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by Michel Morange
Harvard University Press, 2001
Review by Lloyd A. Wells, Ph.D., M.D. on Mar 3rd 2003

The Misunderstood Gene

The original, French edition of this book, La Part des Genes, was published in 1998, but the content has been updated for this English edition.  The author of a history of molecular biology, Morange succeeds in this book in introducing lay readers to the role of genes in biological processes and the complexity of genes and their interrelationships with cellular events.  For most readers, there will be less mystery and “black box” thinking about genes after they finish reading this elegant, well-written and short volume.

Morange begins with a preface, thought-provoking quotes from the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, and then an introduction.  Chapters on the concept of the gene and the validity of the concept follow, along with a chapter on what genes actually do.  These fifty pages are worth reading on their own for anyone interested in a short introduction to the role of genes in biology.

At this point, the book becomes more thought-provoking, with chapters on experimental mutagenesis, how molecules are synergistically employed in higher functions, including mind and brain, genes which control life and death, genes which affect behavior, and then two outstanding concluding chapters, one on what will happen to the concept of genetic determinism and one on eugenics and human evolution.  All this in 185 pages!

The initial part of the book could stand on its own as a monograph – it is simply a very up-to-date account of molecular biology and the central role of the gene in it, written for intelligent lay readers, and it is a masterpiece of precise, careful and sparse writing.

The rest of the book is much more fun.

I especially liked the chapter, “Molecules to Mind”, which provides an excellent, brief overview of the role of genes in memory formation.  This chapter is less about the role of genes in determining fixed structural aspects of the brain than the roles they play in changing synaptic connections in relation to environmental situations – the ever changing plasticity of the brain.  As Morange states in just a slight stretch, “’Memory-formation genes’ determine the indeterminacy of higher nervous structures.”

The chapter on “Genes controlling life and death” is sophisticated and well argued.  Morange discusses some forthright examples of genes related to death and develops a much more complex argument that, in death during old age, we are again dealing with a complex gene-environment interaction, based on the observation that “the most obvious deficit of age… is the inability to respond to the external milieu.”

The chapter on genes affecting behavior is a complex one and begins with genetic control of circadian rhythms.  The section on genes and personality is excellent.  The author spends some time examining the role of genes in sexual behavior and especially homosexuality and points out how frightened people are by such possibilities and how incongruous this is in view of the many accepted biological factors other than genes which come into play.  This discussion is one of the best examples of fine logic and appeal to philosophy that one can find in this book.  The section on genes and altruism is excellent.  Morange’s recreation of a metaphor of genes as landscape at the end of the chapter is wonderfully useful.

The chapters on (non-)determinism and eugenics are simply wonderful.

This book is the best introduction I have found for a difficult, complex subject, greatly misunderstood.  We are starting to view ourselves as genetic creatures, with enormous misunderstanding of what this means.  There are, in fact, no single genes for alcoholism or attention deficit disorder.  Intelligent readers will have a greatly different concept of our genetic selves if they take the time to read this short and excellent book.


© 2003 Lloyd Wells


Lloyd A. Wells, Ph.D., M.D., Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota.