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The Genius Within; The Backbone of the World

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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.

The ecologist Barry Commoner, an early critic of the DNA creed, points out that DNA can make accurate copies of itself only because an array of protein enzymes in the cell repair its frequent mistakes. A single gene may code for hundreds or even thousands of different proteins—and proteins build genes—in a dialogue we don’t yet understand. Commoner recently warned that this complexity suggests "any artificially altered genetic system, given the magnitude of our ignorance, must sooner or later give rise to unintended, potentially disastrous, consequences."

The anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1904-1980), whose father coined the term genetics, shared Vertosick’s view of modern geneticists. As he put it, "They are mistaking the menu for the meal." With so many genetically modified foods now on the supermarket shelves, we all may be eating those mistakes.

Reviewer and former Smithsonian editor Paul Trachtman is a writer based in New Mexico.


The Backbone of the World

Frank Clifford
Broadway Books, $24.95

We’ve been holding last rites for the American frontier every few years since Frederick Jackson Turner pronounced it defunct in the 1890s. The trouble is that the frontier—and people who choose that life of open space and a certain American kind of freedom—refuses to stay dead. Frontiersmen have always been Out There, in remote ranches, in the hills and valleys beyond the whir of the Interstate, making their living on horseback and adjusting uneasily to the latest in the incarnations of the "New West."

Frank Clifford, who is the environment editor of the Los Angeles Times and a man who can work a cattle drive as well as drive a freeway, went looking for them in this book about the Continental Divide. He found them, of course, along America’s great spine, in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico—and he describes the nature of their lives and the rugged country they still cherish with clarity, irony and just the right amalgam of attachment and detachment.

Clifford profiles a Colorado sheepman, a poacher-hunting YellowstonePark ranger, a down-and-out New Mexico rancher and a band of Wyoming cowboys, among other Continental Divide folks. In the best of these sketches, about a cattle drive across a barren expanse of southern Wyoming, he lets a cowpuncher explain the attraction: "I can be my own boss. I can do something different every day. I’m a carpenter or a mechanic one day, a veterinarian the next.... The economics of it can keep you awake at night.... Believe me. But it’s a different kind of freedom. It lets me do what I’m good at." Clifford elaborates: "He doesn’t own the land. He doesn’t own much of anything. But he owns his life in ways that most of us do not."

Clifford understands the abiding ironies of the West, that "no region of the country is more devoted to the myth of rugged self-sufficiency [and] none more dependent on federal largesse." He is aware that all those feisty, cantankerous hangers-on are kept afloat in part by gourmet beer, bed-and-breakfasts, adventure travel and all-season resorts.

But the ironies and contradictions don’t matter much when you’re actually in places like the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming: "On a spring morning," Clifford writes, "when the darting pronghorn are as thick as locusts, and bands of mule deer are bunched in the draws, when there are fresh bobcat tracks in the mud and coyote kill steaming in the frosty dew under the gaze of a circling golden eagle, it can seem like the ark unloaded most of its North American passengers right here."

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