The Breakfast Table

Up With Genes

Dear George,

Am I being unfair to detect a touch of biology envy? It’s true we gene-obsessed folk seem to grab all the headlines these days. Whether in evolutionary garb or molecular, genetics seems to be everywhere. Over here, Steve Jones even does car adverts on television. And hardly a week goes by without some astounding claim on behalf of genes.

Yet for most of the last century the boot was on the other foot and physicists were the aristocrats of science, envied by everybody for their imaginative leaps and the crystal simplicity of their equations. Biologists were patronized as stamp collectors cataloging dull details. So allow them their moment of glory! Let the bearded ones emerge blinking from their fume cupboards and be courted by New Yorker interviewers and venture capitalists alike!

I like Richard Preston’s New Yorker piece on Craig Venter. But I read it not as science so much as instant history. Like it or not–and most people don’t–Venter has shaped the world of genomics more than anybody. When the history of this era comes to be boiled down for encyclopedias, I’ll bet he rates more of a mention than Bill Clinton, just as, say, Thomas Edison rates higher than Grover Cleveland. You and I may know Venter’s story from the many profiles we have read of him, but there were details in Preston’s piece I did not know, and there was always the frisson of excitement at what Venter would say next–something that would be missing from a profile of Francis Collins (head of the Human Genome Project). There is a place for such celebrity journalism.

But I agree with you that it is not science reporting, and it’s no substitute for a New Yorker piece on the genome itself. I yield to nobody (as the saying goes) in my admiration of Horace Judson. What he did to capture both the science and the people of the DNA story was unique, and he obeyed the cardinal rule of science writing: leave out unnecessary detail, but don’t gloss over things because they are complicated. I have always believed that the reader likes a challenge (why else would Brian Greene’s book on superstrings, The Elegant Universe, have won so many readers and beaten me to that damned prize?). The one way not to write about science, it seems to me, is “Scientists reported a breakthrough today in string theory. This means they now know the answer to the universe is 42.” You have to bring the reader through the argument.

By the way, I think you’ll find biologists know more about how genes cause anatomy, development, and behavior than you are giving them credit for. Read about the Hox genes that lay down embryonic body plans, or the Creb genes that are essential to the recording of memories. In each case, something that seemed ethereal and mystical is yielding to a step-by-step molecular understanding. The solution loses no mystery or magic in the process–indeed it gains some–but it’s much less opaque than the wiring diagrams of brains, which you are right in thinking are still unknown.