes in sexual behavior and especially homosexuality and
points out how frightened people are by such possibilities and how incongruous
this is in view of the many accepted biological factors other than genes which
come into play. This discussion is one
of the best examples of fine logic and appeal to philosophy that one can find
in this book. The section on genes and
altruism is excellent. Moranges
recreation of a metaphor of genes as landscape at the end of the chapter is
The chapters on (non-)determinism and eugenics are
This book is the best introduction I have found for
a difficult, complex subject, greatly misunderstood. We are starting to view ourselves as genetic creatures, with
enormous misunderstanding of what this means.
There are, in fact, no single genes for alcoholism or attention deficit
disorder. Intelligent readers will have
a greatly different concept of our genetic selves if they take the time to read
this short and excellent book.
Lloyd A. Wells, Ph.D., M.D., Department of
Psychiatry and Psychology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota.