The Genius Within; The Backbone of the World

Book Reviews

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

The Genius Within

Frank T. Vertosick, Jr.
Harcourt, $26

The study of genetics commenced when the 19th-century Austrian monk Gregor Mendel unlocked the secrets of inherited traits by cross-pollinating peas in his garden. Now genetics research has become as much industry as science, attracting salesmen and sages to lead us down a garden path far removed from Mendel’s pea patch. A new book by neurosurgeon Frank T. Vertosick, Jr., The Genius Within, offers a blunt warning: "Those who view genes as the irreducible building blocks of life are mistaken."

After all the attention devoted to DNA, including dramatic developments in genetic engineering and the pioneering Human Genome Project, Vertosick’s assertion may come as a shock. But The Genius Within is only the latest in a series of important and largely ignored books and articles by biologists refuting the widely held presumption that DNA, the cell’s repository of genetic material, holds the "secret of life." Genes may be likened to rules, the dissenters counter, but a cell may have a mind of its own as it determines how to enact genetic commands. Unraveling a sequence of DNA is akin to learning a word’s spelling but not unlocking its meanings in different contexts.

Remarkably, these challenges to the primacy of DNA—an assumption nearly tantamount to dogma—come from the ranks of the scientific community itself, not from creationists or theologians arguing an "intelligent design" of the universe. Vertosick calls into question the gospel according to double helix decoders Watson and Crick, rooted in the Darwinian idea that life evolves through random events as "a blind process, possessing neither insight nor forethought."

I must admit I’ve waited more than half a lifetime for this book. As a high school student staring for hours through microscopes, I was filled with wonder about the behavior of single-celled organisms, whose life cycles seemed to encompass both randomness and purpose. I spent summers in the woods, observing spiders and wasps, salamanders and snakes, fascinated by the seemingly intelligent behavior of animals. I perceived sentience in creatures assumed to operate on the basis of instincts and genes alone. But I was taught to dismiss such heresy.

The Genius Within has stirred up those youthful notions. Vertosick provides a new framework for understanding the intelligence of all life, from bacteria to cancer cells to brains. There is mind in nature, he argues, and it’s everywhere. Bacteria may not write sonnets, but they have the capacity for intraspecies communication. "Chemistry is their language," he says, "and they’ve been speaking it for millions of years."

After he lays out the many different strategies bacteria use to develop resistance to antibiotics—borrowing genes from other species or from viruses, speeding up mutation rates a thousandfold, modifying cell walls to resist attack, producing an arsenal of enzymes to disable drugs—it’s hard to argue that mindless natural selection can explain it all.

It is as a physician that Vertosick challenges biology’s conventional wisdom. "Darwin observed the creatures of the world with a keen eye, but he never fought them one on one," he says. "For those of us who stare into the shining eyes of the world’s predators, we know how cunning they are at what they do."

Genetic engineering is based on the belief that DNA alone defines life. If that is true, gene swapping among species might be safe enough. But if it isn’t, inserting fragments of foreign genetic code into intelligent, dynamic networks of cells may be fraught with risk.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus