Understanding Genes by Kostas KampourakisUnderstanding Genes by Kostas KampourakisUnderstanding Genes by Kostas Kampourakis 

Understanding Genes (2021), by Kostas Kampourakis, sits in a sometimes-awkward position betwixt and between a popular science book and a textbook. As such, lay readers looking for simple, smooth, easy-to-follow explanations may want to look elsewhere or be prepared to struggle and/or skim. Those with some background in biology (beyond their high school/early college courses) will fare better.

The intent of the book is a caution against genetic essentialism or fatalism and against the over-simplification, over-aggrandization, and over-simplification of the role genes play in human development generally, but especially (and mostly) with regard to disease. Here’s where the betwixt and between is a bit awkward, because while those who read about genetics only via the newspaper or online/TV news might be subjected to such over-simplification, they are also the ones most likely to struggle, while people with more of a scientific background are probably well aware of Kampourakis’ concern and themselves have the more nuanced view he’d approve of. It’s also a little muddled early on due to several studies that Kampourakis notes that seem somewhat contradictory in just which viewpoint is promulgated through the media.

One of his entry points into the popular consciousness re: genetics is the decision by Angelina Jolie to have a double mastectomy based on a genetic test she underwent. Kampourakis uses this as a springboard for a detailed dive into just why there “are not genes for something” (italics mine). His approach is methodical, thorough, and buttressed by a number of illustrations and sidebars that help clarify some difficult concepts as he, for instance, explains how one gene has multiple effects; how any process or disease has multiple genes involved; how genes are part of an ecosystem of interrelated parts such as proteins, RNA, expression, the environment; how epigenetics has complicated our view of genes’ constancy, etc. Kampourakis shows the ability to write clearly, especially so in his summaries toward the end of sections. And he can also hit on a greatly clarifying metaphor, as when he explains “difference makers” versus “causes” via a metaphor involving forest fires (dry timber, oxygen, a lit match are all causes; the match is the difference maker, as the timber and oxygen are always there). A running analogy involving The Phantom of the Opera is also successful. Finally, when he steps back and takes a more general approach, as he does toward a sort of encapsulating close when he explains the pitfalls of greater genetic testing or the over-promising of gene therapy/gene editing, things become quite easy to follow.

That said, it can often get a bit thick for lay readers. Here, for instance, is one section:

The ß -thalassemia occurs when there is decreased or no production of ß -globin chains and thus of HbA. This is due to mutations within, or related to the expression of, the HBB (hemoglobin subunit beta) gene on Chromosome 11 that encodes the ß -globin chains … On the other hand, heterozygotes (i.e. those carrying on ß -thalassemia allele) and other compound heterozygotes can have a variety of conditions …

Unfortunately, and this is obviously no fault of Kampourakis, the ease of reading was made more difficult by how Kindle continues to struggle with poetry and textbooks, and so formatting issues on the Kindle version, whereby sidebars and illustration explanations were not always clearly distinguished from main text, such that you might be reading along, turn the page, and begin reading something not connected to the prior sentence.

I confess there were times I’m not sure I fully got everything, but mostly I just had to work harder and concentrate more than is often the case with popular science books. I don’t therefore want to imply lay readers should skip Understanding Genes, but they should be prepared to put in some effort and probably shouldn’t read it while streaming TV. Recommended with caveats.

Published in November 2021. What are genes? What do genes do? These questions are not simple and straightforward to answer; at the same time, simplistic answers are quite prevalent and are taken for granted. This book aims to explain the origin of the gene concept, its various meanings both within and outside science, as well as to debunk the intuitive view of the existence of ‘genes for’ characteristics and disease. Drawing on contemporary research in genetics and genomics, as well as on ideas from history of science, philosophy of science, psychology and science education, it explains what genes are and what they can and cannot do. By presenting complex concepts and research in a comprehensible and rigorous manner, it examines the potential impact of research in genetics and genomics and how important genes actually are for our lives. Understanding Genes is an accessible and engaging introduction to genes for any interested reader.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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