Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Tears of the Cheetah

I finally finished off Tears of the Cheetah: And Other Tales from the Genetic Frontier by Stephen J. O'Brien. I started my review eons ago, but got distracted and finally finished it off.

It's a very fun book. When people ask me for a good popular book on the state of systematics and conservation genetics, this is the book I'll recommend. That may sound pretty narrow, but those are important topics and I haven't seen such a broad survey of the field. The best predecessor is probably The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen, though that's hardly fair to either.

Dodo is about the broad advances in ecology with an eye to conservation. It treated conservation genetics, but not as a focus. Quammen was also investigating several researchers and following a story across personalities

O'Brien is head of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Cancer Institutes. His lab's research reveals connections between basic research on mice, cheetahs, and house cats leading to important effects on land use planning in Florida, a criminal conviction in Canada, and insights that may lead to cures for cancer and AIDS.

People interested in conservation will find a lot to enjoy, including a discussion of pandas, as well as the work on cheetahs from the title and related work on several continents and several oceans.

Working at the NCI means that there's an interest in cancer, as well. The book finishes with a discussion of gene therapy and the state of review for clinical trials. It's an important chapter, pointing out future directions and crucial limits on our knowledge.

One thing that's odd is the order in which key concepts are introduced. While the glossary at the end will no doubt be helpful to lay readers, it's odd that certain key concepts and techniques aren't introduced until halfway through the book. This is the problem with a purely chronological presentation of the material.

For instance, a clear description of how a phylogeny is produced doesn't arrive until page 140, though the concept arises earlier. In general, the earlier chapters are more memoirs and less science driven, with the second half more heavily focussed on the state of the science and the details of the scientific practice.

While the arrangement is somewhat unexpected, I can't say that I fault the decision. I imagine that the more anecdotal opening will be a more effective introduction to the practice of science than a more technical review of phylogenetic methods or molecular techniques.

That's a trade-off that scientists have trouble with in general. The details matter a lot when you are communicating science to other scientists, but it's just boring to many non-scientists, even if they are deeply interested in the science.

I'd be interested in non-specialists' opinions of this aspect of the book, or any other, I guess.

The book should be in libraries, or buy it and let me know what you think. I think you'll enjoy it.