Book Review: The Language of the Genes by Steve Jones

Biologist Doctor Steve Jones is slightly less famous than Richard Dawkins. I know this because he pointed that fact out at Uncaged Monkeys, the national tour of The Infinite Monkey Cage that he is “the biologist the media calls in when Dawkins is not available”. This event also featured Brian Cox and Ben Goldacre. Comparison’s with his more famous contemporary are always going to be on the cards, but Jones is an accomplished scientist in his own right.

Published in 1994, some of this book is now out of date. Some of the premises he presents have now been answered or over-turned. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of this book will teach you something new. In that, it’s inherent value is clear. If you want to read this, I recommend finding an updated version if such a copy is available.

Reading a book on something as deep as genetics can be daunting, especially when the book promises to tackle some tough subjects that we might otherwise feel uncomfortable reading about. Yet Jones handles them in the way that only a curious researcher and academic can. I am talking about questions like:

  • Isn’t it inefficient for a species to have males?
  • Is homosexuality genetic?
  • Are the risks of inbreeding over-stated?
  • Which are the most in-bred communities in the world?
  • Why do more black immigrants suffer from rickets than do whites?

Yet it is not just about these tough questions. It is, at its heart, an educational book about genetics – one of the most misunderstood sciences and one used to fuel (amusingly) an anti-science agenda in the anti GM crops movement. Jones handles these subjects with the impartiality and education that one would expect. He is a phenomenal writer. His style and tone is easy on the eye. His writing is passionate and engaging. This is perhaps one of the easiest science books I have ever read in terms of absorbing oneself into a science book. I can think of few that can compare with the exception of perhaps Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth.

One of the most fascinating sections I found concerns the evolution of language. It seems the maps of language and genetic peoples overlap. Did you know that the people of Orkney have more genetically in common with Scandinavia than they do with the rest of Scotland? Do you know why Caucasians are larger and stockier (on average) than peoples from Central Africa? Why is diabetes more prevalent in the Pacific peoples than elsewhere?

Did you know that people from southern Italy are of a different genetic stock from northern Italy? In a single short chapter he effortlessly tears apart the very notion that any people can be genetically “pure”. This is something we have known for a long time, but it goes into detail much more than vague ideals of nationhood, skin colour and identity. When the people in the next village are of a different race, it throws away the very idea of a “British people” or a “black race” and so on. All of these questions and more and handled and the text flows seamlessly from issue to issue.

I cannot find flaw with this book. The only problem is that some of the issues are out of date, but with 20+ years of hindsight and research, that is not a problem with the book per se as it is a problem with my copy. Interested in learning about genetics but don’t know where to start? Go and read this book, you can do a lot worse. Next I want to read Y: The Descent of Men to hear more about his thoughts on why sexual reproduction began, and when.

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