First – Happy New Year! Here’s to another year of replicate-able research and smooth writing for all.
Now, we press onward, to more great science writing from The Best of the Best American Science Writing! You can see links for the reviews from other prior years at the bottom of this post.
Henig’s essay eases us into a conversation on race and genomics using a new heart failure medicine, BiDil, that was created specifically for black Americans as the most effective heart failure medications for white Americans seemed to have little effect on the black population. Race-based pharmacogenomics, however, is a touchy area; after several decades of insisting that there is no genetic basis to race and that it is purely a social construct, many academics, researchers, social scientists, and public figures are, reasonably, very hesitant to admit there could be a genetic link to the race question that is strong enough to produce noticeably different effects using different drugs. Particularly considering how the idea of eugenics poisoned several modern cultures and has fueled many racist arguments, can we really give any credence to the potential biological variance between races that would lead to the creation of unique drugs? Are there really biological differences, or can this all be explained by a host of socio-economic factors affecting separate racial groups differently?
Henig is very fair and impartial in her accounting of both the biological, social, and historical elements throughout this essay and, honestly, it’s a really important ethical issue to consider. Race-based pharmacogenomics could vastly improve health care for minorities but also adds fuel to the fire of the racists; no matter who decides to take the lead on this kind of research, we will need to tread lightly as we discover more about the genetics of race. The writing is good, the piece held a great deal of suspense and momentum for me, and honestly it was the most thought-provoking essay of the book so far. In fact, to break the typical review structure, I’d really love to hear your thoughts in the comments below if you chose to read this essay (which I would highly recommend – here’s the link again).
Quammen’s essay seeks to answer the question ‘Was Darwin Wrong?’ in an age where nearly half of Americans don’t believe in evolution (in 2015, that number was still relatively high at 31% with 4% being unsure). For a biologist, this essay is not a must-read; it doesn’t present any new or enlightening information. Quammen, in essence, lays out the pro-evolution argument concisely and in a straightforward, direct manner using bio-geographical, pale-ontological, embryological, and morphological evidence. Despite using those four big words, the rest of the essay is very clean and easy to understand no matter your level of scientific knowledge.
This essay isn’t worth you’re time if you’re pretty knowledgeable about, and sold on, the evolution argument; but if you have an aunt, uncle, or gramma who could use a refresher on evolution this article might be for them. The article is relatively short, well-paced, and very well-organized, so I was able to appreciate it as a piece of quality writing even if the information is a bit basic. Reading the article did serve to remind me that I shouldn’t take my education and understanding of evolution for granted in a country where almost a third of Americans still are woefully ignorant about the fundamental principles underlying our world.