What a difference a gene makes
MENDEL'S DWARF by Simon Mawer Doubleday pounds 15.99
Sunday 10 August 1997
Its caustic commentator is the dwarf (yes, a real one) of the title, Dr Benedict Lambert, a man who should understand jokes, because nature has played a great one on him. Dr Lambert is the great-great-great nephew of Gregor Mendel, the Morovian monk and amateur scientist who discovered the principles on which modern genetics is based. He did this, you may know, by growing tens of thousands of pea plants in the monastery garden, cross-fertilising them and observing the results. Mawer shows us something of Mendel's difficult, lonely struggle for recognition - and how he augmented his research by recording the lineage of an extended family of circus dwarfs.
Mendel died in 1884, his work ignored. It was rediscovered at the turn of the century, and provided a basis for the pseudo-science of eugenics - "altering a population by controlled breeding for desirable inherited characteristics". Get the mix right, the Nazis thought, and you could bake a master race free of impurities like Jews, gypsies, gays ... and dwarfs. Boom-boom.
You can guess that this tale is told with the blackest, driest humour, and with irony by the bargain bucket. Mendel was the son of a serf who educated himself as a means of escape. Lambert, his descendant, does the same, escaping from his physical limitations (girls are not interested and a careers officer suggests the circus) by studying genetics because, as his well-meaning family says, "at least he's got a brain in his head". He becomes a great scientist - "a Billy Smart of genetics, a Barnum & Bailey of the genome" - in pursuit of the gene that causes achondroplasia, or dwarfism, and pulls no punches on the way. Addressing a conference of fellow geneticists, each able-bodied and feeling "the guilt of the survivor", he reminds them of the freak shows once held in the town nearby. "You, ladies and gentlemen, would have gone to stare. At people like me."
That means us too. This book will make you feel uncomfortable, because Benedict Lambert is a complicated human being who provokes sympathy but laughs in its face. He is ferociously witty, systematically classifies those around him (so footnotes to his simple description of a "large" lady refer us to a scientific study on obesity) and is both an emotional and physical victim of his disability. Mawer has created a character we feel for deeply, but who is also very difficult, angry, stubborn and nasty at times.
Real, in other words. As he needs to be for the final part of the book to work. In it, Lambert becomes romantically involved with a "normal" woman (indeed, she is plain and mouse-like, refreshing qualities for a love interest), whose husband is impotent. The doctor agrees to help her have a baby, but left alone in the laboratory with the resultant embryos, he must decide which way to load the genetic dice. Will he implant those that carry the gene for dwarfism, as an act of revenge against the world? Or the healthy ones? Or a mixture, and refuse to play God?
Mendel's Dwarf presents the ethical dilemmas of modern genetic research in a love story that lurches from sharp humour to jaw-dropping sadness and back again in pages. True, there is a lot of science to get through - but the reader seems to acquire knowledge by accident, thanks to Mawer's simplicity and wit. Knowing nothing of genetics, and wary of my scientific ignorance, I picked this book up on the beach and got through it without stopping. It is a marvellous read, maybe even (here comes the cliche, as promised, but for once deserved) the Fever Pitch of genetics.
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 President of Argentina adopts Jewish godson to 'stop him turning into a werewolf'
- 2 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns, aged 27
- 3 Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations
- 4 Sir Winston Churchill’s family begged him not to convert to Islam, letter reveals
- 5 AirAsia flight QZ8501 missing: Search for plane carrying 162 passengers from Indonesia to Singapore suspended overnight
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
The golden age of TV comedy is here
The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
From Marvel to Star Wars: The rise of cinema’s shared universes
Game of Thrones is most-pirated TV show of 2014
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Millions of Britons struggling to feed themselves and facing malnourishment
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Nigel Farage: Ukip leader named 'Briton of the year' by The Times
Immigrants make UK racist, says Ukip councillor Trevor Shonk