In Mendel’s Footnotes: An Introduction to the Science and Technologies of Genes and Genetics from the 19th century to the 22nd, by Colin Tudge. Jonathan Cape, $59.95.

The recent advances in genetic technologies have been quite bewildering. But, Tudge contends, borrowing a phrase from the philosopher AN Whitehead who maintained all moral philosophy was footnotes to Plato, all genetics is merely footnotes to Mendel.

His classic experiments on peas, easily understandable by high school students, lie at the base of everything that has followed. Tudge lucidly recounts this very familiar territory, explaining the genius which underlay such deceptively simple studies, and placing them in a historical context: Mendel was working at a time when even such basic questions as whether both parents contributed equally to the offspring were still unresolved, and chromosomes, never mind genes, were yet to be discovered. Tudge also provides a good deal of biographical information, refuting the popular myth that Mendel was of peasant stock and working in a backwater.

This is all good stuff as far as it goes. Those hoping, on the strength of the book’s title, for technical information on just how genetic engineers go about their business at the beginning of the twenty-first century are likely to be disappointed, however. Over half the book is devoted to issues which are at best peripheral to the practice of genetics. There is, for example, a lengthy chapter on the much-maligned discipline of evolutionary psychology. This is interesting reading, and obviously a favourite subject of Tudge’s, but seems a little off-topic. Sections on the application of genetics to conservation biology, and why eugenics doesn’t work, are more relevant, but largely theoretical.

Tudge closes by asking what we should do with all this power, and concludes there are grounds for cautious optimism. Just because a technology is available doesn’t mean it will become widely adopted. Human nature is, he asserts, much more subtle and innately “moral” than many choose to believe: we can reject the more exotic promises of biotechnology, and to some extent have already shown an ability to do so. It is for its discussion of the ethical and social ramifications of genetics and, more broadly, evolutionary theory, rather than its coverage of the nuts and bolts of genetic technology, that this book has its greatest value.

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