The explanation of how DNA works can be as complicated as the organisms it helps put together. And yet, because this knowledge is essential to understanding the entire field of biology, we expect students to learn all about this alphabet soup, from ATGC to XX and XY.
In The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA, writer Mark Schultz and artists Zander and Kevin Cannon attempt to construct a comprehensive primer that not only explains each component and how each process works, but to make sure they come together into a complete picture, better to ensure a true understanding of the subjects rather than a disconnected series of facts. They do this by wrapping it up in a science fiction framework, taking us to the the distant planet of Glargal. There, the sea-cucumber-like invertebrate Squinch have fallen upon hard times; an unspecified genetic disorder is starting to affect the asexual populace, and their best scientists have been tasked with finding out why. Bloort 183, a scientist with the Royal Science Academy, believes the answer lies in the genetic diversity of Earth’s biology—but first, he must explain how it all works to His Supreme Highness Floorish 727.
The reader basically stands at the side of Floorish 727 as Bloort lays it all out, starting with the most complicated concepts first—how the molecules all come together—and eventually working his way up to the cellular level, trait inheritance, and finally practical applications of this increased genetic knowledge. It might not seem like a good idea to start with the hardest stuff first, but as Bloort explains, knowing how it works on the molecular level is essential to understanding everything that comes after. I can concur, coming from an educational background where the concept of inherited traits was introduced first, without any explanation of the underlying mechanics, and then years later did I only learn the rest, which only served to confuse me. Reading this book stitched everything together into a cohesive narrative, and I do feel I have a better grasp now.
Not that I would recommend replacing a traditional textbook with this graphic guide; the science fiction premise may cause some to take it less seriously, and the artists’ tendency to anthropomorphize the molecules in order to facilitate understanding sometimes obscures the actual chemical process—no good for those who are looking to study genetics beyond this primer. But for those who just need a solid conceptual understanding, this is a good way to go. Each step is delightfully illustrated, and when the content starts to get too heavy the writer is fully aware of the problem, having Floorish stop to summarize each section in case he (and we) missed anything.
At 142 pages (plus a glossary) The Stuff of Life may not seem long, but it’s one of the densest graphic books I’ve ever read. It treats its subject and its readers intelligently, and appropriately enough for a comic, with plenty of humor. Highly recommended.
* Note: Try to get a copy of the second edition if it exists; the first edition reprinted page 44 twice, accidentally replacing page 36.
The Stuff of Life: a graphic guide to genetics and DNA
written by Mark Schultz
illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon
edited by Howard Zimmerman
published by Hill and Wang (New York, 2009)