The New England based science writer David Dobbs has long been a pioneer in exploring the ways that scientists' ideas about genetics have changed, grown, become more complex – and more interesting. In particular, he's illuminated the evolving way that researchers view genes and their ability to both shape us and be shaped by the way our own lives unfold.
It's an exploration that ranges from his 2009 story in The Atlantic, The Science of Our Success, (which led to a book contract) to his National Geographic piece, Restless Genes, published earlier this year, which looks at the ways that time, culture, and genes may have helped create some of the world's great explorers. You can find these and other examples archived here at his website.
But the story I want to call attention today is his recent cover story for Pacific Standard, The Social Life of Genes. In a piece that moves from some fascinating studies involving European and Africanized honey bees to primate research to the profound effects of loneliness on human gene expression, Dobbs draws a compelling portrait both of the science and of what it means to be a social species.
It's beautifully told and elegantly explained, as in this passage early in the story in which an Illinois entomologist is pondering the way that changing the home environment of bees – say, moving aggressive young "killer" bees into colonies of their more laid-back cousins – might alter the arc of their development.
He suspected the answer lay in the bees’ genes. He didn’t expect the bees’ actual DNA to change: Random mutations aside, genes generally don’t change during an organism’s lifetime. Rather, he suspected the bees’ genes would behave differently in their new homes—wildly differently.
This notion was both reasonable and radical. Scientists have known for decades that genes can vary their level of activity, as if controlled by dimmer switches. Most cells in your body contain every one of your 22,000 or so genes. But in any given cell at any given time, only a tiny percentage of those genes is active, sending out chemical messages that affect the activity of the cell. This variable gene activity, called gene expression, is how your body does most of its work.
But equally important it opens up bigger questions – questions about who we are, where we fit in the interlocking puzzle of the natural world – in the way that all the best science stories do. Or as io9 put it, it reminds us that the human default state is not solitude. So that it's not only an outstanding model of how to tell a story but a reminder to even the most overworked writers, actually our most important relationships lie beyond the bond we hold with our laptops.
I'll be leaving now to hang out with my son.
— Deborah Blum