Chance in the House of Fate, Jennifer Ackerman's fascinating new book, is natural both in mission and execution. Blending ruminations on heredity with scientific knowledge, Ackerman draws readers in with a series of questions and thoughts about genetics that surpass what we typically consider "nature writing."
By using personal anecdotes to illustrate her points, Ackerman, a former staff writer for the National Geographic Society and the author of Notes from the Shore, treats her readers like confidants as well as students. She writes of her fear that her unborn child will be retarded and of the ways in which she searches out family patterns in her own life. Her mother's cancer becomes a jumping-off point for emotional exploration and for a navigation of the mystery of why opiates help alleviate pain.
Ackerman also interviews various experts along the way, so that her discussions of topics like cell life are enriched by specialists' opinions and insights. Interviewing a researcher at the University of California in San Diego who studies the relations between proteins to see which are similar, Ackerman realizes that the age-old bonds between these amino acids help to demonstrate that we as humans are "sheathed in the shapes of the past, the skulls and shells and skeletons, the kringles and fingers, which make fate."
The book also demonstrates how intimately linked humankind is to the natural world. By delving into the myriad ways that scent marks and guides us, for instance, Ackerman shows how close we are to our animal relatives. She also discusses antibiotics and the ways in which they can mold our resistance. These infinitesimal protectors become personalized. As Ackerman writes, "In the mammalian gut, the chemical cross-talk is cacophonous, like the prattle and gab at a raucous cocktail party." Ackerman's prose is graceful, nearly lyrical at times an affirmation of the idea that science does not necessarily have to be treated with scientific detachment. The way in which she focuses on the beauty of scientific language enriches her expertise. With Chance in the House of Fate, she proves that inquisitiveness and awe have their place among scientific observers.
"It's what I love about biology, about evolution, too," Ackerman writes, "you can't narrow down the wonder."
Eliza McGraw lives in Cabin John, Maryland.