I went to the University library to borrow The Selfish Gene, the book which brought a lot of fame, and more than a few headaches to Richard Dawkins. In defiance of the electronic record which, five minutes ago, had said that it should be in the stacks, the book was nowhere to be found. A few books to the right of the void where The Selfish Gene should have been, The Cartoon Guide to Genetics showed a picture of an mRNA molecule emerging out of a grotesquely misshapen blob (which, I later discovered, was the enzyme RNA polymerase) which was doing its best to hold two strands of DNA apart. It is a weird picture, especially if you have come with expectations of reading a popular, controversial and landmark book on genetics. After only a few happy, drawing-filled pages in which prehistoric women wonder whether sex has anything to do with babies, you find this:
Several other Greeks, thinking more deeply than Xenophon developed the first real theories of heredity – in other words, they addressed the question, “Why do children resemble their parents?”.
“Except,” says a sly man wearing a toga and carrying a pitcher, “the ones who resemble the milkman.”
The book is a part of an outstanding series by Larry Gonick, a San Francisco-based cartoonist who has written cartoon guides to Statistics, Physics, History of the Universe, Chemistry, Sex and some others that I have yet to discover. This particular book on genetics is co-authored with Mark Wheelis, a lecturer of bacteriology at UC Davis. Gonick, who refers to himself as an Overeducated Cartoonist, has an amazing gift for explaining very difficult things using weird analogies, ridiculous jokes and awesomely funny cartoons. From the early history of genetics and a few welcome jibes at Aristotle and his male chauvinistic theory of how babies are made, the book takes the reader on an exploratory tour – from Leeuwenhoek’s observations of animalcules under his primitive microscope, to Mendel’s experiments with pea plants, to dominant and recessive genes. Did you know that you cannot inherit baldness from your father, because the allele for baldness is on the X chromosome only? But you could inherit baldness from your maternal grandpa. (Alas! Mother tells me that I have little hope. It is only a matter of time. 😉 )
The second half of the book is even more captivating, in which Gonick and Wheelis explain cell division by Mitosis and Meiosis, and then proceed to explain chromosomes and DNA, genes and enzymes. Somewhere, in the part that explains haploid and diploid cells, a female bee tells a drone, “Will you listen to me? I swear Buster, it’s like you’re only half there sometimes.” How can one keep from smiling at that? Enzyme action is explained with a great flourish, and you see cartoons of enzymes snapping RNA into two, sewing it together, editing junk DNA, reversing gene sequences, assembling proteins, shepherding modelcules to and fro, and being workhorses in general. The machinery of nature is beautiful and, coming from a digital communications perspective, I was delighted to see that there is quite a lot of redundancy built in, just in case the instructions in the gene sequence have errors or are incorrectly transcribed. For example, the sequences CCA and CCC and CCU and CCG all generate the same amino acid, thus protecting against minor discrepancies. Ocassionally though, bad things happen.
It is amazing that so complicated a thing as protein formation can be explained by a few well-drawn cartoons. The book is a riot and like the others in the series, a wonderful precursor for someone looking to do a more detailed study later. Read and be entertained. Any knowledge accrued along the way, and there will be quite a lot of it, is almost incidental. Now, if only there was a cartoon guide to multi-user information theory….
[EDIT: In the comments, mandarine points to a funny collection of cartoon works titled Savoir Sans Frontières. There are comics on Computers, Relativity, Euclidean Geometry, Topology and more. The cartoons were conceived by Jean-Pierre Petit and are available for free download. They are being translated from French but many are already available in a language of your choice. Further, please do not blame mandarine for some of Jean-Pierre Petit’s more bizarre notions 😉 .]