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The Human Map: Matt Ridley's Genome

Have you ever wondered why some people are more stressed than others? Do you look at your brothers and sisters and question whether intelligence is genetic? Have you sat and pondered why people are predisposed to certain diseases or afflictions? Even just reading the newspaper, it is impossible to ignore the debates over human cloning, genetic recombination and the ancient question of nature versus nurture.

In “Genome”, Matt Ridley delves into these questions and hundreds of others as he takes the reader on a journey through the genetic map.

This “autobiography of our species” is a mind-blowing exploration of one of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements: the completion of Human Genome Project.

In twenty-three chapters, each related to a pair of human chromosomes, Mr. Ridley expertly lays out an explanation of the basic building blocks of life. He provides a clear, concise, and wonderfully understandable description of how amino acids, genes and chromosomes all interact to define our faces, bodies, minds, and internal chemistries. He explores issues related to sexuality, personality, memory, death, disease, stress and free-will.

Mr. Ridley leads a magical journey into our own bodies and minds and provides simple answers to questions you never even thought to ask.

Most impressive of all is the way he intertwines both the history of our species and the history of genetic research into his story. From ancient Greek philosophers first noting the effects of natural selection on “fate”, to Darwin’s study of Galapagos tortoises, to the recent global race to map the human genome, Ridley makes scientific history into a thriller that you can’t put down.

One of my favorite chapters describes how women select their mates. There have been some very interesting studies in the past, not the least important of which had men wear the same shirt for days and then had women smell the pits to decide which scent was most attractive.

Amazingly, arm-pit sweat is a relatively precise indicator of the genetic make-up of the person who perspired their way into your heart. People seek out mates with different genetic make-ups to better ensure that only the strongest genes survive.

As students launching our lives and careers, perhaps the only issue more on our minds than choosing the right mate is our health. Will choosing high-stress jobs have damaging effects on our hearts and bodies? “In a massive, long-term study of 17,000 civil servants, an almost unbelievable conclusion emerged: the status of a person’s job was more able to predict their likelihood of a heart attack than obesity, smoking or high-blood pressure.” Great Scott, you say! Will our go-get-’em attitudes finally do us in after all. The answer is, nope!

Ridley continues by stating that “somebody in a low-level job, such as a janitor, was nearly four times as likely to have a heart attack as a permanent secretary at the top of the heap,” all other factors being equal. Why? Because health and happiness are genetically connected, and happiness is directly related to the amount of control one has over his or her life.

I do not recount this study to justify taking a high-level, high-stress job for longevity reasons, but this illustrates just one of the fascinating studies and scientific revelations discussed in “Genome”. This book does not have all the answers, and given that it was written four years ago, it may have none of the latest. But it is a wonderful read and explores our greatest shared mysteries: where we came from, who we are, how we differ, and where we as a species may be going. Simply, this book is about life. Mine, yours, everyone’s, and I can not think of a better mystery than that.

September 15, 2003
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