Borin Van Loon: Genetics Guide coverIntroducing Genetics

Icon Books (UK), Totem Books (USA). Republished 2000

Written by Steve Jones, Illustrated / designed by Borin Van Loon
Genetics is the newest of all sciences. Nothing useful was known about inheritance until just over a century ago and what Mendel learned then was used to justify eugenics and racism. Now genetics is exploding and we have discovered the complete sequence of the DNA letters of the 60,000 working genes needed to make a human being. Introducing Genetics takes us from Mendel to the human gene map and the treatment of inborn disease. It shows how DNA was discovered and explains how some genes may act in their own interests as much as in the interests of those who carry them. No one can afford to be ignorant of genetics and, like it or not, many of us will have to make moral decisions in which genetics play a part. This book gives us the information needed to do so.

Changing the diet migh avert bowel cancer...

A companion to Jonathan Miller's Introducing Darwin and once again a chance to work with a high profile science populariser. It so happens that Steve Jones (like Jonathan Miller) is a nice bloke, too. This stands in for the long lost 'DNA for Beginners' and covers the social and political repercussions of genetic advances as much as the science. Steve provided his text already split into bite-size pages, with accompanying briefs for virtually every illustration. While I can't claim to have followed every one of his suggestions, they certainly acted as a springboard for my visual input. A selection from the book featured with other Van Loon DNA-related work in an exhibition called 'Representations of DNA' at the Whipple Museum, Cambridge, U.K. from January, 2003. For more on DNA, see Borin's mural in the Science Museum's Health Matters Gallery.

DNA Fingerprinting?


Picked this book to represent a summer school course entitled "Genetics" I took at CU. About as confounding as the Logic course I took at Metro State. The only test I ever flunked in college was the mid-term. I think most everybody did. Got an A on the final but only a C for the course. One of only two I got between Metro St. and CU. Date is approximate. Chris Gager (Nov 14, 2011).

Ah. Comic Books.
Eric (Jan 28, 2010).

I bought and read this book in Ireland! I wanted it because I was taking Genetics as a summer course at Pitt when I returned to the US. Time flies....
Tasha (Apr 18, 2009).

This is a good introduction to the subject, and takes care to highlight dangerous ideological distortions of the past like racism and eugenics. To be sure, this is the most political field of scientific inquiry. Besides nephology, of course.
Isaac (Jun 05, 2008).

It will probably take a third reading but I am determined to understand this stuff! Where are my ASC science major friends when I need them?
Kim Sasso (Nov 16, 2008).

Good high level over view of genetics. Very engaging and written in the style of a graphic novel.
Jessica (Oct 29, 2008).

This is a very curious little book,
whose purpose is, I suppose, to introduce non-scientists to the subtleties, excitements and threats of modern genetics. It consists of a small amount of much-fragmented text by Steve Jones squeezing into the little areas on most pages not taken over by the obtrusive drawings of Van Loon. Steve Jones often gets two lines or less to a page, and rarely more than half the page. These bits of text tend to lack continuity and consist mainly of small nuggets of genetic knowledge which will give the reader a very simplistic view of the subject, though a few impressive sentences may stick in his or her mind for use at parties. I suppose the drawings are intended to fill in the gaps in the reader's education, but they are really not designed for that purpose. The drawings are clever, often witty, give recognizable portraits/cartoons of Watson and Crick (several of each, which are surely meant to amuse a small elite group of geneticists and molecular biologists), and of past and a few present important figures. The drawings also get in as many puns and jokes as possible. These can be amusing (Thomas Hunt Morgan, the father of Drosophila genetics, is shown beneath a very large front view of the fly, saying ' Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana!'. No, he did not really say that! The trouble with the drawings is that they make very little contribution to the reader's knowledge, and will in many cases mislead or confuse him. They may well, however, help the book to sell more than Steve Jones' contribution will, and it would not surprise me if it became a cult book in a minor way. However, genetics is a very important subject, and it is vital, in my opinion, that people and children who are acquiring or have acquired a general education should gain an understanding of both the principles of genetics and the problems and opportunities arising from genetic technology. Publishers appear to be unwilling to produce genetics textbooks designed for the uninitiated, though these might sell well and encourage sales of books at an intermediate level. Steve Jones had an opportunity to produce an elementary book which would fire the enquiring readers to further efforts in self education instead of letting them only admire the clever drawings and laugh at the jokes. I think this book is an important missed opportunity.
ERIC REEVE, Institute of Cell, Animal and Population Biology, University of Edinburgh, West Mains Road, Edinburgh EH9 3JT. Book Reviews, 1994.
[We're not convinced that the above reviewer quite 'gets' the idea of documentary comic books, but suggest he lightens up a bit...]

