The stories in our genes

Pitching popular science writing with the right balance must be fiendishly tricky. Making the complex accessible to a general reader necessarily means simplifying matters. And of course oversimplifying carries its own dangers and can perpetuate misunderstandings that plague science reporting in tabloid media. Perhaps this is true nowhere more than in genetics where too often lazy reporting and the exaggerated claims of commercial interests meet.

Adam Rutherford’s entertaining and often very funny book gets it right time after time. He is always at pains to be clear and not to mislead by oversimplifying. Pedantic clarification could be tedious but Rutherford is too good a writer not to anticipate this and instead delivers the message with clarity – and often self-deprecating humour. Speaking about the claims that living descendants of the Queen of Sheba had been traced by a private ancestry company, Rutherford writes:

Can we say she definitely existed? Not really. If she did, can we say that everyone is descended from her? I wish I could give a more academic answer, but a frown and a shrug is the best I can manage.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is a book in two parts. The first part is a potted history of human DNA, from the time when Homo sapiens shared the planet with other human species; the second half of the book looks at what genetics can tell us (and what it can’t tell us) about ourselves and our species.

It’s ambitious material to cover for the general reader and touches on so many hot topics: race, determinism, genetics and violent crime and heritability. Rutherford’s discussion of each produces a measured view, derived from evidence but not leaping into speculation or letting the reader run away with the wrong idea.  As he writes, “A continuing theme of this book is the limits to what genes can tell about us.”

Rutherford writes with a light touch to inform and uses the book’s own typography as a metaphor to explain some aspects of the genetic code. The complex and still unravelling story of human migration out of Africa is detailed here with all its nagging complication. Rutherford selects some great set pieces to tell his story. I found myself thinking “I’m enjoying this bit” a lot: Neanderthal DNA, the genetics of the plague, Charlemange, King Richard the Third and Jack the Ripper, the genetics of earwax, inbreeding among the Spanish Hapsburgs. And don’t ever skip the footnotes. Not only is there relevant and interesting detail down there, but some of the best jokes are too.

Along the way he corrects a lot of assertions you might have seen or heard elsewhere about genetics, human evolution and inheritance. The section on heritability is a beautifully clear piece of science writing. Also welcome is the slightly corrective tone on epigenetics:

… a fascinating, essential part of biology, still in its infancy, worthy of serious, scrutiny-rich research. It is not magic or new, not heretical, and it won’t upend Darwin or gift you supernatural powers over your life and fate.

Although keen to be accurate and clear Rutherford wisely allows some of the personal to intrude. We read a little of his own experience of racism, his nuanced views on Francis Galton and eugenics and the moving account of the ‘hideous Nazi experiment’ known as the Hongerwinter.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is great popular science writing. Enlightening, engaging and entertaining.

The Orwell Prize 2017

The Orwell Prize is awarded annually in the UK by The Orwell Foundation and aims ‘to encourage good writing and thinking about politics’.

The shortlist for the 2017 prize has just been announced. The diverse subjects covered by these books reflects the broad definition of politics the prize has adopted. The list below includes the brief descriptions from The Orwell Prize website but adds links to book reviews for each title.

Citizen Clem by John Bew
Biography of the post-war Labour Prime Minister by an author praised as ‘the outstanding historian of his generation’.

The Seven by Ruth Dudley Edwards
A critical re-examination of the Easter Rising and the ‘fundamental questions and myths surrounding Ireland’s founding fathers’.

All Out War by Tim Shipman
Contemporary history of the EU referendum campaign from political reporter Tim Shipman, ‘based on unrivalled access to all the key politicians and their advisors’.

Island Story by J. D. Taylor
With a rusty bike and a tent, new name J. D. Taylor cycles round Britain in search of the answer to the question – ‘what is life like on this island?’

And the Sun Shines Now by Adrian Tempany
A book about ‘what arrived in the wake of unquestionably the most controversial tragedy in the post-war era of Britain’s history’.

Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge
The Guardian writer Gary Younge focuses on Saturday November 23rd 2013, when ten children and teens were killed by gunfire in the United States.

Perth Writers Festival and more

It’s almost festival time in Perth with the Perth Writers Festival kicking off next month. Browse through the full program of over 140 events.

Kudos to whoever put Alberto Manguel, Jane Smiley and Damon Young on the same panel to talk about The Art of Reading. I have heard (and read) Manguel on similiar topics before and this panel session should be memorable. Manguel is in conversation with Phillip Adams in another session titled Life of Curiosity.

