Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Compatibility Gene – Daniel M. Davis *****

Some of the best popular science books tell us as much about the people as the science, and that is the approach taken byDaniel Davis. In exploring the ‘compatibility gene’ (or more accurately, the ‘compatibility genes’ – I don’t know why it’s singular in the title). He takes us on a voyage of discovery through the key steps to identifying the small group of genes that seem to contribute to making that individual more or less compatible with other people, whether on the level of transplants or sexual compatibility, taking in our growing understanding of the immune system along the way.
It probably helps that Davis is a practising scientist in the field – the director of research at the University of Manchester’s Collaborative Centre for Inflammation Research and a visiting professor at Imperial College, London. Often, frankly, discovering the book is by a working scientist can mean turgid text or an inability to explain the science in a way the general reader can understand, but Davis writes fluently and often beautifully, as much in love with the history of his trade as the scientific breakthroughs he covers.A good example of the way he brings a topic to life is the first subject to come under his spotlight, the Nobel Prize winning Peter Medawar and his colleagues (several of whom also get a good biographical introduction). I’ve read before about Medawar’s work on rejection and compatibility in transplants, but in Davis’ hands it’s almost as if you are talking to Medawar about his life and achievements, giving a real insight into the bumpy process of scientific discovery.
The book divides into three, looking at the scientific revolution in compatibility, the frontier of compatibility and the ‘overarching system’ which includes the near-notorious T-shirt sniffing research and the remarkable suggestion that a couple having the right mix of compatibility genes can enhance their ability to have children. All in all, there’s a good mix of the relatively familiar and the surprising new, all handled in Davis’ measured, likeable phrasing.
I only really have two small niggles (I’ve never written a review yet without any). One is that I think Davis is almost too close to the subject and, as a result, perhaps gives it more of a sense of importance than it deserves. Of course, from a medical viewpoint, this is important work, but the way he seems to put it up there with the work of Newton, Darwin and Einstein perhaps overinflates its importance. The other slight problem I have is that for me, there is rather too much biography, and not quite enough science. (It’s interesting that the lead endorsement in the press release is by Bill Bryson.) It sounds terrible, but I’m only really interested in the biographies of a handful of key scientists and that apart I’d rather just have a quick sketch and get into the science in a bit more depth – but I appreciate that this might be a very different opinion from that of many would be readers.
So don’t be put off by that textbook-like, low key cover – this is a really interesting read about a fascinating area of genetics and medicine. Recommended.
Paperback from August 2014:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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