09 June 2009

Bad book review: François Jacob's autobiography

François Jacob (born 1920) shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in Medicine for "discoveries concerning genetic control of enzyme and virus synthesis". In the 1970s he developed the idea of evolution being a tinkerer, because, as opposed to how an engineer usually works, adaptations almost always arise not from scratch, but from the modifications of existing molecules, organs or metabolic processes (for example, see Jacob, 1977).

I bought The Statue Within, Jacob's autobiography published in 1987 from the used bookstore hoping to learn a little bit more about a man who at some point in his life appears to have been an important scientist. Had I known boring would be a one-word summary of his life and ideas, or rather the way he presented them, I would have saved my $2 for a cup of coffee.

This is a tediously personal, rambling account of Jacob's life. The very 1st chapter begins depressingly with the memories of the sufferings and the death of a friend of Jacob's, continues with a discourse on suicide and them rambles on with fragments of events from his life. A perfect way to turn off your readers right from the beginning, don't you think so? And then there is excessive philosophizing throughout the book mostly in a disorganized manner. Here is an example: one long paragraph starts out with what appears to be an account of how Jacob tried to decide what kind of research he wanted to do in the beginning of his scientific career and ends with criticisms of Soviet genetics under Lysenko and French communists. Who cares?

Jacob appears to be an atheist preoccupied with death and dying and who may be subject to bouts of depression. I could only read randomly selected parts of the book and now wasting my time writing about it.

Jacob, F. 1977. Evolution and tinkering. Science 196:1161.

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