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Body of Knowledge

Stephen Kahler

Encyclopedia of Human Biology. Second edition. Renato Dulbecco, Editor-in-Chief. Nine volumes. 6,985 pp. in eight volumes, plus 265 pp. index volume. Academic Press, 1997. $2,100.

The second edition is a spectacular achievement. Renato Dulbecco and a 64-member editorial advisory board have assembled a truly distinguished group of authors, among them 11 Nobel Prize winners, who have made the wonders of current human biology understandable to the layperson with an interest in science.

Speckled antibodiesClick to Enlarge Image

The editor writes that this encyclopedia is "a complete overview of the current state of knowledge of contemporary human biology." How complete? I first made a list of 50 issues I considered important in human biology or medicine, then consulted the encyclopedia. I found up-to-date information on all but two of them: intelligence and leprosy. Basic human biology, including anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and metabolism, DNA structure, hormones and cell structure are clearly explained. Atherosclerosis and heart attacks, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, genetic technology, artificial organs, human origins, transplantation, sexual orientation and behavior, malaria, human immunodeficiency virus and tuberculosis are well covered.

I was surprised not to find more on the biggest issue in psychology: intelligence. What is being measured? Is there a general factor underlying all human reasoning? How much of what is measured is heritable? Can it be influenced by diet, rearing, schooling? There is some discussion of male-female differences, but no comprehensive overview. A greater discussion of intelligence would be a welcome contribution to the next edition.

Because it is comprehensive and extremely readable, the encyclopedia will be used to find specific information and for browsing. It should be exceptionally useful to biologists of all sorts, including physicians who wish to become more familiar with recent discoveries. (Although much of the material in molecular biology, physiology and anatomy will be familiar to current medical students, other material is beyond the range of modern medical education.)

This encyclopedia should occupy a prominent place in college and university libraries, biomedical research institutes and well-equipped high schools. It would be my choice for a second encyclopedia, after a general one, for the comprehensive home library, although the cost is a drawback and no compact-disk version is available at present. By comparison, the Encyclopedia Britannica print set costs $1,500, and its CD version lists at $125. I hope the publishers of the Encyclopedia of Human Biology can eventually make this magnificent work more affordable.—Stephen G. Kahler, The Murdoch Institute, Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne, Australia

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