Herding Hemmingway’s Cats: Book review

What can cats with six toes, flies with wimpy testis, fish with hips, and mice with socks tell us about how our genes work? Turns out, they – together with a cast of characters ranging from bacteria to our own species – can tell us quite a lot.

In Herding Hemmingway’s Cats: Understanding how our genes work Dr Kat Arney takes the reader on a journey through the past and present of the science of genetics, exploring the key discoveries and concepts that are beginning to explain the complex processes through which the hereditary information in our genes constructs us “in all our wobbly, unique and mysterious glory”.

Can this cat be herded? Image: Marc Averette

Can this cat be herded? Image: Marc Averette

It’s a somewhat daunting challenge for a book that weighs in at just over 250 pages, but Dr Arney succeeds with a book that is accessible and entertaining without ever taking its subject for granted. This is in no small way due to the structure of the book, which unfolds in a series of interviews with pioneering scientists – some of whom have Nobel prizes, others who most surely will – whose work has uncovered many different ways in which our genes end up making stuff we need when and where we need it (mostly). Amid the details of their discoveries about phenomena such as junk DNA, gene splicing, imprinting, and RNA interference there are many fascinating glimpses into their personalities, motivations, and occasionally rivalries.

HerdingHemmingway'sCats

For all that Herding Hemmingway’s Cats provides an insight into the tremendous progress that science has made in understanding how genes are controlled, anyone looking for a triumphalist hagiography need look elsewhere.

In the 13 years since the publication of the draft human genome science has learned a lot about the protein coding regions of our genes – the 1.5 % of our  DNA whose sequence is translated into amino-acids that make up the proteins in our cells – our understanding of the function of the non-coding regions of our genes and the areas in between genes is still in its infancy. This is important because while many inherited diseases are due to errors in the protein coding regions, most of the differences we see between each of us individual human beings and between our species and others are due to differences found in this other 98.5% of our genome.

Dr Arney doesn’t shy away from these gaps in our knowledge and deficiencies in our understanding, she positively revels in them, so if you think we know nearly all there is to know about how are genes work than prepare to be surprised. With the help of her interviewees, she  throws buckets of cold water over some popular (and for some profitable) ideas about how the environment can influence the activity of genes, deftly skewers a few much quoted – but unwise – statements by leading geneticists, and shows how even many standard scientific textbooks are surprisingly inaccurate when it comes to explaining the ways in which genes are organized and regulated within cells.

The  interviewees – who are not all always in agreement with each other – are allowed to tell much of the story, and that’s OK, as it allows the author to show the often messy and imperfect reality of cutting-edge science. She approaches her interviews with a lot of humour and an open mind, but also a determination to get to the heart of the matter. Occasionally the author does allow her impatience with some current trends in genetic research to show, for example when discussing the work of scientists who trawl through the human genome looking for associations between small genetic variations called single nucleotide polymorphisms (a.k.a. SNPs, pronounced snips) and particular traits or diseases (in this case those linked to mental health problems) she writes:

But while this might yield a few more interesting links, I’m increasingly feeling that there are limited further gains to be made… To be fair to the snip-hunters, their discoveries do sometimes provide a useful chisel for researchers to start prising open the biological processes that underpin a disease. Not many people want to do that, though, because it’s hard. It involves doing tricky experiments, often using animal models, and taking years to unpick what’s going on. Much easier to apply for a million-pound grant and go fishing for yet more snips instead (I’ll get off my soap-box for now).

She needn’t apologize; her soap-box moment is most apt. This book is at heart a collection of stories of stories about scientists who spotted something odd in an experiment, and then, rather than shrugging their shoulders and moving on, did the tricky experiments, often using animal models, and put in the years to unpick what’s going on. In most cases they are still unpicking it, but through their failures and successes they have already transformed the way we understand how our genes work.

So who is this book for? It’s perfect for undergraduate biology students who are just starting to learn about genetics,and for those of us who have studied genetics in the past and wish to catch up with the current state of the art, but really it’s for anyone who is curious about how the information in our genes becomes us.

Herding Hemmingway’s Cats is a fascinating, funny, and at times provocative celebration of basic science, and an excellent debut by a new author whose enthusiasm for her subject we are sure will entertain and inform readers around the world.

Paul Browne

Herding Hemmingway’s Cats: Understanding how our genes work by Dr Kat Arney is published by bloomsbury Sigma, and is available in book stores nationwide, and online on Amazon as an audio book, hardback and e-book.

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