Science roundup: Finding Fibonacci and The Genome Factor

by Veronika Meduna / 18 April, 2017

Two sociologists explore what the explosion of genome information actually means for us.

Fourteen years ago, it cost $2.7 billion to complete the human genome project. Today, you can post a cheek swab and get your own DNA sequenced for about $100 – and the number of people queueing up for the service is rising as the price is falling.

During the same period, we have also learnt that the line between a gene and an outcome is never straight, but instead shaped by the experiences we encounter in life. THE GENOME FACTOR (Princeton University Press, $35) offers a fresh perspective on the subtleties of this nature/nurture interplay from a social-science vantage point. It explores what the explosion of genome information actually means for us – as individuals and as communities. And it asks whether we could be heading towards a genotocracy, a society led by those with genetic advantages and the means to select the genetics of their offspring.

The authors, Princeton University sociologist Dalton Conley and University of Wisconsin sociologist/economist Jason Fletcher, acknowledge the uneasy history of collaboration between biologists and social scientists. There’s more than a century of bad examples, from social Darwinism to eugenics. However, they argue that because genes are no longer seen as deterministic factors, social sciences can (and should) use genetics to explore broader issues of social inequality, racial discrimination and economic outcomes.

The book takes the debate beyond the more frequently examined health implications of genomics to an illuminating discussion about genetics and race. It debunks any notion of genetic superiority and offers a useful reminder that the original population that emerged from Africa was so small, it created a genetic bottleneck – making us all the genetic equivalent of second cousins.

The Genome Factor is timely and generally well written, but it is nevertheless hard going. Repeatedly, the authors butt up against and debunk arguments made in the 1994 book The Bell Curve, which creates the unnecessary impression of a scholarly dispute, when in fact this is a discussion that needs to exit academia and enter the public sphere.

History, travel and mathematics meet in FINDING FIBONACCI (Princeton University Press, $29.95), the latest offering by American Public Radio’s “Math Guy”, Keith Devlin.

Six years after the publication of The Man of Numbers, Devlin’s biography of 13th-century Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, this volume recounts the author’s decade-long quest to find every bit of information to piece together Fibonacci’s life beyond maths.

In both books, Devlin celebrates Fibonacci as a founding father of modern economics. By introducing the Western world to the Hindu-Arabic system of arithmetic, Fibonacci switched tracks from ancient finger maths and the mechanical abacus to a method that used numbers and provided the first audit trail. This in turn opened the door to global trade and finance.

Finding Fibonacci begins in Pisa, Leonardo’s hometown and a major trade link between Europe and the Arab world at the time. From there, Devlin travels the world to meet other scholars, translators and historians in pursuit of Fibonacci – and in recounting the journey, he shares as much about himself as his mathematical hero.

This article was first published in the April 1, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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