Also promising is The China Effect with Madeleine O’Dea, Madeleine Thien and Mei Fong.

Not long after the festival, philosopher and author A. C. Grayling is visiting Perth and speaking at the wonderful new City of Perth Library on 31 March. This event is organised by the good people at Boffins Books and that’s where you book your tickets.

Anticipated books for 2017

The last few weeks have seen lists of books scheduled for 2017 appearing. The New York Times, of course, has a brief guide and The Guardian has a guide to nonfictionThe Huffington Post also has a collection as does Goodreads.

There are some titles in all these lists worthy of anticipation. Knopf has an unpublished short work by the late Joan Didion – South and East – which is due in March. Ottessa Moshfegh whose first novel Eileen was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize, has a collection of short stories titled Homesick for another world due out pretty much now. Short story anthologies seem to be something of a theme: Pulitzer Prize winner, Viet Thanh Nguyen has The Refugees coming out next month and Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women is due in May.

Incidentally, Simon Schama remarked on Twitter a few days ago that he has a new volume of The Story of the Jews coming out ‘next year’, but as this was tweeted around new year he might well mean 2018. We must also wait, it seems, for Antony Beevor’s history of the World War II Operation Market Garden of which I can find no sign just yet.

Theoretical physics, practical ethics

It would be fair to say Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself is an ambitious work.

Carroll is a theoretical physicist who writes elegantly with clarity and good humour about big questions we probably associate more with philosophy than with physics.

As a physicist Carroll subscribes to naturalism, the view that:

“…there is only one world, the natural world, exhibiting the patterns we call the ‘laws of nature’, and which is discoverable by the methods of science and empirical investigation. There is no separate realm of the supernatural, spiritual, or divine; nor is there any cosmic teleology or transcendent purpose inherent in the nature of the universe or in human life.”

Yet Carroll coins the term ‘poetic naturalism’ to describe his own approach. The word poeticreminds us that there is more than one way of talking about the world.’

The Big Picture is not without its own wry humour, mostly by way of parenthetical remark. ‘(As of this writing, Mars is the only planet to be inhabited solely by robots.)’.  I often found myself thinking of lines from Douglas Adams or Gary Larson cartoons that might have complemented the text.

Carroll takes us through a potted history of the naturalist view from Galileo and Ibn Sina to Laplace, Descartes and Thomas Bayes. Bayesian reasoning becomes a major theme throughout the book. The more recent the scientific history gets, the harder the ideas become to grasp. The details of quantum mechanics, alas, escape me but Carroll is a gentle and friendly guide and his main argument is always much broader than the scientific detail.

Emergence is another important theme. In an illuminating passage Carroll writes about Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. The canvas and paint are just atoms in particular locations.

“Van Gogh didn’t infuse it with any form of spiritual energy; he put the paint onto the canvas.” … “But it’s obvious that specifying an arrangement of atoms isn’t the only way of talking about this physical artefact, and it’s not even the best way for most purposes.”

As Carroll points out, the mood the painting evokes, the effect of the colour palette and the swirling sky are ‘emergent properties’.

Carroll gives us a more detailed example of emergence in the discussion of two ways of thinking about the air in the room. Air is a gas which we can think of, usefully, as a continuous fluid, but at the microscopic level air is composed of atoms and molecules. Specifying the state of each molecule at each point in time is one description; describing its macroscopic properties as a fluid is another. Yet both are accurate and describe ‘the same underlying reality’. Carroll’s discussion of these two ways of talking – both valid, useful and mutually consistent – is wonderfully clear, science writing.

The early parts of the book take us through what we know of the universe and how we know it. In his discussion of ontologies Carroll gives due weight to reason and the scientific method as we might expect but he is never dogmatic.

“By its nature, science needs to be completely open to the operation of the world, and that means that we stand ready to discard any idea that is no longer useful, no matter how cherished and central it may once have seemed.”

This reminded me, of Darwin in his Autobiography:

“I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved…as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.”

In one sense though, all this history of ontologies is but throat clearing before getting to what Carroll really wants to address. It amounts to the challenge of mapping our understanding of the nature of the universe to the very different daily lived experience of being in it.

“Can we make sense of consciousness and our inner experience without appealing to substances or properties beyond the purely physical? Can we bring meaning and morality to our lives, and speak sensibly about what is right or wrong?”

