More on nature-nurture debate
Reviewed by Jayanti Roy

Identically Different — Why You Can Change Your Genes
by Tim Spector Phoenix, London Pages 338 Rs 399

Identically Different — Why You Can Change Your GenesAlways remember that you're unique. Just like everyone else." This quotation by Alison Boulter implies several things. It celebrates individuality as well as underlines how out of ordinariness, arises the exceptional. I especially like it because of the paradox. This book under review too attempts something similar. The catchy title holds an impossibility and the author unravels this absurdity in a captivating presentation of scientific facts, absorbing stories and illuminating interpretation comprehensible to the common reader.

In the history of genetics, several dramatic developments like Mendel's laws of inheritance, Darwin's evolutionary theory, discovery of the DNA and most recently the Human Genome Project, have amazed, surprised and startled us and to some extent bullied us into believing that "Genetics is destiny". The hype created by the media around the core science by eyeball-grabbing headlines like "Fidelity genes discovered"! "Laziness is in your genes"! made us believe that genes are responsible for everything, right from the diseases that we inherit to our behaviour, propensities and orientations. This genetic determinism is highly prevalent and influences further understanding and approach to scientific research.

Tim Spector, the author who is a genetic epidemiologist and an expert of twin studies, has in a very remarkable way put forth an argument with enough convincing evidence which moves the pendulum to the other end of the spectrum. According to him, though the genes determine a lot many things in our being, however, there are ways other than genetic processes through which these genes can be influenced to manifest themselves in a different manner from their original programming.

The key to this alternative pathway is the environment which surrounds a person. The environment, including diet, starvation, presence or absence of chemicals, our unique perceptions and motivational strategies influence our genes and these changes can then be passed on to future generations. By extensive studies of identical twins, having an identical genetic makeup, we can discern the impact of the environment, more so in cases where the twins are separated at birth and reared in different families.

The author found that even twins who grow up in the same home, respond differently to minor differences in the environment which lead them to entirely different life situations and thus they become identically different.

In fact, the discussions along with citations of real-life case studies take the reader to a higher level of understanding, where issues about life, destiny, and free will arise in the mind and one is humbled by the complexity yet sustainability bestowed by nature. One also gets a feeling that we have only started to uncover a wee bit of the infinitely large iceberg and it's a long way before we know the machinations of nature completely.

It goes to the author’s credit that he has very meticulously discussed different aspects of gene research, the happiness gene, talent gene, mortality gene, fat gene, bad genes, gay gene — to name a few, and has been able to bring forth the complexity of the situations. The book should be of interest to students and researchers of biology and to all those individuals who love serious and stimulating discussions which challenge traditional, well-established notions provoking the reader to exercise the mind to think against the grain.