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An all too rare posting. Sorry. Complexities of life intervened.

Book review – Genome

Before you think, “what the heck is this doing here”, Genome was Charlie Munger's book recommendation from the 2001 meeting. I highly recommend it.

I can't recall ever seeing anyone mention it on the board.

When I flew out of Eppley a few days after the meeting, the airport bookstore had a huge, no, make that massive, pile of unsold copies, so I guessed a lot of people took a look at the cover (a dark picture of the DNA double helix, together with what looks like an electron microscope picture) and decided that it was not for them, wanting to go home anyway (or perhaps the bookstore had already sold most of their stock and I was mislead! (not!)).

Sad mathematics/physics case I am (also I had a few dollars to spend before I went back to Britain, I bought a copy!).

The good news is that Genome does not require any advanced knowledge of biology, chemistry, or indeed any scientific discipline for that matter (it does require a bit of thought though).

If anything, the scope of the book is so broad and because at times the writer moves through many subjects, that a good general education helps far, far more (the book goes into politics, history, medicine, economics, psychology, zoology, sociology, eugenics and many more subjects, all from a genetic-influenced viewpoint).

Matt Ridley (who wrote the book) is an exceptionally clever bloke (sorry, guy – I'm British, please excuse me!)

The subtitle of the book is “The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters”. That pretty well sums it up. Genome has 23 chapters, one for each chromosome in human DNA. Each chapter is nominally devoted to the major effects that one chromosome has on our biology and as a result, on human behaviour.

The chapters are exceptionally broad in scope, starting with the biological effects, before moving onto the social effects (which are the more interesting bits).

However, for me, and I expect most Berkshire stockholders, chapter 10 is of serious interest.

Chapter/chromosome 10 is titled “Stress”. A major function of chromosome 10 is to produce an enzyme that converts cholesterol. Yes, that cholesterol, the one that we're always being told is bad for us, into many hormones, such as cortisol and testosterone.

Cortisol is a hormone that is used in virtually every system in the human body and has a major effect on the immune system. High cortisol levels are indicative of a high level of stress and, in turn, will surpress the immune system (which is consistent with people under stress (e.g. studying for exams, pressure of work) to be more prone to falling ill.

The British Civil Service, as well as Bell Telephone (in the 1960s) did a study into the long-term health of its employees. The major conclusion in each was that the status of a person's job (and in particular how much day-to-day control they had on their working environment) was a better indicator of how likely they were to suffer a heart attack than their weight, diet, smoking and drinking habits.

From page 155 :

“think about this conclusion for a moment. It undermines almost everything you have ever been told about heart disease. It relegates cholesterol to the margins of the story (high cholesterol is a risk factor, but only in those with genetic predispositions to high cholesterol, and even in these people the beneficial effects of eating less are small).

It relegates diet, smoking and blood pressure – all the physiological caused so preferred by the medical profession – to secondary causes. It relegates to the footnote the old and largely discredited notion that stress and heart failure come with busy, senior jobs or fast living personalities; again there is a grain of truth in this fact, but not much”.

i.e. longevity is directly proportional to how little stress your work/life gives to you. Happier with your work/life. Longer life. Seems sensible to me.

I'm 39, moderately overweight, but I have zero stress in my life (having given up my work-related stress and cut my living costs) and I'm seriously impressed at having this book to explain my laziness…..


Craig Venter of Celera, a much discussed company on this board in the (increasingly distant) past and the biotechnology industry gets quite a mention in chapter 18, which deals with “Cures”, Genetic Engineering and Cloning.

Surprisingly, chromosome 20 is titled “Politics” (don't blame me – I didn't vote for our President; sorry, Prime Minister Blair (though I would now), but I might vote for President Bartlet (but not President Martin Sheen!)).

Anyway, slightly disingenuous (politicians do not have hyperactive chromosome 20s!). This chapter refers to the effect that chromosome 20 has had in Britain recently, via a gene PRP [this was when we had the BSE problem aka “Mad Cow Disease – which is why I cannot give blood in a US hospital].

PRP turns out to be the gene that seems to create “prions”, self-replicating proteins that can cause havoc (the epidemic of BSE or “mad cow disease” that hit Britain in the mid 1990s, so the chapter goes into some detail as to the political ramifications) – due to the agricultural problems – hey, people, remember we live in a country that fits inside Kansas with room for Delaware and Maryland!

The other chapters are almost as interesting.
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