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The Genius Within; The Backbone of the World

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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.


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