Confessions of a Bookaholic: Sciencey Things

Book ReviewsScience, Evolution, and DNA

If you’ve been around here for a minute you know that I’m kiiiinda of obsessed with evolution, science, and genetics. If you’re new, well, welcome; I’m Harriet, I’m kind of obsessed with evolution, science, and genetics. Why do I love this stuff so much? Well, there are a couple of reasons besides the fact that it’s AWESOME and FASCINATING and the science of genetics is ONLY THE BASIC BUILDING BLOCK OF ALL LIVING AND FORMERLY LIVING THINGS!!!! Ahem.

  • Reason One: When I was 3 my family was part of a large study on genetics to determine a) if melanoma skin cancer had a genetic marker, and b) if our family had it (yes it is, and yes we do). My brother was diagnosed with skin cancer at that time, he was 13. We have talked about this my entire life.
  • Reason Two: I am an identical twin, there is another person on the planet with my exact genome and frighteningly similar dental records and fingerprints. Many MANY genetic studies focus on identical twins.
  • Reason Three: In 7th grade when we learned about Mendel and his genetic studies with peas, we also learned the basic grid for dominant and recessive genes. For twelve year olds, the easiest trait to study is eye color, it’s pretty straight forward and most people have either brown or blue eyes; both my parents have blue eyes, according to the grid, I should also have blue eyes. All my siblings have blue eyes with the same needs for contacts and glasses, but my twin and I have green eyes, quite green, actually, with no need for corrective lenses. We also are the only blonde’s in a family of medium-brown haired people, and (pink and purple dye aside) we are SUPER blonde. And we’re considerably shorter than the rest of them too. Frankly, if I didn’t have my Dad’s nose in the center of my face and the exact same eyebrows as my brothers and sister I’d be asking some questions!

I’ve been fascinated with genetics and the laws of inheritance my entire life, it actually seems pretty obvious (to me) that I would become an armchair evolutionary scientist/geneticist as an adult. And now, a few book reviews (if you’re going to skip the rest of this post because science isn’t your thing–that’s fine, you weirdo–perhaps just read the next three paragraphs first, they were my three favorites in this round of reading.

The Evolution of Everything, by Matt Ridley (5 stars). I loved this book so much, and it is so much more than Darwin and the different parts of a cell. Ridley explains evolution and economics and how these vast systems are formed and tweaked and improved over time, whether that system is your eyeball, or your government, or a world religion, or banking, or the basis of trade, or the necessary vs unnecessary parts of your DNA. Ridley covers bits of all of that, plus a dozen more topics, and how Darwin and other science-minded thinkers predicted how and why certain evolutions would be successful and others would, eventually, fail. And, for a huge nerd like me, Ridley was funny. I laughed out loud a number of times at his jokes or satire or one-liners, all with a delightfully nerdy twist. Gah, this book was right up my alley!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (5 stars). In 1951 Henrietta Lacks died from a very aggressive form of cervical cancer, she was a poor black woman from Baltimore who went to Johns Hopkins for treatment, the doctors took a sample of her tumor and sent it to the lab for an experiment, and those cells–HeLa–became the first human cells to survive for more than a few weeks in petrie dishes…in fact, they are STILL alive, multiplying at astonishing rates, and HeLa is one of most widely used raw materials for scientific research, leading to breakthroughs in treatments for dozens (if not hundreds) of diseases and the first DNA genetic mapping projects. But, Henrietta’s family had no idea this research was going on, no idea their mother’s cells were collected or being used, and no idea that large pharma and biomedical companies were making millions and billions of dollars selling test tubes of her cells to scientists and researchers all over the world. In fact, Henrietta’s family cannot afford basic medical care. So, where is the social responsibility? What are the answers? How do you muddle through all that very gray area? I don’t know why it has taken me this long to read this book, I absolutely loved it. I loved the mix of biography and research science, the combination of social commentary and presentation of facts. I loved that by the end of the book I felt like I had a lot of information to form an opinion on using human tissue for medical research without informing the human herself what type of research, and without compensating that person or their family for any monetary gains on that research… but I still don’t know. I know more about genetic mapping and scientific processes, but I still am torn between the two sides of it (to benefit society as a whole (a good thing), or to somehow take care of the person’s DNA/identity/specific genetic make-up). There is SO MUCH TO THINK ABOUT!

