Full disclosure first: the author of this book is a kind of colleague of mine at The University of Manchester. This book first came to my attention when I was updating the author’s work website, posting links to reviews raving about it, Bill Bryson choosing it as his book of the year, the BBC giving it five out of five, Peter Forbes getting all gushy in The Guardian. But it wasn’t for me, I told myself. Yes, I might’ve been working for the life sciences faculty, but books about genes held no interest for me. Did they?
Well, the book wouldn’t go away. And in all honesty, the premise did intrigue me. The reviews seemed to suggest that this one type of gene was responsible for a disproportionate amount of our bodies’ behaviour. Yes, they played a part in disease and immunity, but Davis seemed to be implying that they may also have a role in our personalities, our ability to reproduce, even the people we were attracted to and the relationships we would eventually settle into. That was something I could get on board with. This wasn’t just a book about cells and experiments, this was a book that asked essential questions about who we are. As a former English Lit student, I knew that was what most books were about anyway.
But still, I wasn’t going to understand it all, was I? I certainly wouldn’t be able to review it. This was a book about science, so it would surely be so far out of my comfort zone that I could make very little comment. Right?
Well, no actually. I’ll admit there were times when I got my proteins and my peptides mixed up, when the strings of cell names and types had me in a bit of a muddle. Particularly in part two. But in the main part, this book does a brilliant job of making lab based research into a story that will appeal to the masses. We are looking at the major things in life here; disease, death, love, attraction, existence. And we’re looking at them through a microscope that focuses in on the people who discovered the genes that affect all these things.
Davis lets us inside the lab, giving us a sense of the feeling experienced upon that instant of important discovery. He also shows us how the most dedicated scientists often struggled to maintain a balanced life. He shows us the difficulties, the triumphs, the failures, and the possible futures. And that’s what makes this such an accessible read.
Any Cop?: I think that working with scientists for two years helped me here, and I might not recommend it to the absolute scientific novice. As I said before, there will be parts when those with only a basic understanding will get a little lost. But if you can get past that, The Compatibility Gene is a fascinating insight into how one previously unknown set of cells exploded into scientific knowledge to become perhaps the most integral thing being studied today. Well worth a read whatever your interests.