Skip to main content

The Hunt for FOXP5 (SF) - Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer ****

I've read a good few novels that attempt to provide edutainment - to work as a good story while simultaneously providing the reader with the kind of interesting information about science you might find in a popular science book. Most don't work at all. Either they fall over on the fiction writing, painfully lathering on the facts and writing amateurish prose, or they are so science-light that they are, in effect just straightforward hard science fiction, perhaps with a 'science behind the story' at the back. This title by Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer, I would say, is the best I've ever read in terms of achieving a balance of the two.

In the Hunt for FOXP5 we meet genetics professor Michelle Murphy and her extremely intelligent daughter Avalon (yes, really), adopted from a Kazakhstan orphanage, the way you do. In a mix of archeology, genetics and nationalist political intrigue we get a feel for how the FOXP2 gene may have resulted in human language ability distinguishing early humans from the other humanoids - and how a later single mutation, producing the (fictional) FOXP5, could result in extraordinary human intelligence. This change is something that the scientific leader of Kazakhstan wants to make a national treasure, so we end up with plenty of fun involving capture, escape and rescue attempts to give the plot action.

The book isn't without flaws. The writing is workmanlike, but fails to take the advice 'show don't tell' rather too often. There's also a bit of a plot weakness when none of the highly intelligent main characters appear to notice that it's probably not a great idea to take an orphan, who was removed from a not-entirely-democratic country in a process involving lots of dubious bribery, back to her country of birth. There is also the usual issue that when reading such a book, that the reader is never quite sure which bits are real science, and which are fiction. Admittedly the short 'scientific appendices' section does try to fill some of this in, but it's an inevitable difficulty. I sometimes wonder if there should be a 'science accuracy level' thermometer in each page margin. It's also a bit disappointing when a science-based book makes as basic an error as referring to 'absolute temperature expressed as degrees Kelvin'. (No degrees in the Kelvin scale, just kelvins.)

Despite these concerns, I rattled through the book, enjoyed the adventure, which hovered between adult and young adult in apparent audience level, and felt I was really gaining something from the science content - so a good thumbs up to Messrs Kaufman and Deamer.



Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under

Regeneration - Paul Hawken **

This is a really big book. I don't mean big in the sense of important, but physically enormous for what it is - it's roughly the size of a children's annual, though a lot thicker. Interestingly, the format appears to be a Paul Hawken speciality - he did it with his previous title, Drawdown ,  though that was far less glossy. Paul Hawken's aim is to put forward a solution to climate change driven from humans rather than from the science. The tag line on the back of the book reads 'The climate crisis is not at science problem. It is a human problem.' And that itself is a problem. It's not that climate change isn't a human problem, but rather that it's both a human problem and a science problem - requiring human and science-based solutions. But the approach taken in this book is anything but scientific. It's a bit like saying the Covid-19 pandemic is a human problem, not a science problem. The pandemic is indeed a human problem, but if we'd tr