A profusely and surrealistically illustrated introduction for lay people.
Covers the scene from before Mendel to present day ethical concerns and dilemmas. I thank Dr S.Bapiraju for drawing my attention to this book in the British Library, Hyderabad. ( (Biojottings))

(5 stars) Genetics is a difficult subject. This book makes it simple! Genetics is an area of science that seems to be advancing at a breathtaking rate. Every week there seems to be some new disease which genetics has found the cause of, or some new procedure - such as genetically modifying crops - which generates hysteria in the popular press.
Introducing Genetics provides the reader with a good grounding in this increasingly important discipline of science. By separating fact from myth, this informative book shows the reader how this science has evolved, from its earliest routes in the writings of such renowned scientists as Charles Darwin, to the groundbreaking work on heredity that was conducted by Gregor Mendel.
This book also explains how the revolutionary work of twentieth century scientists, such as James Watson and Francis Crick (amongst others) has led to the opening of a Pandora's box of possibilities, that has the potential to affect all of mankind.
Subjects discussed in this concise and fully illustrated introductory text, include topics as varied as Eugenics, Genetic Engineering, and the genetic testing of unborn babies for inherited diseases. All of which allow the reader to develop a good overall understanding of this increasingly relevant area of science. ( from Manchester)

Borin van Loon? This talented and incisive illustrator is featured in many of the books in the "Introducing ..." series. In this book, collage and illustration are used with short, pithy text to introduce the concepts of heredity and some of the major figures in the development of genetics -- and eugenics. This book may be more appealing to people who already know the material and can appreciate the deftness of Jones and van Loon's touch. It is certainly recommended for anyone who's having trouble wrapping his head around genetics material in a basic biology setting, and will entertain and inform readers from high-school age up.
Recommended? Yes.
Caveats? High-school students might go easy on quoting Mr. Jones's unsentimental remarks about the personalities of major figures in the history of genetics. Also, not all titles in the "Introducing ..." series are available in the US. See the Icon Books list of US titles for more information. (Marmoset Media)

(4 stars) easy to read
The Author explains the basics of genetics via cartoons. This is an amusing book and very useful as an introduction. It is however very superficial and therefore only really for newcomers to genetics or those who want an easy read with some humour. (A reader from Wilts UK)

(5 stars) DEOXYRIBOSE NUCLEIC ACID, G.C.T.A. AND H.Y.P.E.  This review is of Introducing Genetics (Introducing...) (Paperback)
This 2005 edition may exhibit an updated text. My own copy of the book is a 2001 reprint of the original text from 1993, and one thing that struck me as I read it was that over those 8 years there appeared to have been no changes made. Not only is genetics a very modern science, its profile has risen spectacularly within the scientific community over a period of not many years, so I expect there must have been a fair amount of updating to do. Nevertheless this is explicitly a book for beginners, the approach taken is chronological in recounting the successive discoveries, the author is a leading and eminent expert who presumably would not have countenanced reprints of any statements he wished to retract, so I have to suppose that the text as I have it remains valid as far as it goes. We beginners have to begin at the beginning, this is the beginning, reviews here are almost non-existent, and it may be helpful in that case if I give my fellow neophytes some idea of what to expect, even if I am not fully up to date.

