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Lamarck's Revenge: How Epigenetics Is…

Lamarck's Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our… (2018)

by Peter Ward

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Jean-Baptiste Lamarck supported the theory that organisms could transmit traits acquired during their lifetime to their offspring. This type of inheritance came to be known as Lamarckism but the theory was largely abandoned after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species and Mendel’s experiments with pea plants. Ward seems to have many doubts about our current understanding of evolution and genetics and is deeply saddened that Lamarck is no longer considered an authority. He is also quite aggrieved that Lamarck died in poverty; therefore he seeks to restore Lamarck’s reputation through epigenetics.

According to Ward, epigenetic changes involve biologic, non-DNA mutations, which occur when DNA becomes “’polluted’ with very small molecules” which can switch genes on or off. “In epigenetics, genes that are inactive (silent) thus can be awakened and begin causing biological effects.” Ward doesn’t explain how the molecules attach themselves or where they came from. Are these molecules already present in the cells? If not, how do they gain entry? Later we learn the process is called methylation, the attachment of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen “which typically silences gene activity.” So these molecules can turn genes on or off but usually turn them off? Then we have "histone modification" which can change the shape of the DNA via methyl groups, acetyl, and phosphorous molecules that attach to the nitrogen tail. Where are all these molecules coming from? These events somehow mark [a formal term according to Ward] the DNA in such a way that a descendant “soon has its own DNA swarmed by these new (and usually unwelcome) additions riding on the chromosomes.” It's beginning to sound like a bad sci-fi movie.

Ward has an odd grasp of scientific terminology. He states that lateral gene transfer occurs when “hunks of foreign DNA are inserted into an organism’s genome by biotic invaders.” I haven’t encountered the term “hunks” describing DNA before. He says that “true polar wander” is now known as “mantle wander.” Google finds the first term but has nothing for the second. Not that it matters because Ward himself continues to use the term "true polar wander." He mentions several times that cicadas spend decades underground before emerging to mate but the seventeen year cicada stays below ground less than two decades; most spend only two or three years in the nymph stage. If he can't get basic facts right I have to question the soundness of his pronouncements in other areas.

I cannot recommend this bewildering mess. After reading the whole thing I’m still not sure what epigenetics actually is or how it works. I found Ward’s arguments unpersuasive and his descriptions of biologic processes confusing. This was an uncorrected proof and I hope that a good editor will deal with the grammatical errors, run-on sentence fragments and typos before the final printing. Many of the Notes are just “[Author to confirm & add Note]” which creates the impression that the author may not have robust support for his position. Also Quora and Wikipedia are perhaps not the most authoritative sources. The finished book will be indexed and will contain some charts and drawings. ( )
1 vote Taphophile13 | Nov 4, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Dear gods of the linguistic arts, are there no copy editors anymore? I would expect publishers to understand that a book on a technical subject needs all the help possible for the reader. Instead I was constantly distracted from the point being made by awkward or grammatically incorrect sentence. What I got from the book. 1) old fashioned, one mutation at a time worked on by natural selection does not explain the burst of new species and even phyla after mass extinction events. 2) epigenetics could explain these sudden changes. 3) epigenetics are probably responsible for much of human evolution. 4) stress, including disease, war, pollution, mother's condition during pregnancy and other factors, can cause epigenetic changes in organisms, that are then inherited. 5) experiments with genetic modification may greatly improve human life, or cause horrible problems, or both. What I did not get from the book:a clear idea of how epigenetics work. I realize that this is a book for lay persons, but I feel that a few diagrams might have made things a lot more clear. ( )
  ritaer | Oct 29, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
My interest in epigenetics started when I learned about how ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) correlate with much higher rates of illness and early death in adulthood. It does make sense to me that trauma can be passed down in many forms through generations, and trauma is a body memory... I found this book interesting for these reasons, but I'm not sure how reliable a narrator the author is. Lamarck's recent "vindication" does not mean that all other scientists who have shaped our understanding of evolution are wrong and outdated now, but Ward at times seems very dismissive of the massive scientific contributions that Darwin and others have made.
1 vote theodarling | Oct 2, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
As a layperson very interested in epigenetics and CRISPR, I was pretty excited about this book, but I was also nervous that it might be over my head. Luckily, Peter Ward spent several chapters on foundational information, allowing me to fill the gaps in my understanding and dive more deeply into this fascinating subject and into some of the implications and philosophies to which it leads. The examples he used were accessible and funny, and I generally enjoyed the read.

I did, however, feel like there were a couple points on which Ward overly focused. He seemed to artificially want to separate "Lamarckian" from "epigenetic" but never really explained the continued self-correction--in general, it seemed like he would have been better-served to just stick with "epigenetic" unless talking about Lamarck's ideas specifically. Also, although I understand the entire point of the book was to emphasize Lamarckian evolutionary ideas as compared to Darwinian, it sometimes felt a bit one-sided, as if he didn't really want to recognize the validity of Darwinian evolution at all. Neither of these issues necessarily impeded the text, it just occasionally caused me to wonder about his agenda.

Overall, this book was informative, fun to read, and enlightening. If you're at all interested in epigenetics, I'd recommend it! ( )
1 vote staciec | Sep 25, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Most people have at least heard of the scientific consensus that species evolve through the process of natural selection, whereby the individual members of a species best suited to reproduce in their environment pass along their genes (and their genomes) to the next generation. Individuals less suited to their environments pass along fewer genes to the next generation. Over time - a long time - species tend to resemble those individuals better suited to the environment. Biologists were aware of the phenomenon of species evolution long before the development of the science of genetics enabled them to understand the mechanism of how characteristics were passed from generation to generation.

An early theory of species evolution was articulated by Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck, a French naturalist who lived from 1744 to 1829. He theorized that parents can pass on changes they’ve acquiring during their lifetimes. Lamarck’s theory was widely discredited once Charles Darwin published Origin of Species, which provided a different, more convincing, mechanism for evolution.

Lamarck was ridiculed for such notions as the speculation that giraffes have long necks because they were always stretching them to reach the leaves on tall trees. August Weismann, the father of modern Darwinian genetics, successfully refuted Lamarck's ideas when he cut tails off mice to show that their tailless state could not be transmuted to their offspring.

Lamarckian theory was nevertheless given an extensive trial in the Soviet Union when Stalin entrusted national agricultural policy to Trofim Lysenko, an avowed believer in Lamarck. Lysenko’s Lamarckian experiments dominated Communist agronomy for decades, leading to, according to historians, China’s disastrous famine during the late 1950s.

But Lamarck has had a “comeback” as of late, albeit no longer called Lamarckian theory but “epigenetics.” Specifically, epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.

Epigenetics certainly raises questions that bear further study. As Richard Francis writes in his book on these new findings, Epigenetics: How Environment Shapes Our Genes: “In the epigenetic view of things, genes are mere members of an ensemble cast of biochemicals in a cell, susceptible, like other members of the cast, to what goes on in the vicinity of the cell.”

Francis is just one of a number of writers who have jumped on the bandwagon to explore this new direction in the study of evolution. Ward appears to have a further agenda, however. He clearly wants to rehabilitate Lamarckian theory beyond where the evidence can take us thus far, such as speculation on the long-lasting generational effects phenomena like violence, war, and famine.

Ward would have done better to adhere to data verified thus far by molecular phylogenetics. The reason Lamarck had a bad reputation is that he strayed too far from scientific verification. Ward seems to repeat the error.

(JAB) ( )
2 vote nbmars | Sep 20, 2018 |
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