The Compatibility Gene

Daniel M Davis

Why I looked at this book

This book is a contender for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, but I am also interested in how a few genes seem to have a much greater effect on our lives than we think.

First impressions

This book looks interesting, indicating that compatibility genes aren't just related to transplants, but also to issues much closer to many people's minds such as finding a partner. It looks very promising. I note though that Davis is happy to stray from the immediate subject, mentioning Kafka's work and Peter Medawar's home life in the sample. In the Tesla book I thought that sort of variation was a good thing, but this is a much shorter book, less than 200 pages, and I can't help worrying that at a gentle pace like this there won't be the space for the promised goodies. I will have to see.

Main review

Some books start off with something a bit different - say a historical episode - before getting down to the main subject of the book. This book seemed to be doing this, but then it continued the way it started off most of the way through. I understand that a book like The Perfect Theory is about the history of a subject, but this book isn't supposed to be. I felt that it missed out the important bit of introducing properly what it was about. Yes, I know that might make it a bit like a textbook, but trying to avoid technicalities doesn't always work. Davis introduces the term 'Compatibility gene' to shield the reader from technical terms, but then the acronyms MHC and HLA are used throughout the book. Are these the same thing? A bit of googling tells me that HLA is the human version of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), but to finding this out from the book isn't so easy - it's all mixed in with the history of various bits of research. Couldn't chapter 2 of the book have been an introduction to the science? Would a few diagrams really make it look too much like a textbook?

I can see that describing what researchers have done and are doing now helps to add context to a subject, but in this case I thought that this makes it harder for a reader who does not know the subject. The later bits of the book, in particular the chapters on sexual attraction and pregnancy were more interesting, but I still would not see this book as one of the best of the contenders for the 2014 Royal Society Winton prize.

Reviews Elsewhere

The Amazon Reviews are mostly positive, but the few negative ones do complain about the history at the expense of science. the reviews at Goodreads give the book a similar average score, but from mostly 3 and 4 star reviews.