Apr 29, 2009 - What We're Reading

Recommended Reading: The Stuff of Life

I spent the better part of my undergraduate career lugging around massive biology textbooks.  

General biology, genetics, embryology: It didn’t matter, they all weighed a ton. I pored over endless chapters of text, highlighting the important sentences, always wishing for more photos, more diagrams, more graphs. A single well-made diagram or image was easier to understand than the preceding 10 paragraphs about the same topic.   I always wished that my textbooks were a little more visual and a little less wordy.   An added benefit, I thought, would be that I could shave a few pounds from my backpack.


My college days are long over. But my wish may have finally come true, in the form of a new graphic guide to genetics entitled The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA, by Mark Schultz.   Published in December, it takes a more visual approach to presenting the most current knowledge on a particular branch of the biological sciences close to my heart: genetics.

The Stuff of Life is centered around a group of aliens who are trying to understand the genetics of all life on earth.  These aliens are both rather ugly (the illustrator has drawn them to resemble sea cucumbers) and rather arrogant.  They can’t seem to understand why a lowly, hairy primate has come to dominate the planet and make such amazing advances in science and technology. In the style of a comic book, with various windows and balloons leading us from the origins of the earth 4.6 billion years ago to modern day applications of genetics and DNA, it falls flat in oddly juxtaposing complex information and somewhat juvenile humor.


For anyone who hasn’t taken a college (or advanced high school level) biology class, the information presented will seem overwhelming at best, and confusing at worst.  For those who are well versed in the biological sciences, the information may be understandable but the humor will seem trite and silly.   After the first few chapters of the cucumberesque aliens repeatedly exclaiming that they can’t believe humans have managed to understand how genes are passed down from parents to children, that they can’t believe humans have been able to sequence DNA, understand the genetics of cancer, and create genetically modified organisms, I began to dread their appearances. I stopped reading the sections focused on them, instead skipping to the parts that contained actual information. Once I did I began to enjoy the book much more.


The organization of the book is similar to a standard introductory genetics textbook.   It begins with a description of the structure of the cell, DNA, and how the genes housed within our DNA can determine thousands of physical traits.   Schultz then moves quickly forward, presenting important genetics concepts such as inheritance, dominant vs. recessive alleles, and why my cat has two different colors of fur.   Finally, he spends the last one-third of the book examining modern-day applications to the study of genetics.


The strategy works well by allowing the reader to understand the practical value of understanding the basic genetics concepts that were brought up in earlier chapters.   Indeed, having more applications-centric lectures during college might have silenced the students who never understood why this field is so important.   Undoubtedly, this section was written with the more general reader in mind.   It is easily the best section of the entire book.


Though the constant banter from the sea cucumber-like aliens should not interest anyone over the age of 10, this book would be of use to those currently taking an introductory course in biology, as it might help solidify more difficult concepts that might prove difficult to students.   For educators, this book could prove useful in providing fresh ideas on how to present some of the most important genetics concepts.


The uneven feeling I got from reading The Stuff of Life is something that must constantly be a fear for anyone who is trying to make science fun and accessible to the general populace.   Presenting such important topics as genetics and DNA that are easy for anyone to understand, scientifically accurate, AND enjoyable, is no easy feat.   And, while The Stuff of Life may have stumbled in some aspects, it is most certainly a noble effort, and may lighten the load in biology majors’ backpacks in the coming months.   I sincerely hope that Schultz continues with more volumes, though I could do without those sea cucumbers next time.

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