Colin Tudge's In Mendel's Footnotes offers a readable combination of scientific fact and history alongside reflections on the impact of genetics on evolutionary theory, present society and future trends. It sets out with two main objectives: to provide an overview of the emergence of genetics to its position today and to demonstrate the genius of Gregor Mendel in establishing the basis of both classical and modern genetics.
The historical accounts are fascinating and easy to read; the philosophy and reflections challenge the reader's own thinking. But how well do the hard facts of genetics fit into a book that is otherwise a relaxing read?
The importance of genetics is presented in Tudge's opening words: 'Heredity matters. It is perhaps the central obsession of humankind and indeed of all creatures.' Recognising genetics as a tool by which we may better understand ourselves gets us in the mood to think responsibly about a range of big issues - crop breeding, cloning, designer babies and so on.
We are taken back to the development of English and Germanic science in the 18th and 19th centuries and to the work of Mendel, a Moravian monk. Tudge is wholeheartedly convinced of Mendel's genius, but I must confess to niggling doubts as I turned the pages of this summary of his life, work and times.
The author gives us a picture of the confusion against which Mendel's experiments were set, particularly the influence of the church on radical thinking. The general theme that if we cannot see the entire picture we can easily misinterpret isolated facts is an interesting one.
So far, so good. But there is a shift of gear as we move from history and philosophy into a detailed review of Mendel's experiments - alright if you remember your A-level biology but pretty intense otherwise. Then a whirlwind of modern genetics terminology leaves you breathless - 13 pages on genes, loci, alleles, genomics, polymorphism, gene pools, linkage, homozygosity and heterozygosity, genotypes and phenotypes, dominance and recessiveness, penetrance, sex linkage and pleiotropic and ploidy.
And there is more science to come - how genes work, the discovery of the structure of DNA and the concept of the selfish gene. This brings us nicely back to Darwin and Mendel.
In chapter 7, 'Genes for Behaviour', the reader can enjoy a discourse on genes, behaviour and evolutionary psychology. The confusion in scientific thinking in the historical accounts of Mendel's work is perhaps reflected here in Tudge's comments that evolutionary psychology 'is a young subject... there are many extensive robust studies, but already the signs are that it has a great deal to offer'. But his conclusion that it must 'clean up its own act and speculations must be refined into testable hypotheses' leaves us in no doubt that the facts are not yet neatly laid to rest.
Another shift takes us back to genetics and breeding - an important influence in Mendelian times and seen here in the context of plant and animal breeding and, controversially, the future shaping of Homo sapiens. 'Could we breed better human beings just as we have improved our crops and domestic animals?' the author asks - issues that might justify a separate text.
The closing chapter urges the reader to reflect on the moral and ethical issues thrown up by modern genetics. In this philosophical mode, the book is a good read, asking us to think and to take responsibility for the knowledge presented to us by scientific discovery. The biographical elements are particularly interesting, even though the link with Mendel may fall short of the claims on the flyer that 'once we understand what Mendel did and why... all subsequent advances fall naturally into place and a brilliant light is thrown on to the future of humanity'. I wonder.