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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As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.