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Understanding Genes
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  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Expected online publication date: October 2021
  • Print publication year: 2021
  • Online ISBN: 9781108884150
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Book description

What are genes? What do genes do? These questions are not simple and straightforward to answer; at the same time, simplistic answers are quite prevalent and are taken for granted. This book aims to explain the origin of the gene concept, its various meanings both within and outside science, as well as to debunk the intuitive view of the existence of 'genes for' characteristics and disease. Drawing on contemporary research in genetics and genomics, as well as on ideas from history of science, philosophy of science, psychology and science education, it explains what genes are and what they can and cannot do. By presenting complex concepts and research in a comprehensible and rigorous manner, it examines the potential impact of research in genetics and genomics and how important genes actually are for our lives. Understanding Genes is an accessible and engaging introduction to genes for any interested reader.


‘This book was interesting. I appreciate that the preface ties in science fiction and how it compares to the reality of genetics as well as how the modern perceptions of genetics is not always the same as the scientific reality. It was well organized, the charts and images were well chosen and strategically placed so as to best support the text. I enjoyed how much of the history of genetics was woven through the book. The writing was quite good for a science text, the book is clear and not too heavy.’

Jessica Fick Source: NetGalley Reader

‘In Understanding Genes author Kostas Kampourakis not only tackles the question of what a gene is (or isn’t) but takes the reader through a historical journey through the discovery of genetics, emphasizing how science has to modify its models and explanations as more and more is discovered, whether proved or disproved. As a medical historian, I really enjoyed the historical journey, once again meeting the major players and learning something new.’

Allyson Dyar Source: NetGalley Reader

'Understanding Genes is an essential guide to this important, complex, and sometimes incendiary topic. In his clear and balanced discussion, Kostas Kampourakis cuts through all the hype and misconception that often surround the debate about what genes are and what they do, and provides the most honest and careful discussion I have seen of how DNA participates in the processes that support life. In doing so, he reveals the real promise, limitations, and dilemmas of the current age of genomics.’

Philip Ball - science writer and author of How to Grow a Human

'Did you know that two blue-eyed people can have a brown-eyed child? Why calico cats are (almost) always female? It’s in the genes, but it’s not all in the genes. Kampourakis shows that, while genes are unquestionably important, fears of ‘designer babies’ are both overblown and misguided. Genes alone do not make you who you are. They are not the ultimate essence of life. Understanding Genes is simply the best book out there for students or anyone wanting a smart, thoughtful introduction to what genes are and do – and what they aren’t and don’t.'

Nathaniel Comfort, - Professor, Department of the History of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University

'Kampourakis has produced a comprehensive but highly readable introduction to genetics and genomics. His take on the fallacy of genetic fatalism is a must-read for both geneticists and the casual reader … The role of genetics and genomics in society is treated comprehensively by Kampourakis. He has produced a very readable book with an important message about genetic fatalism – it doesn't exist!'

Professor Robert DeSalle - American Museum of Natural History, New York

'… provides a plain, rich, and direct narrative of what a gene is and is not, with practical examples of how genes relate to our daily life … clearly identifies controversial views in [the] fields of genetics, genomics, cell and organismic biology, and clarifies them for the comprehension of the just initiated as well as the experienced reader.'

Carlos Sonnenschein - MD, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, MA, USA, and Centre Cavailles, École Normale Supérieure, Paris, France

'Understanding Genes is a remarkably clear, rigorous, and yet accessible review of the biological and social roles of genes. Building on a wide range of sources including history, biology, philosophy, and social studies, the book identifies a variety of gene concepts currently in use, illustrates their significance through a wealth of concrete examples, and discusses the relations between these different ways of understanding genes. By deftly combining conceptual analysis with empirical evidence, the book succeeds in comprehensively introducing this complex subject without oversimplifying. It is highly recommended to readers venturing in this domain for the first time, as well as to experts wishing to expand their perspective.'