The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry, by Bryan Sykes (3 stars). I snatched this book up in a used book store specifically to learn more about Mitochondrial DNA, tiny little packets of genes inside a cell that are passed down the maternal line with a mutation only once in every 10,000 years or so. What does this mean? It means that my siblings and I all share the exact same Mitochondrial DNA as my mother, and her mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother. My brothers did not pass that little M-DNA packet to their children as it is only in the egg, not the sperm; M-DNA is not swished around when a sperm and egg combine (X and Y chromosomes recombine, but M-DNA does not) as there is no sperm-M-DNA to recombine with, so that little packet of history remains practically identical for thousands of years. One of my favorite chapters was how using this brand-new testing (in the 1990s’) for M-DNA from bones helped determine the final resting place of the Russian Romanov family who were murdered in 1918 and left in a hole in the Siberian forest. By extracting DNA from the bones, and then testing for mitochondrial DNA, scientists discovered that there was, indeed, a family. A mother and 3 daughters, the father of those 3 daughters, and 3 unrelated adults (doctor and 2 servants). By testing living relatives of Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (meaning, living descendants of her SISTER), and testing other living relatives descended from Tsar Nicholas’ MOTHER (Maria/Dagmar of Denmark), they were able to determine that yes, this family was the Romanovs. ISN’T THAT SO FASCINATING! I think it’s fascinating. The idea that I am carrying history from my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother, back hundreds of generations, sends my feminist heart all a flutter. So, I *loved* learning more about M-DNA, how it was discovered, the studies and testing that have happened in my lifetime to figure out what exactly it is and how we can trace it. However, “The Seven Daughters of Eve” as a title is SUPER misleading, because Sykes is really only talking about the seven matriarchs whose M-DNA has populated the majority of EUROPE. Throughout the world, there are just about 30 different “clans” of M-DNA that have survived. So, that was annoying. The very last chapter Sykes talks a little more about those other lines and how they may have spread. But the vast majority of his book is about the M-DNA of the 7 women who, anywhere from 10,000 to 45,000 years ago, were the head of surviving dynastic maternal lines which have thrived and are currently found in the vast majority of Europeans (and sometimes, only in Europeans).

The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (5 stars). Part mini biography of several different scientists who discovered genes and DNA and the means of inheritance, including all my favorites. Part current history of what scientists and geneticists continue to figure out on sequencing and altering genes and DNA. And part a treatise on the ethics of genetics and altering DNA and using stem cells to enhance or edit the genetic code of humans. GAH! I LOVED THIS SO MUCH! Mukherjee is a fantastic writer, and even with all the deep and heavy science stuff he kept my attention (I also happen to love the details of DNA and the means of inheritance, so.)

Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, by Rebecca Stott (4 stars). I tend to devour any and all books about Charles Darwin, his theories of evolution and the survival of the fittest, and, in general, the revolutionary era of scientific advancement in which he lived (Fun fact: Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the exact same day, The Origin of the Species was published right before the Civil War). This book covers the history of Darwin’s thoughts, but starting way back with Aristotle and going right on down to Darwin’s grandfather (a famous zoologist in England), Darwin’s contemporaries, and Darwin himself. Stott spends time detailing scientists and naturalists from around the world and throughout history who have discovered, independently, some aspect of Darwin’s theory. I loved reading about these individuals from ancient Greece, ancient Iraq, Egypt, Europe, and South America as they solidified their ideas on where plants and animals come from, and how humans fit into that story.

