People generally accept the idea that we can thank (or blame) our genes for much of what we are - not only the colour of hair, eyes or skin, but also personality traits and temperament. This acceptance has filtered through from years of research, which tells us over and over that there is a kind of genetic determinism at work - a process we can't control and which doesn't take no for an answer.

These assumptions enjoy far less agreement on the academic front, however; for decades vicious battles have been fought and enemies made over what should be attributed to genes. No quarter is given in this fight, which pits scientist against scientist in an effort to wrest control over the legacy of Darwin's theory of evolution.

Petty squabbling is too small a phrase for it, judging from this excellently written chronicle of the Darwin wars by Andrew Brown. With wit and verve he details how camps and disciples have formed about the two key protagonists, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, two of the most articulate and skilled communicators that science has produced this century.

But there is little heroism in this war. There are no lofty ideals being fought for; it is, rather, an attempt to dictate what evolution means and where it goes next. It is an unseemly battle but one which can be enormously entertaining, as any good brawl can be.

Brown is a wonderful writer, giving the reader a front-row seat on the proceedings and allowing us to become familiar with the concepts before introducing us to the fighters in each corner. He sets out the ground rules concisely: 'The Darwin wars are not between believers and dis-believers in evolution, or in Darwinism. They are about the scope and proper limits of Darwinian explanations. The question in dispute is not 'where does design come from?' but 'where does it stop?', and to some extent it is a question to which there can be no definite answer.'

Brown is an engaging writer who describes Dawkins as 'a neat, handsome, rather bird-like man, who pays attention to his plumage'. At his birth, he adds, the good fairy gave him good looks, intelligence, charm and a chair at Oxford specially endowed for him. However, 'the bad fairy studied him a while and said: 'Give him a gift for metaphor'. He has a talent for the dazzling phrase which would be remarkable in a professional writer. In a zoologist it appears a freak of nature.'

Brown argues that this same skill - as exercised in Dawkins' The Selfish Gene - has served to mislead: if, he says, you ask yourself why people nowadays believe in genes the way the ancient Greeks believed in gods, and why they believe that human behaviour is determined by genes for everything, one answer is that they got these ideas from reading Richard Dawkins.

A working journalist, Brown takes a suitably disparaging approach to much popular nonsense about inherited traits. He mentions Steven Pinker, considered a committed member of the Dawkins tribe - who, in his book How the Mind Works, explains why millionaires prefer penthouses with expansive views over the countryside by suggesting that 'such places would have appealed to our ancestors when they were cave-hunting'. Brown immediately counterpoints this: 'The objection to this stuff is not that it isn't true; it may be. But so might the exactly opposite proposition be: Bill Gates builds a low house, clinging to the ground; is this because his ancestors felt more secure concealed in long grass?'

In another chapter Brown dismisses the 'Flintstone anthropology' which also often surrounds aspects of the Darwin Wars, bad science used to describe unsustainable arguments about genetic determinism. Pseudoreligious imagery is also a regular feature he notes, but adds: 'The real enemy of science is not organised religion, but the guerrilla forces of disorganised credulity.'

Brown weaves philosophy, science and religion into an unexpected whole on the strength of his undoubted skills as a writer. This is an entertaining book and while the two groups of scientists will not be best pleased by its contents, observers of human nature certainly will.

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