A Few Books on Biological Science (DNA, The X in Sex, and a Graphic Adaptation of Darwin)

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Note: I occasionally accept review copies from the publisher. Posts written from review copies are labeled. All opinions are my own. Posts may contain affiliate links. I may receive compensation for any purchased items.

Back in February, I chose James Watson’s DNA as my project book. At more than 400 pages, it intimidated me, because I’m not normally a reader of science books. I was hoping it was a good balance of technical and “pop” science. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best book on the subject, and much of it left me feeling confused. It took me the full month to plow through it.

Yet, despite that not-so-great beginning, I wanted to read more about genetics, so I also picked up The X in Sex by David Bainbridge, which focuses on the genetics of the sex chromosomes. It was a very engaging and easy to understand book, and it has left me even more interested in the chromosomes that make up my body.

Finally, my two-month-old hold request for Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation by Michael Keller and illustrated by Nicole Rager Fuller came in too. Although this is not about genetics, it is about the evolutionary biology behind all species, and I found the beautiful graphic perspective to be a nice introduction to Darwin.

DNA by James Watson

Years ago, I’d read James Watson’s The Double Helix. While I don’t remember much about it, I recall it being more a memoir of how the structure of DNA was discovered, rather than about the science itself. I picked up DNA by the same author via a lucky bookmooch, and it is beautiful, full of color illustrations. But I didn’t really enjoy reading it. The best part was the pretty illustrations.

DNA’s biggest flaw was its inconsistent tone. I suspect, and I’m not sure why, that it was a ghost-written book, with James Watson’s name on the cover because he’s the famous scientist who discovered DNA to begin with. I could tell when Watson took over the writing: there were digressions and personal stories. A few chapters were chocked full of scientific explanations for how the double helix works, and I often found myself lost. Other chapters had some scientific explanations but were balanced with discussions of political and social impact of those explanations. Because the book is a glossy book, with color photos, I thought these less scientific chapters should have been the focus. It seems the book was trying to talk to both the experts and the non-experts at the same time.

Then again, maybe my inadequacy in science is to blame. It could be that the majority of the readers of nonfiction who pick this beautiful book up will be able to follow it without a problem.

There were a few things I enjoyed about the book, notably the overview of how genetics and genetic engineering makes the world a better place. I liked to see how genetic engineering of plants, for example, is a way of speeding up the evolutionary biology of plants. In another thousand years, the plants will have figured out how to resist certain bugs, and by producing genetically modified plants now, we are able to help for the better by speeding up the process. I also found the discussion of human genetics interesting, and I look forward to reading more on the subject, albeit in a more non-scientific format.

I finished reading DNA a month ago, and I’ve put off writing a review of it for a month because I’m not sure what else to say. It has plenty of flaws, and a few interesting parts. I’m glad I have the pretty book on my shelf to flip through, but I can’t recommend it for a straightforward overview for the non-scientific among us.

The X in Sex by David Bainbridge

The X in Sex has a steamy cover, which is a bit unrelated from the book. This book is not about sexuality in terms of passion and romance but rather about gender, specifically the sex chromosomes. David Bainbridge’s text seems to match the suggestive attidue of the cover because it is a readable and fascinating scientific look at the power behind the X chromosome.

What is it that makes a person male or female? Normally, it’s the presense of a Y chromosome that makes the developing fetus become male. That seems to be a powerful chromosome, and Bainbridge touches on the Y chromosome in his discussion. In reality, though, it is the X chromosome that has lots behind it. It is much larger than the Y and that is where the differences appear. Bainbridge discusses the sexual development of a fetus, he discusses Y-linked diseases, and he discusses what having two X chromosomes means for women.

The X in Sex is fascinating reading. I never thought about chromosomes before, and Bainbridge approaches the subject in an easy to read and succinct way. The book is about 180 pages, and Bainbridge is obviously comfortable in both science and non-scientific circles. I never once felt “over my head” as I read, and that’s saying something.

I found out about this book thanks to a review on Eva’s blog. Now I want to know more about the chromosomes that make me human – and that make me a unique human at that!

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: A Graphic Adapation

As a devoted reader of original classics, I’m not keen on the idea of “rewriting” them or retelling them. Why wouldn’t I read the original? Nonetheless, I decided to give this one a try, and I was not disappointed.

The recent graphic adaptation of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Michael Keller (illustrated by Nicolle Rager Fuller) shows that there is a reason for adaptations, and I appreciated the way in which this project was approached: the graphic adaptation is not a retelling nor is it a straight forward portrayal of it. Rather, it is like an abridged annotation, with illustrations, to help get the superficial concepts of Darwin’s theory. It does not replace the original, and I still hope to read it someday, but for me, it gave me a great foundation for understanding what his purposes were.

The challenge to reviewing graphic books is that I can’t quote my favorite passages to illustrate how awesome they are! The pictures and the text or both integral, yet there is a note in the front saying copying in any format is against copyright, so I can’t even take a picture or scan it. When Nymeth reviewed it, she had permission from the illustrator to include a few of the awesome pictures, so definitely go check it out there if you’d like to see the art style.

