The idea of this book (then its first version, entitled "DNA. The Secret of Life") arose 20 years ago. Discussing the future celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the double helix at lunch, the author of the study (who received the Nobel Prize for it) James Watson, together with the publisher Neil Patterson, conceived a large-scale project that included not only a book, but also a television series, as well as various educational events.
They immediately realized that this should not be another memoir about a scientific discovery (albeit so important): over the past half century, genetics has taken such a step forward that it now affects almost all areas of life person. The book is an attempt to comprehend how knowledge of a small molecule has changed the modern world and, most importantly, to talk about it in a language that everyone can understand.
Recently released by Peter, DNA: A History of the Genetic Revolution is an updated version of which the young scientist Kevin Davis was invited to work on. It was he who helped to tell about discoveries in this field over the past ten years, the development of consumer genetics and progress in the research and treatment of cancer.
With the permission of the publisher, we publish a fragment from the first chapter, “The Origin of Genetics: from Mendel to Hitler.”
My mother Bonnie Jean believed in genes. She was proud of the Scottish descent of her father Laughlin Mitchell and saw in him the truly Scottish virtues: honesty, hard work and frugality (although analysis of her genealogy by DNA, conducted more than a hundred years later, showed that she was actually half Irish).
Mom also possessed the above qualities and had no doubt that she received them exclusively from her father. His death was premature, and her father’s only non-genetic heritage was the collection of little girl kilts that he ordered for her in Glasgow. In my opinion, it is not surprising that my mother much more valued my father’s biological heritage than material.
Growing up, I constantly argued with my mother about the correlation in which innate qualities and upbringing contribute to the formation of a person. Giving priority to upbringing over nature, then I actually subscribed to the belief that I could shape myself as I like.
I could not know about the role of genes, preferring to think that the Watson grandmother was so obese just because she overeats. After all, if the obesity of the figure arose for her due to genetic reasons, then I could well become flabby in the future. At the same time, as a teenager, I did not deny the obvious role of heredity, believing that like gives rise to like. In our disputes with mom, we discussed complex personal qualities that are inherited, rather than simple signs that, from my point of view (since I was a stubborn teenager), could be passed down from generation to generation, forming a "family" similarity: I inherited the nose from his mother, later my son Duncan inherited the same nose.
Eleven-year-old James Watson with father and sister
Some signs form and disappear in just a few generations, and some persist from generation to generation.
One of these most famous examples is the so-called Habsburg lip. The characteristic elongated jaw and protruding lower lip turned the European rulers from the Habsburg dynasty into a real nightmare for many generations of court artists who had to portray them. The Habsburg lip was perfectly preserved for at least twenty-three generations of members of this family name.
The Habsburg dynasty exacerbated its genetic problems by intermarrying with one another, that is, entering into closely related marriages. There is no doubt that marriages between representatives of various branches of the Habsburg clan, often between close relatives, were politically justified as a means to form alliances and preserve the dynasty, but from a genetic point of view it was completely unreasonable.
Such closely related incest causes genetic diseases that the Habsburgs had to experience from generation to generation: for example, Charles II, the last king of Spain and a representative of the Habsburg dynasty, not only had a family lip, but could not really chew food, was disabled and did not leave offspring, although he was married twice.
We know that genetic diseases have long plagued humanity. In some cases, as in the example of Charles II here, they had a direct impact on the history of Europe. Another historical example was George III, the English king, who became famous primarily for the fact that it was during his reign that England lost the American colonies as a result of the war for independence. George III suffered from porphyria - a hereditary disease, due to which he sometimes had attacks of insanity.
According to many historians, mostly British, it was precisely the general irritation of George III’s illness that ensured the Americans victory in the hopeless tactical and numerical situation for them. Of course, most hereditary diseases did not have such serious geopolitical consequences, but the lives of entire affected families, sometimes many generations ahead, were no less cruel and often tragically disfigured. Understanding the genetic mechanisms of human development is not the realization of why we are similar or not like our parents. Understanding genetics helps to “recognize in person” some of the oldest enemies of mankind, such as flawed genes that cause genetic diseases.
It is likely that our ancestors should have thought and, most likely, thought about the hereditary mechanisms of transmitting genetic information since the time when our brain has developed sufficiently to correctly formulate a similar question.
The quite obvious pattern of why close relatives are similar to each other can lead to far-reaching conclusions if genetic discoveries (as in the case of our ancestors) are of purely applied value, for example, they help to breed better cattle breeds (say, to increase milk production) and crops (for example, with larger fruits). To achieve this goal, entire generations of plants and animals have been carefully selected. At first, the perspective species was bred only for domestication, and then the offspring were propagated only from the most prolific cows and seedlings from trees with the largest fruits. So animals and plants were obtained that have properties that are useful to humans and that meet their needs. The basis of these colossal human projects, of which there is almost no written evidence, was the rule of thumb: the most prolific cows will give birth to exclusively prolific calves, and equally abundant trees will grow from the seeds of trees with large fruits.
Despite the successes of genetics of the last century, it is necessary to state that the genetic achievements of mankind were met much earlier and the nameless ancient farmers became the authors of the genetic projects. Almost all of our food today - cereals, fruits, meat, dairy products - is a legacy of those oldest and most durable genetic manipulations, with which people solved problems. In 1905, British biologist William Betson christened the science of heredity genetics.