Monday, August 11, 2008

Reading Journal: "Life As It Is"

William F. Loomis, Life As It Is: Biology for the Public Sphere (University of California Press, 2008). 233pp. + references and index. $24.95. Available from Amazon or special order from your local bookseller.

William Loomis is a biologist at UC San Diego. Much of his research seems to have been on the microscopic soil bacterium Dictyostelium. Although the bacterium is small and simple, it shares genetic material with all other life on the planet, including humans. This is the first lesson of Loomis's book: all life on Earth is related through a common ancestor. All of the marvelous diversity of life on the planet has arisen through divergent evolution from a set of ancient archaebacteria. Human beings consider themselves special, but biology reveals that we share much—genes, biological processes, anatomical structures, behaviors—with other forms of life. Even Dictyostelium will group together, cooperate, exhibit altruistic behavior. Humans are certainly complex, but we do not stand apart from the rest of nature.

In the course of a relatively short book, Loomis explores hot-button issues like abortion, stem cell research, genetic engineering, euthanasia, and cloning from a biologist's point of view. He begins by asking the basic question: what is life? He argues cogently for the importance of stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. Given the increasing availability of prenatal genetic screening for inherited diseases and birth defects, he argues that abortion is a more humane option than bringing a child into the world who will suffer a much diminished existence. He also argues that the availability of such genetic screening will drive the need for universal health care, as private insurance companies come to use the results of genetic screening to deny coverage. He also argues quite passionately that population growth is a much more pressing problem even than global warming. By some estimates, the planet is already well past its carrying capacity. The planet's resources are being stretched beyond their ability to sustain life. A catastrophe could be on the horizon. Much of the book is grounded in this discussion of the intersection between science and policy.

The book is thoroughly fascinating. Unfortunately, the writing tends to veer sharply from a tone that is almost condescending in its simplicity ("Life is everywhere—in the air, on the soil, in the oceans. Birds fly, mammals run, fish swim, plants grow tall") to a density of scientific detail that seems to require at least an undergraduate degree in biology ("Likewise, the nucleoside bases that are the monomer precursors of RNA and DNA are made by the action of sunlight on certain minerals"). I found one of the most enjoyable chapters to be the one on "selfishness and cooperativity," which ventured into the realm of social science with discussions of the Prisoner's Dilemma and the "tragedy of the commons." Perhaps because Loomis here was writing outside of his own area of expertise, he never lost me in a labyrinth of specialist jargon.

This made me wonder about the book's intended audience. A general educated audience? Policy makers? Fellow biologists? The blurbs on the back cover were all from biologists, but the material in the book is important and timely, and should reach a wider audience. Perhaps a non-specialist editor was needed to reign Loomis in when he started tossing around jargon without slowing down to explain.

I recommend Loomis's book, but you may want to take brush up on your biology and biochemistry first to get the full effect.

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