Know your genes

If you only ever read one book on ge­net­ics, let it be this one.

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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.

Sid­dhartha Mukherjee Scrib­ner, non­fic­tion The Gene: An In­ti­mate His­tory

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