DNA by James Watson

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Back in February, I chose James Watson’s DNA as a science 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.

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. One rant: 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. [/end rant]

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 bottom line is I enjoyed learning about genetics, and 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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