Sabina Leonelli - University of Exeter, UK

'Genes – many people use the word, few understand its many meanings and how they changed over time: from tools to think with, to tools to trace ancestors with. This book guides the reader through the many transformations of this concept from conception to misconceptions, from Mendel to the media. We learn about genetics, genomics, and post-genomics, but also about the interactions between scientific and public understandings and the role of metaphor in spicing things up. Readers come to realize that genes are neither essences, nor things, nor actors; genes only work in context, and in collaboration with each other within an interactive genome. This makes it difficult to find easy solutions to medical problems, but it also means that genes don’t determine who we are. This book is more than a guide to understanding genes; it is essential reading for everyone interested in the role that genes play in science and culture.'

Brigitte Nerlich - University of Nottingham, UK

'In rigorous but uncomplicated prose, Kostas Kampourakis gives us a present we wish we could have received 100 years ago: a clear explanation of what genes do, what they do not do, what they are, and what they are not. In doing so, he teaches us salutary lessons in both the history and philosophy of science and in human psychology. At a time when our ability to manipulate nature is reaching new levels, Kampourakis provides a road map for understanding the relevance of genetics to our lives. This is a book everyone should read.'

Oren Harman - Senior Research Fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and Chair of the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society, Bar Ilan University, and author of The Man Who Invented the Chromosome, The Price of Altruism, and Evolutions: Fifteen Myths that Explain Our World

'Understanding Genes is the first book that provides an honest, nuanced, and full accounting of how genes operate in an organism that is accessible to a general reader. I have not seen in one volume such clear analysis of the ‘gene’ and its deconstruction from a primary cause to a ‘segment of DNA’ that is a necessary, but not sufficient, cause of different types of biochemical events. The book exhibits the expertise of an author whose breadth of knowledge of genetics, history and philosophy of science, and science education makes this book exceptionally valuable as a scientific antidote to the tide of popular oversimplifications and the trend in the scientific literature of genetic reductionism.'

Sheldon Krimsky - Lenore Stern Professor of Humanities & Social Sciences, and Adjunct Professor of Public Health & Community Medicine, Tufts University

'If you are looking for a concise and up-to-date book on the role of genes (and the science of genes) in our society, look no further: Understanding Genes is an accessible, yet nuanced, account of how the concept of the gene has developed throughout history, how its cultural and social meanings have changed, and how genetic factors influence the expression of human behavior and diseases. It conveys not only the basics of genetic thinking, but also a sense for how our understanding of what genes are, and what they do, is always also a response to the big questions that society asks at any given time. I highly recommend this beautifully written book to students, journalists, researchers from other disciplines, and in fact anyone seeking to understand the role of genes – and of genetics – in our world.'

Barbara Prainsack - University of Vienna, Austria

'In Understanding Genes, Kostas Kampourakis draws on history and popular culture as well as the latest scientific research to help the beginning reader to grasp what genes are, why they are important, and how to give that importance its due without hype or hysteria. Anyone looking for an introduction to genetics that is both reliable and readable need look no further.'

Gregory Radick - University of Leeds, UK

'This excellent book is comprehensive, detailed, and amazingly informative, yet eminently readable; it’s a really lovely synthesis of the past half-century of thought about what genes are, what genes do, and why they – along with their contexts – are so extremely important. Kampourakis presents biological facts with a 'systems' perspective that remains unwaveringly attentive to the fact that genetic information is always embedded in a context, a context that renders developmental outcomes unpredictable from DNA sequence information alone. By deploying wonderful new metaphors and unpacking older and potentially misleading metaphors, he helps readers avoid many of the misunderstandings that arise from various sources. Accurate and poised at the cutting edge, Understanding Genes is lucid enough to be accessible for the general public and students learning about genetics for the first time, but erudite enough for scientists interested in what we currently know about genes.'

David S. Moore - Pitzer College and Claremont Graduate University


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