Why do children resemble their parents? (Except those that resemble the milkman)

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 😉 .]

7 thoughts on “Why do children resemble their parents? (Except those that resemble the milkman)”

  1. Regarding the redundancy in genetics as an analogue to information redundancy, this is the sort of connection that some people feel validates the idea of a Grand Designer. It’s as if we own those tools, as intelligent agents, and if we find similar dynamics in the world beyond our hands, it points to a grander analogue to us. My questions, and it’s not as rhetorical as it may sound, are: Why shouldn’t we expect similarities throughout nature to our own heuristics and advocated processes? Isn’t it at least as likely that we would have inherited those types of tools, and adapted them through our evolution?

    It’s a tricky thing to ponder and share via language, for me; but the idea is that our very definition of “design”, as a process where our ethereal “mind” somehow grabs puffs of ether from beyond nature and crafts ideas, seems flawed. It might just be that we develop neurophysiologically complex patterns which echo the types of processes other physical systems had evolved long before our speciation.

    Maybe you can make sense of this. I feel like I’m stepping on my tongue. 🙂

  2. I do not know about multi-user information theory, but there is a very nice cartoon called l’Informagique, which describes computers. A good starting point for college students.

    The book is part of the larger Anselme Lanturlu series, for which there are now English translations. Most are available for free download, and the one I like best is about topology.

  3. Daniel: You make a valid point. Yes, this redundancy in genes (and biological complexity in general) is often presented as an argument in favor of a designer. The point that you make in your second paragraph can, in a way be used to refute that point. I’ll try this at the risk of stepping on *my* tongue: Past chemical or biological systems have (in accordance with physical laws) evolved to their present state. The ‘selection’ of some forms over others is not proactive, but is observed merely as a consequence of the fact that some characteristics are more suitable for survival than others. I consider this view, given the length of geological time, grander than that of the Grand designer ;).

    I still think that you meant something more in your comment, in that the very constructs that we conceptualize or hypothesize are more or less determined by the way that we have evolved. Does this mean that we are always within the confines of this bubble of our consciousness? I am not sure I like the thought, but it is more likely true than not.

    Mandarine: Thanks very much for the links and the introduction to Jen-Pierre Petit. This is very much in the spirit of Gonick’s cartoon series. One of the precursors to the topology comic is hilariously called “Here’s looking at Euclid”. Wonder what Ingrid Bergman has to say about that! How do people come up with these things? I am going to have a ball reading these comics.

  4. Polaris,

    I’m trying to think of an intuitive analogy to make, but this is the best I can think of:

    Say there is a species of creature, the positive integers, who regard the multiplicative identity to approach sublime. That identity property is really, they think, the thing that sets them apart (from what, I’m not sure; I don’t want to stretch a weak analogy too far). Really, who wouldn’t fall in love with the fact that an integer multiplied by 1 results in the integer itself?

    Suppose, then, that some curious bunch have discovered zero, and note that it, too, is susceptible to their familiar identity. “This is amazing,” they say. “As we are the pinnacle of numeracy, this proves that we are the product of design!”

    What our horribly drawn caricatures don’t realize, of course, is that the reason that zero obeys the identity is not due to anything other than that all integers obey the identity. Through self-selection bias, they attempt to confirm their superiority, and so muddle any chance they have it enlightenment.

    If we are simply patterns of particles, and if there abound examples throughout the zoo of particles (biologically arranged or otherwise) of redundancy as a tool for success, then shouldn’t we expect to have inherited that tool? Wouldn’t it be more surprising if some kind of redundancy didn’t emerge from the patterns of particles arranged to form our brain?

    Again, and moreso now than before, I’m trying a brute-force tactic for making my point. Hopefully my point, such as it is, still managed to make it through somehow.

  5. Daniel, thanks. Yes I see what you mean. As well, I like the example. I’ve actually made similar errors of reasoning while studying groups and fields!

  6. Just to point out a couple of things:
    – the original cartoon works were published as the ‘Anselme Lanturlu’ series (translated as ‘Archibald Higgins’). Apparently, they are now public domain and available from Savoir Sans Frontières, which seems relatively new.
    – the author himself was the center of some controversy when he took strange positions on UFOs. His comic-book works seem harmless though (except perhaps cosmology interpretations, which might appear very personal). I do not want to be blamed for pointing people to the books and someone discovering Jean-Pierre Petit has his dark side…

  7. If only all science came in cartoon form – I might be able to understand a lot more of it! If Mandarine can work his magic trick and produce cartoons on quantum physics, I’d be so grateful.

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