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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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I read this book years ago and have always been extraordinarily happy that I did so. Indeed, I found it on the shelf the other day and was thinking it might be time for a refresher, but I have also ordered that statistics book Against The Gods on high recommendation from this board, and I'm busy at work, so I'll probably tackle that one first. BTW, I got that book used for $4.50 from, anyone who isn't buying from is paying WAY to much for their books. Email me a reply to this message and I'll send you a $5 off coupon for which will work on your first order from them.

I had been very interested in genetics as a kid (in the 70s). Ridley's book was a SUPERB way on catching up on the rather volcanic eruption of new knowledge that had taken place since last I had bothered.

Move on back,
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"I got that book used for $4.50 from, anyone who isn't buying from is paying WAY to much "

I like Amazon for used books, got a nice copy of Genome for $6.
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Thank you for your interesting review of Genome.
I purchased it after Mr Buffett mentioned it last year and confess
I could not reach chapter 3.
In the light of your explanations,I will give it another trial.
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funny, i couldn't get into it.

First, I thought the comparison of the components of the genome to the components of a book: book to genome / chapter to gene / paragraph to protein - or some such nonsense, was completely un-useful to me. I understand he was trying to communicate to the least common denominator, but his initial review of the basics was completely inadequate and worse, confusing. Damn, even a friggin' picture or two would help. I got so frustrated that I decided to order The Molecular Biology of the Cell in order to understand the basics. (#2 in line at the library) I don't expect to read every page, but the problem was that Ridley made the actual basics so confusing that I didn't feel I *could* go on reading much more. In fact, his lame attempt at appealing to a broad audience had exactly the reverse effect.

Second, his first chapter or so basically went into a historic review of this guy who discovered that there might be a thing called a gene, but noone believed until years later, then another guy figured there were 24 chromosomes because his mathematical theory worked, but he didn't believe it himself even though the entire scientific community did, but he didn't get along with his thesis advisor because he was an egomania.

Hey, who cares!? :-) At this point, I said, am I in a history class? or do I just want a general exposure? Screw this book. And I sent it back to the library.

Third, having said the first two things, I don't think I would have enjoyed his anecdotal discussions about stress, because they probably would have just been anecdotal. Anecdotal to me is like hearing investment advice on the evening news. Sure, there's some merit to what they are saying, but you *know* it's not the entire picture.

A much better book to start, in my opinion, is From Alchemy to IPO.

It's written from an investors perspective and gives a historical account of the last 10 or 15 years of the "boom" of amgen, etc. Plus it has a nice overview of current investment areas.

Also, I've just rented Redesigning Humans. I've heard great things about it and the whole concept drives to the core of the issues we will all face in the next 20 years.

I compare our need to know about human cloning issues similar to many peoples needs to know about computers years ago (and even now).
I mean, who wants to be like our ignorant friends/relatives who won't leave their computers plugged in because they are afraid someone can hack their bank account? There are very very good reasons to leverage this kind of biotech and there are very real "bad" issues. We need to educate ourselves on the issues and not just leave it to the folks in white lab coats and/or have the issues thrust upon our children unprepared.
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