Two recent science books

Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity by Jamie Metzl

Genetic engineering is a controversial topic, and news coverage is generally lacking in proper detail or hopelessly biased one way or another. There are so many scare stories, alongside the fantastic developments that will undoubtedly be helpful to mankind. The words ‘genetic engineering’ strike fear in so many who are scared, that it’ll be used to develop so-called ‘Frankenfoods’ which will wipe out those in nature and the big agrichemical companies get so much bad press, that unscrupulous mad scientists will use it for nefarious means. But – we have to remember genetic engineering has always been with us – what is evolution but nature’s own way of doing it via natural selection. Plant-breeders and animal-breeders have exploited this for many, many decades, even centuries to speed things up and produce new domesticated and hybrid breeds and strains is genetic engineering. We can’t stand still though – for whether you are for or against genetic engineering, or anywhere on the scale in between, technology is moving at a pace that makes a degree of it inevitable in our human future.

Hacking Darwin is full of the latest information, and Jamie Metzl is a genial host, taking us through all the recent developments in the science, discussing the ethics in depth – for and against, and he shows us what a genetically engineered future could look like – just a decade or two away. Metzl clearly explains the current technology, from the breakthroughs in IVF to reading the human genome for disease risk-factors, to using the ground-breaking CRISPR technique to edit the genome. He shows scenarios where procreation by sex is replaced by IVF and selection by the parents of which genetic traits they’d like their offspring to have – and it’s not a simple choice either. There is also the potential for editing out the faulty genes that cause many diseases – particularly ones which are caused by a single mutation. However, this editing out of undesirable mutations could ultimately result in less diversity in the genome. Some mutations can cause disease in some combinations, but provide useful traits in others: scientists discovered a group of West African women with degrees of immunity to Ebola, who were all carriers of NPC, a recessive neuro-degenerative disease.

Metzl is American and a leading geopolitical expert and technology futurist. In this book, he is not afraid to be provocative, and his discussion of the ethics is impassioned, but always clear and readable, even conversational at times. In presenting the big picture and then drilling down into sufficient detail, he outlines the challenges for us as we travel into a brave new future. Hacking Darwin was absolutely fascinating. Ultimately, I believe he remains optimistic, but only if we talk to each other. He ends the book with a plea:

Fellow humans, let us together begin the conversation.

Source: Review copy from Midas PR – Thank you. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s via affiliate links.

Jamie Metzl, Hacking Darwin (Sourcebooks, May 2019) Hardback, 328 pages incl. notes/index. (10/10)

Symphony in C: Carbon and the Evolution of (Almost) Everything by Robert M. Hazen

Hazen is Executive Director of the Deep Carbon Observatory, a global research programme based in Washington DC which he founded, looking at the role of carbon on Earth. He is also a serious musician, having been a professional trumpeter alongside his scientific career. Hence the combination of his day job with his hobby in the title and structure of this book about carbon. He uses symphonic form to tell the story of carbon in four movements, titled after the four traditional elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water, with all the musical sub-sections you can think of therein!

I jumped at the chance to read this book, hoping for some interesting stories about organic chemistry in particular. I should have read the blurb more closely, for when you go deep into the carbon cycle, an awful lot of it is about rocks and minerals.

But it begins with the Big Bang and how the first carbon atoms were created, stars and planets formed etc. On Earth, this resulted in thousands and thousands of different carbon-bearing minerals – most in the form of carbonates – most of which only occur in particular places on the Earth – due to plate tectonics, and the state of the crust and mantle underneath. Hazen loves his minerals, and the geologists that discover and catalogue them. The first two movements tell of carbon’s genesis, how all the minerals formed, and the carbon cycle from CO2 in the atmosphere to how the rocks move below the Earth’s surface. It was interesting to read about how scientists are finding out about the Earth’s mineral history from inclusions in diamonds – they can now determine a diamond’s age from the tiny impurities, which can include microscopic amounts of the radioactive isotope of Rhenium – some are more than 3 billion years old.

The organic chemistry of materials forms the third movement – which was over in just 30 pages. But I did learn something. I worked for the chemical giant Du Pont for nearly 18 years, and can honestly say that I never knew that Wallace Carothers, who invented nylon in 1935 and was revered within the company as a demi-god, took his own life two days after his 41st birthday, suffering from depression, grief at the loss of his sister, and a ‘waning chemical inspiration’. I only knew the good bits…

The final section deals with carbon as the backbone of life, which of course, starts off in the carbonate rich mineral soup, so it’s back to geology again, before looking briefly at cellulose and photosynthesis – and shells (more carbonates) and fossils. Quite simply, we are all stardust.

I felt this book was rather hampered by the structure imposed on it – which must have seemed a good idea at the time. It was full of great information, but rather bitty and repetitive at times. Hazen is great at telling us about all the scientists working on the Deep Carbon Cycle and there is undoubtedly great work going on, not least because of climate change, which only gets one short chapter. By trying to encompass (almost) everything that carbon is part of in the one book, it confused the whole for me, and concentrating purely on the deep carbon cycle, using that for structure, might have worked better. (6.5/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s via affiliate links.

Robert M Hazen, Symphony in C (William Collins, June 2019) Hardback, 304 pages incl. notes/index.

N.B. The picture at the top features an ammonite, species Kranaosphinctes from Madagascar, Jurassic.

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