Carroll runs through contemporary theories of evolution by natural selection and the origin of life and how this work helps us understand how complexity emerges. We get a tour of neuroscience and modern philosophy through the work of Alan Turing, John Searle and Daniel Dennett. I kept recalling the Larson cartoon in which one amoeba berates another – “Stimulus response! Stimulus response! Don’t you ever think?”

The final section of the book is titled ‘Caring’ and is more personal. Building on the many ideas of those others he has read and absorbed, Carroll presents us with his own conclusions. He ends with a recollection of his late grandmother which is both perfectly ordinary and very moving.

Indie Book Awards

The longlist for the Indie Book Awards 2017 was announced yesterday.

From the website:

The Indie Awards differ from other literary awards because they are chosen by independent booksellers who are renowned for their love of books and reading, support new and emerging Australia authors and foster a love of quality writing.


The Shortlist will be announced on 16 January 2017, with the Category Winners and the Overall Book of the Year Winner being announced at the Leading Edge Books 2017 Conference on Monday, 20th March 2017 at the Marriott, Surfers Paradise.

The list of previous winners is pretty impressive and includes Anna Funder’s All that I am and M. L. Stedman’s The light Between Oceans.

Classic audiobooks

For some readers, listening to a work of literature seems like a lazy way out. Not exactly like watching the movie instead of reading the book for school, but maybe next door to it.

Quite a few audiobooks though, are recorded by some of the best actors around. Artists with classical stage and voice training who know what they are doing. Combine talent like this with a good book and the result can be wonderful. Here are a few of my favourites.


Middlemarch by George Eliot – read by Juliet Stevenson

I am starting at the top. Stevenson delivers the perfect narration for this classic; no one need ever try again. It is no small undertaking. The novel has a massive cast and takes its time to fully develop the complicated individuals who populate Middlemarch. Stevenson distinguishes the voice of each character only enough for us to know who is speaking, never lapsing into a performance. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, critic Laurie Winer says of Juliet Stevenson “The lilt of her neutral voice is so close to the soul of Eliot — reasoned, patient, seeing everything, missing nothing.

You can listen to a sample at the Amazon website and catch Stevenson reading Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 on YouTube.


Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane – read by Stephen Rhea

Seamus Deane’s novel about growing up, and out of, Northern Ireland in the 1950s is realised perfectly by Stephen Rhea’s droll, understated performance. This is a beautiful book, with the intensity of remembered experience and moments of pure joy in the language. For the maths class scene alone – once read, never forgotten – this is worth the price of admission.


Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – read by Susannah Harker.

There are so many truly bad readings of Jane Austen they (almost) outnumber the bad films. The readings seem cursed by a belief among narrators that one’s very poshest, most English voice must be clearly declaimed for each and every character. Awful. The best audio versions are said to be by Juliet Stevenson and this is probably true. Susannah Harker’s Sense and Sensibility, though, is pretty special. Her measured tone adds little in expression and does not need to, taking, like Austen, the storyteller’s role and keeping up the pace. Harker has a lighter, perhaps more youthful tone than Stevenson, and this suits the lighter material of this novel nicely. Sadly, this appears to be the only of Austen’s novels recorded by Susannah Harker.


1984 by George Orwell – read by Samuel West

All of the Samuel West audiobooks I have heard have been very good but this is his best. West is an actor blessed with a great voice and it is used to wonderful effect here. His Winston is almost always on edge. O’Brien is assured, urbane and menacing. Somehow West gets both Julia’s voice and her pragmatic character just right. Inevitably, this is not an easy book to listen to at times, but a rewarding one nonetheless.


Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds – read by John Lee

And now for something completely different. This is hard science fiction, but there are wonderfully drawn characters here too. Reynolds is famous for creating strong female characters and much of this book follows the growing relationship between two very different women, Ana Khouri and Ilia Volyova. John Lee’s gift for accents shines here. His authoritative narration provides both weight and wry wit to the action and much entertainment in delivering the dialog that sparks between the two women. Great fun.

Do not say we have nothing

donotsaywehavenothingWriter Madeleine Thein will be a guest at the upcoming Perth Writers Festival. She is the author of three novels and her latest, Do not say we have nothing, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The novel follows the lives of three musicians and their families through tumultuous events in China’s modern history. You can hear this delightful and informative interview Madeliene Thein recorded with Canada’s CBC Radio.