Monday, March 31, 2014

Inheritance by Sharon Moalem ****

Lamarck was right! Non-mendelian inheritance exists!

Inheritance by Sharon Moalem is three books in one: 1) A memoir of a medical geneticist specializing in rare diseases, 2) An infomercial for genetic testing, and, finally, 3) A resurrection of Lamarck and Lysenko.

Most of the book is a fascinating retelling of the author's case histories of rare genetic disorders. One of my favorites was HFI - hereditary fructose intolerance. People with this genetic disorder must avoid fruit. The list goes on and on recounting disorders that effect nutrition, sexuality, longevity, intelligence, ... well everything.

Some of the disorders are one in a billion, while other are only one in a hundred thousand. All the histories follow similar patterns. The doctors are baffled as to cause or cure, until someone figures out that the cause is genetic, when a cure becomes possible, and there are often benefits for the general population as well. However, with all these genetic disorders being discovered, the underlying message seems to be that almost any unknown medical problem rates genetic testing. This is the infomercial aspect.

Finally Lamarck. Lamarck suggested that the parent's environment/behavior could effect the parents in ways that would be inherited by their children, children's children, etc. The straw-man example tends to be that as giraffes stretch their necks, each, successive generations will have longer necks. The science of epigenetics posits a mechanism for this to occur, though in the language of Mythbusters, I think Lamarck has move from Busted to Plausible. Confirmed still seems to be a little ways off.

For the case histories alone, this is a fascinating read, along with be a persuasive reminder of both the power and limitations of genetics. The most important limitation that there is much involved in the expression of the genes. Even is two people have identical gene, their patterns of gene expression can be very different ... gene represent potential not destiny.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on March 15, 2014. I received the book ob March 25, 2014.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Noble Savages by Napolean Chagnon ***

Two books in one ... an enlightening history of the Yanomamo and a sad memoir of the anthropologist who spent his life studying them.

Noble Savages by Napolean Chagnon covers the author's three decades with the Yanomamo, a people living on the border of Venezuela and Brazil, some of whom who when he arrived in 1964 had never had any contact with the outside world. He lived with them long periods during his annual research trips. He learned their language and they became trusted friends.

They play tricks on him. They have a taboo against saying someone real name allowed, so he worked diligently to interview people alone and cross-check their answers with other to assure correct names. One village conspired to no only all give him the same wrong names, but to have those name be obscene words. He only discovered this much later when visiting a distant village, who all had a good laugh at his expense.

Much of his research pointed out what must now be obvious, though at the time of his original research, it was acrimoniously contested. Prior to organized civilization, much activity was directed towards reproduction, not surprisingly, men with more power had more offspring. One of his "aha" observations was that women all had a similar number of children, but men could vary from none to dozens or more. From separate sources, and in the extreme, estimates place Gengis Khan's male-line descendants at 0.5% of the all men.

This is the book for you if you are interested in primitive cultures, there are none more primitive than the Yanomamo, and probably no one writes better about them Chagnon.

No part two. This book is more than history of the Yanomamo from isolation to political pawns and impediments to progress. It is a memoir, and for whatever reason, the author presents himself as a collector of resentments and slights.

He faults an author who wrote a negative book on his activities with
Tierney's copious endnotes we often misleading and even inaccurate.
In a moment of self-realization the Chagnon confesses
I spent years trying to write this book, scrapping much ... because of the anger that kept creeping into my writing, giving it a very depressing tone.
Unfortunately for all, this tone is still there throughout, though I can recommend the first half for mostly featuring the Yanomamo. Simply put the book down when they are supplanted by the author's academic and political difficulties.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on February 3, 2014. I received the book on February 11, 2014.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Dear Abigail by Diane Jacobs *****

A biography for Jane Austen fans. Dear Abigail by Diane Jacobs reminds me of Jane Austen with its concern for courting and marriage during a period of primogeniture and limited opportunities for women outside of marriage. Even more is the mufti-generational feminine point of view, and the women with self-awareness, intelligence, and wit. Abigail and her two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, could easily assume their roles in any Jane Austen novel. They are the women, all Jane Austen readers imagined to live during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Jacobs follows the sisters' lives through their correspondence from when Abigail Adam is 22 (1766) to when she is 57 (1801). As the sisters were well-educated, their correspondence covered much more than the women's issues mentioned above. The breadth of interests of these three women, give the is biography multiple layers.

Abigail Adams was a partner with her husband during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, the diplomacy with France and England during and after the Revolutionary War, the writing of the U.S. Constitution, and finally  John tenure as George Washington's Vice President and ultimately as The United States' second president.

Throughout her life, Abigail and her sisters pushed for women's rights and an end to slavery. Youngest sister had her own assets and protected them for all her children, "a rare agreement in the eighteenth century," where primogeniture and supremacy of the husband were expected.

Another layer of history I found of extreme interest was 18th century medicine. The Adams family experienced the risk of small pox vaccinations, malaria, TB (aka consumption), depression, childbirth, and alcoholism.

In summary, this books is true to Abigail's admonition to her husband: "remember the ladies." The book is a wonderful history of the founding of the United States and the strong, intelligent women who we all always suspected must have taken a part in this history.

I very much enjoyed this book until the end. I had two problems with the end. First, as life went on the sisters' extended family grew with children and grandchildren, until at the end I found the cast of charters to be unwieldy and difficult to follow. Second, I was disappointed that Abigail's story end when her husband left Washington D.C. at the end of his presidency. I wanted to scream, "Abigail's story goes on for another 17 years and definitely does not end because her husband's political career ends!"

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on January 20, 2014. I received the book on February 3, 2014.