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19 February 2016

Backlist Love | Two Books About Genetics

Backlist Love is an informal series on "older" books that I hope you'll find interesting. These aren't so much reviews as quickie recommendations, so check out Goodreads or your favorite book review sources if you want more info.

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James D. Watson (Touchstone Books, 2011; c. 1968)

The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry by Bryan Sykes (W.W. Norton & Co., 2001)

The Double Helix
The classic personal account of Watson and Crick’s groundbreaking discovery of the structure of DNA, now with an introduction by Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind.

By identifying the structure of DNA, the molecule of life, Francis Crick and James Watson revolutionized biochemistry and won themselves a Nobel Prize. At the time, Watson was only twenty-four, a young scientist hungry to make his mark. His uncompromisingly honest account of the heady days of their thrilling sprint against other world-class researchers to solve one of science’s greatest mysteries gives a dazzlingly clear picture of a world of brilliant scientists with great gifts, very human ambitions, and bitter rivalries.
The Seven Daughters of Eve
One of the most dramatic stories of genetic discovery since James D. Watson's The Double Helix — a work whose scientific and cultural reverberations will be discussed for years to come. In 1994 Professor Bryan Sykes, a leading world authority on DNA and human evolution, was called in to examine the frozen remains of a man trapped in glacial ice in northern Italy. News of both the Ice Man's discovery and his age, which was put at over five thousand years, fascinated scientists and newspapers throughout the world. But what made Sykes's story particularly revelatory was his successful identification of a genetic descendant of the Ice Man, a woman living in Great Britain today. How was Sykes able to locate a living relative of a man who died thousands of years ago?

In The Seven Daughters of Eve, he gives us a firsthand account of his research into a remarkable gene, which passes undiluted from generation to generation through the maternal line. After plotting thousands of DNA sequences from all over the world, Sykes found that they clustered around a handful of distinct groups. Among Europeans and North American Caucasians, there are, in fact, only seven. This conclusion was staggering: almost everyone of native European descent, wherever they may live throughout the world, can trace their ancestry back to one of seven women, the Seven Daughters of Eve.

Why I liked them

Seven Daughters of Eve is a combo of genetic science for the lay person + imaginative speculation about the lives of humanity's shared ancestors. I know the science in this book is about a decade and a half old at this point, but it's a great intro to mitochondrial DNA and how it can be used to help us make educated guesses about our family trees.

To be honest, my interest in The Double Helix was purely historical. I read Seven Daughters of Eve first and just wanted to know a little more about how DNA became a "thing" originally. Despite Watson's complete dismissal of Rosalind Franklin's work, his voice is engaging and his memories of this momentous discovery are just fascinating.

Who I'd recommend them to

The Double Helix is, I think, a book best appreciated by people who already have at least a basic background in biological sciences. And you have to realize that it's basically the recollections of a single person -- a brilliant person, but a fallible one.

Seven Daughters of Eve has a broader appeal. Anyone interested in human evolution should definitely pick this up, but it will also be a great read for anthropologists and even genealogists who are interested in the impact of DNA on their family history research.


The Double Helix

The Seven Daughters of Eve

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