Professor Steve Jones of University College London is well known, at least in Britain, from television. Everyone has heard of DNA these days even if they do not know what those letters stand for (see my caption above). We have clearly opened another Pandora's box by dabbling in this matter, and in my edition Jones concludes by touching on the ethical and political issues that our new discoveries raise. Whatever additions or amendments he may have added in retrospect, his remarks reflect his mindset, which is level-headed and humane, and his media appearances have not suggested to me that he has espoused any significantly new views in these respects.

The main narrative is historical, in the simple chronological sense. Jones really starts with Mendel and his experiments on peas, having given Darwin only a cursory mention before that. Other major figures are given what I take to be their due mention, the main actors are, expectedly, Crick and Watson the discoverers of the double helix, and subsequent research is also noted in my edition up to `the 1990's'. The picture I gained was much what I would have thought - advances in research have shown the matter to be enormously more complex than even Crick and Watson, let alone Mendel, envisaged. However the basic models that these pioneers created seem to have stood the test of time and look likely to continue to. The tedious debate over creationism is mercifully ignored, although the author readily admits that the phenomenon of being alive, whereby living tissue creates new tissue, remains a mystery, at least so far. Science can now trace the processes at work in detail, but what these processes ultimately are seems unidentified.

The original text is credited to not just Steve Jones but also to the illustrator Borin Van Loon [sic]. Every page from start to finish, or at least until we reach Jones's `footnote', is larded with illustrative matter, mostly cartoons. Whether some readers may find this style patronising I don't know, but if so I for one was quite happy to be patronised. For all the clarity of Jones's exposition the main text can't avoid being slightly heavy going here and there, and I found that the illustrations lightened my own going very successfully. It all seems very simple to start with, but here and there new terms creep in without prior explanation, although they are usually clarified before too long. The style is basically that of a good lecturer with a sense of how to keep the audience's attention without diluting or over-simplifying the message.

Jones comments wryly that while for scientists the four letters of the genetic `alphabet' are G C T A, now that the subject has got well and truly into the public and tabloid domain H Y P E might sometimes seem to characterise the discussion better. Genetics explains much, and it opens up enormous possibilities in real life, whether these be seen as promises or as threats. In the text as I have it, he hedges his bets and does not over-commit himself to either side of the argument. However he permits himself some down-to-earth observations to the effect that whether or not genetically modified crops may be in some way dangerous, there is no `whether' about it when the food in question is cheeseburgers; and whatever may be said about human cloning the phenomenon is not new but as old as the first ever pair of identical twins.

As an introduction I found this book admirable. We all have, it seems to me, a responsibility to inform ourselves as best we can about subjects as important as this is. When the matter is set out for us as clearly as it is here it is something approaching irresponsible not to take the opportunity we are given, and worse than irresponsible to promote points of view from a basis of culpable ignorance.
By DAVID BRYSON (Glossop Derbyshire England), 3 Oct 2007

(3 stars) Good try at telling the history of genetics. This review is of Introducing Genetics (Introducing...) (Paperback)
I'm generally a fan of these 'Introducing' comic strip style guides, but I wouldn't rate this as one of their best efforts, despite it being authored by a geneticist who already has penned some of the most popular science guides on the subject - Steve Jones of UCL.

The approach of the book is to explain a technically very difficult subject through means of a colourfully sketched outline of its history. For the first few pages, when dealing with the background to Darwin's dangerous idea, this works well. Then we get to Mendel and his peas and things get a little more complicated and before you know it you have gone from looking at funny cartoon pics of Darwin and his simean ancestors, to the very complicated mechanics of RNA and protein synthesis, all in the space of a few pages. Genetics is probably not the easiest of subjects to simplify for the beginner, but perhaps the comic strip style doesn't really help here.

For the more humanities minded general reader (for whom the introducing series is intended, I guess) the book becomes far more digestible again towards the end, when Professor Jones leaves the technical intricacies behind him and discusses some of the growing number of ethical issues that abound since the birth of Dolly, the cloned sheep. Here, as in other parts of the book, I found the left-leaning bias of the author slightly irksome, a tendency that unfortunately does infect many of the titles in this otherwise admirable series.

To sum up, excellent for the history and background to the subject, but as far as the mechanics go, you will probably need to read one or two other introductions with it.

By Bruno, 29 Jul 2008

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