Book review / Tough on the causes of crime

Mendel's Dwarf by Simon Mawer Doubleday, pounds 15.99

Marek Kohn
Friday 18 July 1997 23:02 BST

Mendel's Dwarf by Simon Mawer

Doubleday, pounds 15.99

Mendel's Dwarf is an unusual piece. It's a work of science fiction in the strict sense, but without any of the familiar traits of the genre. It is scientific literature in the literary sense but not the scholarly one; it's a novel with footnotes that is in a hurry. Its narrator annotates his text with references because he is a scientist and that is how scientists write. But they do not write with the overtone of horror, and the unmistakable implication of looming disaster, that Simon Mawer sustains throughout his story.

His protagonist is Benedict Lambert, a descendant of Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk who first worked out the mechanism of genetic inheritance. Lambert's story is intercut with scenes from the life of the monk, whose work's revolutionary significance was not recognised for 35 years, and whose personality remains elusive to this day.

Besides its share of Mendel's genes, Lambert's genotype also contains a twist of its own, a mutation whose phenotypic effects are detailed with calculated harshness: "pug-like features", "mere squabs" for fingers. The condition is called achondroplasia. In parlance that remains common, Benedict Lambert is a dwarf.

Under these circumstances, the only thing for him to do is to become a geneticist and try to isolate the gene that gives rise to achondroplasia. He is applauded for his accomplishments and for his "bravery", but the obverse of his public status is a bitter personal isolation. His public life revolves around scientific papers, his private life around pornographic magazines.

One of Lambert's narrative tics involves noting the genetic mechanisms underlying traits he observes in those around him - cleft chin, autosomal dominant; blue eyes, autosomal recessive, and so on. Against this intermittent reminder of the power of genes, however, he interpolates a couple of set- piece arguments against genetic determinism. Professor Richard Lynn is singled out as a villain for his adherence to a eugenicist vision of genetic decline through the faster reproduction of the less intelligent. Lambert also makes a jocular claim to have identified the genetic basis of criminality: the Y chromosome possessed by men and not women. He suggests it should be called the "Benny factor" in his honour, although this is a routine Professor Steve Jones has been using for years.

If Mawer is trying to keep liberal readers on board, he may succeed, but the genetic determinists won't be much impressed. The targets chosen are easy ones, such as Lynn's claim that the best estimate of the average black African IQ is 69, which implies that half of all black Africans are mentally retarded by conventional definition. Perhaps Mawer will grasp the nettle with a sequel about identical twins separated at birth: the hereditarians' hottest properties.

Not that Mendel's Dwarf fails to thrust challenges in the reader's face. There is a surfeit of these, steadily accumulating as it becomes clear how far Lambert is prepared to go. In early passages, Lambert sketches the humiliations and alienation of his everyday life; step by step, he reveals his own capacities for insensitivity and cruelty. Having secured power over the course of inheritance, he is prepared to play God with a vengeance. Thanks to in vitro fertilisation technology, his control extends over the woman who comes to share his life, but it does not appear to be mixed with love, or even compassion.

That also seems to apply to the novel itself. The originality of the fusion of science and fiction is welcome, and so is the fact that it works; but the callousness in which it is steeped is chilling.

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