Siddhartha Mukherjee’s previous book, The Emperor Of All Maladies: A Biography Of Cancer (2010), garnered him a Pulitzer Prize. It’s easy to see why. His writing is extraordinarily good, with a literary and lyrical bent not usually found in works of nonfiction.
This book’s introduction alone is worth reading for its touching poignancy, relating a passage of his family history linked to mental illness and India’s partition in 1947, and explaining the “intimate” context of the book’s title. Due to various genetic predispositions Mukherjee has what in common parlance might be referred to as “skin in the game”.
But The Gene is not an autobiography and the focus quickly shifts to its main role: an authoritative and in-depth history of genetics. The author goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks and the curious and interesting ideas Aristotle and Pythagoras had on the subject, then moves through a detailed sketch of Gregor Mendel and his monastic experiments with pea plants. Interestingly, as important as they have proven to be, Mendel’s conclusions on plant hybridization were almost universally ignored during his lifetime and only re-discovered by academics researching the topic.
Little of what is contained within this book is new, but though it covers much of the same ground as many works of popular science, we are treated to evocative scenes throughout. Mukherjee walks us through Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle, his study of finches, Alfred Russell’s work in Borneo, and both men’s search for the underlying cause of variation within species, and on through their simultaneous formulation of the theories of the origin of the species, and the manner in which their work marked a new threshold for scientific thought and laid the foundations for much of our modern understanding of biology.
At times this is a harrowing read, particularly when it discusses the forced sterilisation of women, and even more so when dealing with the horrific atrocities carried out in the name of genetics and science in Nazi Germany during World War II. Surprisingly, Mukherjee skips over the obvious fact that the forced sterilisation of women could never make sense as a solution to limiting the spread of genetically transmitted conditions considering that, technically, men are disproportionately capable of fathering children while women remain relatively limited in the number of progeny they can produce. If similar objections were raised historically Mukherjee makes no mention of them, nor does he make any himself, perhaps trusting the reader to come to his own conclusions.
The passage concerning the Nazis and how their wilful misinterpretation of scientific concepts led, with frightening rapidity, to the systematic extermination of anyone exhibiting any difference in skin colour, religion, cultural practice or sexual orientation, all under the guise of science in the service of racial purity, is particularly distressing. Mukherjee doesn’t pull his punches or spare our sensitivities – nor should he. He reminds us that we still very much live in a world where the use of race, religion, and scapegoats for political advantage is all too common, and recalls that we only have to look back a few decades in human history to see how the science of genetics has been used to justify the murders of millions of our fellow humans.
As the book moves into the second half of the last century, the science becomes more complicated and the technical details may wear down the casual reader. But Mukherjee manages to dilute the heavier theoretical parts with stories of the people involved, rendering them in affectionate detail so that we don’t see them merely as faceless white lab coats, but as real people with their own, often tragic, personal histories. He recounts Francis Crick and James Watson’s modelling of the DNA molecule so vividly that it reads like a drama or a sitcom, then brings it up to the present via cancer research and the deciphering of the human genome, among other things.
Overall, this book can be seen as a cautionary tale. Despite its long history, in many ways we are just in the infancy of genetics. The subject will only gain more importance in the future and is likely to radically transform the way we live, in the same way as innovations such as steam railways or the Internet have done.
We have already entered a new era of genetic literacy. It’s one thing to be able to read genetic code – to be able to write it is quite another matter. And with the ability to manipulate genes comes great responsibility. The ethical considerations humanity will face in the coming years are huge. Understanding the spotted history of genetics is an important part of laying the groundwork for making those decisions. The Gene should be essential reading for any science student and is highly recommended for the layperson. If you only ever read one book on genetics let it be this one.
The Gene: An Intimate History
Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Publisher: Scribner, nonfiction