The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins (3 stars). In many ways this is a modern re-writing of The Origin of the Species with additional information about the important advances in evolutionary science since Darwin’s time (1860’s), you know, things like genes, DNA, and all the tiny little bits that make up living organisms. Dawkins goes in depth on all of these little bits, jumping from species to species to give examples and more examples that show, in the end, how much more alike we are than different.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing: 2011, Edited by Mary Roach (3 stars). I picked this up super cheap from a used book sale, mostly because of Mary Roach’s name on the cover. Turns out, none of these essays were written by her, she just selected them (?). Anyway, some of my favorite authors did have contributions, and I liked reading about science-y things without any other unifying thread than they were fascinating. Excellent read.

The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics, by Robin Marantz Henig (2 stars). Gregor Mendel, a monk in the mid 1800’s, was the father of modern genetics, meaning, he figured out that there were dominant and recessive genes and the patterns of inheritance, by studying and crossing garden peas for years while making copious notes. Unfortunately, after he died his successor as Abbot at the monastery burned all of his notebooks and papers. The very few letters he sent that were kept, and his one scientific paper explaining his experiments, are almost all that survives. He died without the scientific world in Europe having any idea who he was, and it wasn’t until several decades later that three scientists studying evolution “re-discovered” his paper and brought his experiments to light. Anyway, so that’s Mendel. This biography…is not great. Because there is so little primary documentation that has survived, everything is second or third hand. But Henig tried to make this read like a novel…which was REALLY irritating. ALSO, in the epilogue, she talks about how she has very little interest in genetics, specifically her own genetics, and doesn’t think it’s a worthwhile pursuit to learn so much about genes and chromosomes and this branch of science. Uh…then maybe don’t spend your time researching and writing a non-fiction book about it!? Ugh.

The Descent of Man, by Charles Darwin (4 stars) My nerdy heart loves Darwin so much. Now, this is a BEHEMOTH of a book, Darwin covers what seems like every single species in their evolutionary process. From birds and insects to large mammals and humans. The detail is…well, honestly, it’s a little excruciating to read through for fun. But I love that Darwin went to such extensive lengths to prove his points, spent so much time getting all the details and proofs lined up for his audience, to help them understand his process, the process of the earth’s changes and evolution from primordial soup to thousands of distinct species. And, what hasn’t changed between us. Sigh. I just love Darwin so much. Hashtag: Nerd.

Darwin and the Barnacle: The Story of One Tiny Creature and History’s Most Spectacular Scientific Breakthrough, by Rebecca Stott (3 stars). When I picked this up I thought it would be a lot more about Darwin’s notes, correspondence, and discoveries regarding the barnacle (which he studied daily for 8 years, writing 4 volumes on it, and studying, describing, and analyzing these pin head sized creatures honed his chops for writing “The Origin of the Species.” Did you know that ancient barnacles were hermaphrodites, had both male and female parts and were often self-fertilizing. Over time, the male parts became their own male creature, often just a sac of sperm, often embedded inside female organisms. More time passed and the males added additional parts to become more than just sperms, and could be found outside the female, living as parasites, but far more independent creatures than their ancient ancestors. SO INTERESTING! There is an ancient Greek myth about how we all began as hermaphrodites, and the Gods split us into two distinct sexes, which is why we spend our lives searching for our other half. Even Christian theology states that male and female were joined into one (Adam) before God created the female (Eve) as a distinct and separate human. Gah, science is so awesome. Religion isn’t bad either. 😉 Okay, so my criticism: Stott does cover the barnacle and Darwin’s interactions and labors over it extensively, but she also throws in a TON of biographical information about Darwin, his family, his friends, their families, world history that only slightly relates (the siege of Sebastopol, anyone?) to the topic matter at hand. I don’t mind the biographic details, but it was not what I was expecting.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond (4 stars). I wavered between three and four stars, but truly, it’s not Diamond’s fault that I read this book 20 years too late, and after also reading a half-dozen other books that argue the same premise, often with wittier anecdotes, a little extra dose of humor. But, Diamond was most likely the earliest researchers on the theories of evolution of civilizations around the world based on the evolution of plants, agriculture, farming, domestication of animals, which are primarily based on geography, climate, and the availability of wild flora and fauna with which to domesticate. Some parts of the world (Eurasia) had more to work with than others (Australia) and, therefore, “evolved” to “civilized” communities faster. I mean, if you can call densely-populated people who live side-by-side with disease-ridden animals and generally ruin their environment and try to colonize everywhere else “civilized.” Ahem. Additionally, Diamond discusses the evolution of language, technology, and art in various parts of the world, as advanced after significant improvements of food and shelter were mastered.


