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Herding Hemingway's Cats: Understanding how our genes work

Herding Hemingway's Cats: Understanding how our genes work

Kat Arney


A masterful telling of modern genetics.

Everything you know about genetics is wrong: what's how it feels, anyway. The simple story about mutation and inheritance is ... well, not wrong exactly, but woefully incomplete. I think part of the problem is that we lack the right analogies. Genetics is in no way a blueprint that's simply read when creating life, nor is it in any way constructed like engineering. Instead it operates at the boundary of chaos, with multiple redundant (and often conflicting) mechanisms finding an uneasy hoeostasis. Genes aren't elementary packets of information, nor does most of the genome consist of them: nor, indeed, is there any well-agreed notion of what a gene actually is. The basic mechanism of RNA reading DNA and then being used to create proteins comes with a set of baroque extensions, as does the supposedly clear notion of heritable characteristics being frozen in the DNA itself.

All in all it's amazing that any of it is understood at all – let alone well enough to perform modifications and other feats of modern biotechnology. Arney in many ways achieves the impossible in this book, not hiding the complexity of dumbing it down for a popular audience, but also never getting lost or adding to the inevitable confusion that all this complexity induces even in a scientifically literate reader. I learned a huge amount and had several confusions sorted out for me (to the extent that they are understood at all).

5/5. Finished 27 November 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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