Sunday, April 07, 2013

Of Flies, Mice, and Men by François Jacob

Published by Harvard University Press
It is thanks to François Jacob that I began to understand what evolution meant at the molecular level, when I read his wonderful book Le jeu des possibles (The possible and the actual), more than ten years ago. And “Evolution is tinkering”, Jacob’s catchphrase, is with me ever since. 

Jacob, now 92 years old, began his scientific career after fighting in World War II, and studied lysogenic phages in bacteria at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. There he met Jacques Monod, starting one of the most fruitful collaboration of the 20th century. Their work on genetic regulation in E. coli culminated in a Nobel Prize in 1965. In addition to their revolutionary contribution to molecular biology, Jacob and Monod also wrote books of great importance and large outreach, notably Chance and necessity (Monod) and The logic of life (Jacob).  

Of flies, mice, and men1 (1998) is his last book to date, a personal journey across biology that spans several decades. The different chapters feel a little bit disconnected, because apparently they were first written as lectures for different occasions, but the book is very enjoyable. Jacob is one of these great scientific figures with a real literary culture, one who can invoke Dino Buzzatti and ancient greek myths, the poets Paul Valéry and John Keats, or Tolstoy.