The Impact of the Gene

A Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Philosophy at the London School of Economics, noted British science writer Colin Tudge surveys in a readable style the history of genetic science from Gregor Mendel’s famous peas to the latest successes of the Human Genome Project in The Impact of the Gene. Tudge argues that this powerful science carries with it incredible promise but raises serious moral issues that must be addressed to avoid designing utopias that require humans to behave in nonhuman and non-humane ways. Thus a wide-ranging and informed discussion is necessary, not only of the mechanics of genetics (knowledge easily available now) but also the implications of that knowledge for our behavior.

Tudge aims to provide “an overview of the whole shooting match” by examining in detail what Mendel did and why he did it. He follows that up with an overview of twentieth century genetics, without (alas) any discussion of Seymour Benzer’s successful search for the connection between genes and behavior in his “fly labs” at Caltech. What Tudge does do, however, is attempt to connect ethics with sociobiology so that an informed citizenry may reap the benefits of the science of genetics without devolving into a hideous “brave new world” of racism and its species-based counterpart. Society can benefit, Tudge argues, not only from understanding Gregor Mendel as a modern scientist but also by learning from his qualities as “the most benign of men: courteous, generous, socially conscious.”