The thing I loved most about this adaptation is that text with gray background was Darwin’s writing (from the original) and the pictures and text on the pictures were modern examples and illustrations of what he’s talking about. (Note: Some of these examples could have been in Darwin’s text but many of them are modern.) And I trust that all examples given are accurate science as well (when Darwin’s theory has been proven incorrect, the editors make a note), so I loved seeing the examples of the evolution of various animals. Since the pictures were so beautiful and in full color, this is a book that can be poured over.

And yet, one does not need to pour over it. It’s straight-forward, and easy to understand. I’m not intimidated by the Darwin I found in these pages. I still want to experience Darwin’s original text in full. This was, after all, only 190 illustrated pages, so much is left out. But now I know that an annotated text or discussion of Darwin might be a good way to go when I am ready to give Darwin a try. This was a great introduction, and I highly recommend this graphic adaptation if you are interested in evolutionary biology but have been afraid to approach Darwin himself. (I don’t blame you!)

Some Thoughts

I was struck as I read by Darwin’s struggles with religion. Even in the text, he ponders how and why “the Creator” may have done something. In the preface and afterward (also illustrated, these looked at Darwin’s life before and after writing On the Origin of Species), it seemed religious people were shocked by Darwin’s claims, but in the text, he never says anything that seems to discredit religion. His wife worried about him blaspheming the church, though he didn’t seem to want to. He just wanted to collect the facts and understand them; in fact, he seemed non-religious, not anti-religious. I felt for him. It’s hard to be first, and religious people seemed to blame him for what they couldn’t understand.

On the other hand, James Watson, in DNA, seemed to have a personal interest in discrediting God in his book. That sounds odd, but what I mean is he frequently (maybe three or four times in 400 pages) commented that the secret of life is in DNA, not a creator. I thought the snide remarks seriously took away from the academic tone of the book. Simply tell the story of DNA, and if you don’t believe in God, I don’t care, but don’t make snide remarks about it. (Bainbridge commented once about how life is in the chromosomes and not from God, but he wasn’t snide about it, and it didn’t bother me at all.)

As a religious person myself, I don’t have any qualms noting the resemblance of humans to apes. I believe I am a child of God but that’s not a scientific explanation, and I’m not going to pretend it is. I know I have DNA from my parents and my personal genome that makes my body as it is, evolved over the past millions of years from wherever, with God over it all since he created it to begin with. I don’t have any issues in believing in God as my Eternal Father and believing that life stems from my DNA. My only problem with science is the apparent need to discredit religion. I don’t think it has to be only one way, and I think the scientists should just leave religion alone when they are talking about science. Personally, I think God works through laws, even a big bang if necessary. I have no problems not understanding how the two relate. To me, not understanding how God works is a part of faith.

[/end rant]

The bottom line is I enjoyed learning about evolutionary biology and genetics, although some books were better than others. I do look forward to learning more.

What scientific nonfiction have you read lately? Can you remember any books about genetics? Do any of these interest you at all?

(I already have Matt Ridley’s Genome on my TBR.)

Reviewed on March 29, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I’m glad you found the adaptation of The Origin of Species as accessible and rewarding as I did! The others sound interesting too, even if the Watson book is uneven. I’m always interested in learning more about science, genetics and evolution, so these all sound good to me. Sadly, I know so little that I don’t have anything to recommend.
    .-= Nymeth´s last post on blog ..Are Women Human? by Dorothy L. Sayers =-.

    • Nymeth, thanks again for your review, because that is what got me to read it! I went out to find it right away, it just took two months for the hold request to come through!

  • To be honest I never read the copyright statement when reviewing graphic novels. I will just put a couple of sample illustrations found around the Internet. If I can’t find anything, I’ll take a couple of photos. I don’t see any harm in it. I guess if they don’t like it they can always ask me to take the images down. Mmm will someone chase me to my blog after this comment?
    .-= mee´s last post on blog ..The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck =-.

    • mee, I’m pretty big on keeping things legal. I guess my blog isn’t THAT big but I wouldn’t want anyone to come after me. Besides, I studied English in school and got lots of anti-plagiarism stuff drilled in to me…so I guess it’s a habit to give proper credit where it’s due and not take things illegally!

  • I enjoyed your little rant about religion and Darwinism. I agree that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. God may very well have used a big bang in creating life. I read a book called the Privledged Planet in college where they used science to point to some sort of Creator. It was definitely a science book, not a religious book, and it was interesting how they showed that studying science can actually lead to greater faith, not lessen it.
    .-= Lindsey´s last post on blog ..Living Dead in Dallas =-.

    • Lindsey, That sounds like an interesting book for college. Where you in a religious school? I’d think people interested in science would take offense at that, since it sounds less science-y and more religious.

      I totally agree that that studying science could lead to greater faith, I just suspect that most scientists would disagree lol. The attitude I got from the authors of the first two books seemed to be “keep God out of it.” Which is fine to me, since I was reading about science anyway.

  • I love reading genetics/biology books, even though they usually take me much longer to get through than fiction does. I haven’t read any of the books you reviewed, but I can definitely vouch for Matt Ridley’s Genome–I thought it was well-written and really interesting as well.

    • Anna, yes, these did take time get through! Glad Genome is so highly recommended. I did have checked out from the library but it was due before i got to it, unfortunately.

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