Book review

Six hundred pages that will tell you more about yourself and your future than anything else

Few books pack as much science with as much intimacy as Siddhartha Mukherjee’s ‘The Gene’.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History is an extraordinarily riveting book. It is easy to forget you are reading a densely packed account of the gene. There is a phenomenal amount of technical information packed in, with many anecdotes, some personal, inserted judiciously into the narrative.

Across 600-plus pages, Pulitzer Prize winner Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer) narrates the story of the discovery of genes, the evolution of genetics as a scientific discipline, and the rapid strides this science has made in about a century. Consider this. The term “gene”, coined by the monk Gregor Mendel in the nineteenth century was all but lost for more than six decades, only to be revived in early twentieth century, after which it became a common term.

A few decades later it led to the coining of “genocide” in Nazi Germany.

Half a century later, the helical structure of DNA & RNA was discovered. Two decades later, questions were being raised about the ethics of genetics and tinkering with genes. Yet, recombinant genes were put to use in commercial production for insulin, achieving resounding success. And by 2000, about a century from the time the word “gene” was revived, the Human Genome project was announced.

Pythagoras, Aeschylus and Plato, were convinced that the “likeness” of a human being passed on via the “mobile library” preserved in semen. Aristotle rejected this notion by astutely observing that children can inherit features from their mothers and grandmothers too. The Gene details the manner in which, over the centuries, people theorised how information was carried across generations without really understanding the mechanism or even having a name for it till Mendel’s experiments with peas and Darwin’s theories.

Mukherjee argues that the resurrection of the term was a watershed moment in the history of genetics, as suddenly there was a concatenation of events that led to furious progress in understanding the gene mechanism – coining the word, understanding the structure, exploring the mechanism, and estimating the potential.

Distortion of knowledge

Soon afterwards, the Nazis used this branch of “applied biology” to enable Rassenhygiene or “racial hygiene”, citing genetic theory to justify their policy of Lebensunwertes Leben or “lives unworthy of living” and the establishment of extermination centres such as Hadamar and the Brandenburg State Welfare Institute. Their notion was based on the premise that identity was fixed by genetic make-up.

Curiously enough, another ideological position in existence at the same time in Soviet Russia viewed the principle of heredity as having its basis in complete pliability. In both cases, science was deliberately distorted to support state-sponsored mechanisms of “cleansing”.

These twisted applications were overshadowed by rapid advancement in genetics, leading to, inter alia, the discovery of recombinant DNA, which helped create crucial medicines such as insulin, the ability to clone creatures as with Dolly the Sheep.

Not surprisingly, questions began to be asked about the ethical aspects of genetics. These questions feature prominently in Mukherjee’s examination, as he weighs the implications of using genome engineering to “enhance” humans, asking if it’s a good idea.

Uncovering truths

It has been an extraordinary period of success for curious and imaginative scientists trying to understand the principles of heredity, what makes it tick, what information gets passed on from generation to generation, what is gained and what is lost in evolution — always striving to push the boundaries to ask more and more questions.

To a lay reader, The Gene is a brilliant historical overview, but it also does a fantastic job of reinstating Rosalind Franklin as one of the four scientists responsible for discovering the helical structure of DNA. A fact that had been lost in history for some decades even when the Nobel Committee conferred the prize on Watson and Crick.

It is only recently that Rosalind Franklin’s name has been mentioned alongside Watson and Crick’s. Mukherjee lays down the facts of their experiments and analysis in a way that makes it evident that the scientists were working simultaneously on the same subject, albeit not together.

What began as an attempt to understand the reasons for “madness” that seems to exist in his family, led to an absorbing account of the “triggers” that are responsible for mapping information and carrying it from generation to generation. The Gene is outstanding for the manner in which it weaves the author’s precise scientific temper, offering technical information, with factually accurate and significant contemporary events. Siddharth Mukherjee puts forth a magnificently rich historical narrative of the gene, the truth that hides within each of us.

The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Hamish Hamilton.

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