A Few Things I Love: The Nerd Edition

Quite a while ago I wrote a post about things that I loved, this is kind of the same thing, but nerdier.

1. Shakespeare, especially the “boring” histories. I actually have coached a competitive high school Shakespeare team for nine years and I just can’t get enough of The Bard. Favorites include Henry V, Henry VI (parts 1, 2, and 3), Cymbeline, and Richard III. If you aren’t watching The Hollow Crown series, you probably should: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Irons, and Tom Hiddleston, ’nuff said.

2. I prefer Velociraptors to all other dinosaurs, and would like you to know that April is Velociraptor Appreciation Month. (Really.) Put it on your calendar for next year.

3. Fairytales. There’s just something so delightful about life with a little bit of magic in it, isn’t there? I mean, Frozen and Tangled were okay-ish, but Disney’s version of events is absolutely not what I’m talking about here. Fairytales are really morality lessons and teaching stories, right? So the basic concepts of love, hate, danger, death, family, and the unknown weave through all of them. Once while digging around in a University bookstore (which yes, I sometimes do for fun), I found a book that contained different versions of five or six universal fairytales: Cinderella according to the French, English, and Russians; Beauty and the Beast according to Native American tradition, Belgians, and Italians; Hansel and Gretel according to the Germans, and a tribe in Africa; The Three Little Pigs as told by Roald Dahl. I loved reading the same basic story with so many different variations, and since then I have made a habit of collecting fairy tale books. Of course I have the complete Brothers Grimm stories, and Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, and a few hilarious versions of familiar-but-fractured fairy tales, but I also have a book of Icelandic fairy tales, bedtime tales from Africa, The Arabian Nights, a couple of different versions of the most fantastical stories, legends and myths from China, India, and South-East Asia. And did you know John Steinbeck wrote down all the legends and stories surrounding King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table? Also, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Cymbeline are both fantastic fairy tales. The more you know.

4. Sloths. I’m kind of like Kristen Bell, you guys, with the notable exception being that Blue Eyes has never brought me home a sloth to snuggle. A sloth necklace, yes, with the cute little guy hanging off the chain, but no live sloth. (Note: something to consider.)

5. Maps, maps, and more maps. I had an enormous map of the world on the wall of my bedroom for over a decade, and if I had my way (and more wall space) I’d have maps in every room of the house.

6. Race cars. Not like Indy 500 race cars, or a nitro-engine souped-up Honda, but the long, sleek cars that make and break land speed records at Bonneville

7. Volcanoes!! I became particularly obsessed with the Pompeii and Krakatoa when I was a kid and have since read a handful of thick, non-fiction books about volcanoes, how they work, how they explode, history of eruptions, etc, etc, etc. I have gone SCUBA diving in a dormant crater filled with hot spring water 65 feet deep, I have explored unmarked lava tubes in Hawaii and spent a couple of hours completely transfixed watching lava roll down the side of an active (but not spewing) volcano while smoke filled the sky.

8. Trains. I love trains, my Dad love trains, my older brother loves trains, my nephews love trains. I have my own stripey conductor hat (it says Sr. Engineer on it, btw), and a few years ago I finally got my dream train  for Christmas. It’s a big, G scale, German-made LGB with indoor-outdoor all-weather track, a Santa Fe engine and is in desperate need for a couple more loops of railroad. I like “real” trains too, freight trains and passenger trains and tanker trains, but it’s a lot harder to fit them in a neat little circle of track in my living room. My LGB train has been set up since the day I brought it home, my nieces and nephews and stepkids play with it every time they come visit. I even have two Jr. Engineer stripey hats for such occasions.

9. Narwhals (i.e. swimming unicorns).

10. Lists that have an acceptable number of items.

What nerdy things do you love?

Harriet sig