Biologist Richard V. Kowles begins his third book, The Wonder of Genetics, with a tidy introduction to the history of genetics research, spanning Mendel's pea experiments through Morgan's work with fruit flies. However, with only one mention of Watson and Crick (and none of Pauling, Franklin, etc.), he fails to illustrate the marvel of genetics as a self-directed biochemical system that provides the raw material for the amazing diversity of function and structure that has characterized our planet for the past 3.5 billion years. What he does provide is a simple topic-based primer on genetics that very lightly touches on some interesting matters and controversial issues.
This book is a decent primer for anyone who wants to get their feet wet in the field of genetics. After all, genetic covers a "litany of everyday concerns…[from] the stem cell research controversy, the nature versus nurture controversy, the evolution-creationism controversy, DNA testing, race issues, and numerous other topics," Kowles writes. Rather than write about how genetics works (which one may argue is the true "wonder of genetics"), the author restricts himself to what genetics has to do with. However, some of these issues should not be considered controversies, as Kowles does not defer strongly enough to the science of genetics, but rather attends to public perceptions without going much deeper than generalizations.
A science teacher, covering middle school and high school biology, could use this book as a good supplement. Each chapter is brief enough to serve as an excellent supplement or springboard for discussion. There are several essays on biotechnology and reproduction that would inspire further investigation in class. While exhausted topics like creationism seem tacked on, "Those Awful Sideshows" stands out as an excellent survey of genetic abnormalities through a unique lens of "circus freaks." This essay would enliven the usual lessons on genetic disorders and inspire unique student projects. This is one chapter in which the book lives up to the "creepy" reputation of genetics. Otherwise, the writing is rather bland and does not convey the author's amazement in his subject matter.
Kowles could have written this book 5, 10, or even 15 years ago. Our advances in molecular biology should demand a more rigorous understanding of the gene function rather than the results of Punnet squares. Fortunately, this book does offer a nice introduction to those who want to know more of the basics, or simply catch up on what their children may be – or should be – learning in the science classroom.