[Book Review] The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Gene: An Intimate History

One of the greatest joys of being a young reader is how many books I am still yet to discover, and how many great works are still yet to interact with my consciousness. That’s right, I’m immensely ignorant and it thrills me. It just thrills me.

I discovered Siddhartha for the first time at Text Book Centre during a window shopping exercise, because that’s a thing dorks do; just going to bookshops and looking at books and then going home to think some more about the beautiful covers and opening lines the great goddess Athena keeps showering upon us. Over the next few weeks I got obsessed with the book, and when a friend took me to Bookstop for yet another ‘sightseeing’ sojourn, it was time to acquire this beauty.

What is it that makes us so similar that we are able to identify each other as members of the same species, and yet so different as to have circa 7 Billion variants of us dithering around on planet earth [as far as we know]. This, essentially, is the question Siddhartha Mukherjee sets to answer in this tome. As the story weaves along, this question breeds interesting subsidies; what is the essence of our genetic makeup? What are genes? How do they work? What controls our whims and quirks? What determines sexual orientation? How are family traits perpetuated? Why are twins so similar to each other but not replicas of each other? Is Cancer heritable? Nature or Nurture? What are the Eugenics-esque moral and ethical questions of our day? And so on and so forth.

The book begins with one of the most heart-breaking/braking stories I have ever heard, of Mukherjee’s family struggle with mental illness post the Great Indian Partition of 1947 and ostensibly Siddhartha’s motivation to write the book. Schizophrenia, then polar disorder. I thought this prologue made Mukherjee instantly relatable, the vulnerability making the book that much less abstract, which I thought is essential for a topic so unlikely.

Upon finishing this prologue though, one realises that the book is a work of deliberately and extremely didactic nonfiction, but unlike a lot of books that aim to teach, it also works extremely hard at being a moving storybook. It is both a work of history and a work of art, literally and figuratively.

The first story is an introduction to the life and work of Gregor Mendel, a young Monk in Czech Republic (you may have heard of his peas in Biology classes), and we follow him through the 19th Century, before realising that his work that should have changed the world, ended up being buried in relative obscurity until way after his death in the early 20th century. We are then transported to England (where it would appear almost all major milestones in the field  of Genetics were made, so much so the word ‘Cambridge’ appears 108 times throughout the book), where we meet the familiar work of Charles Darwin and his immense struggle reconciling natural selection to evolution.

It is amazing to me how Siddhartha links these stories, because no sooner do we learn about Darwin’s work, than we are introduced to his cousin Galton, who became the father of Eugenics. If you are not familiar to the ‘Science’ of Eugenics, it is the theory that there are certain human traits worth promoting, and some worth suppressing. It is essentially artificial selection, with the belief that this process should eventually result in an improved race of humans. Both positive eugenics [promotion of superior traits] and negative eugenics [repression of inferior traits] are about cleansing of the ‘other’. Originally, the theory was pro-promoting traits such as intelligence and physical fitness. But because the cleansing of the entire human race wasn’t fast enough [coupled with the racism of the day], it spiralled into promotion of sterilisation of persons with ‘undesirable traits’, before culminating into the mass extermination of these ‘others’ in Nazi Germany in 1930s and 40s.  Mukherjee highlights the particular case of Carrie Buck, who was sterilized in 1927 while being committed to a Colony for the Epileptics and Feebleminded in Virginia, the same colony her mother had ended up a few years earlier.

The case of Carrie Buck was possibly the toughest bit of the book for me to read, but if it is any consolation, the book has plenty of other mind-blowing segments, but in the utmost wonderful way. For instance, we take it for granted the knowledge that the structure of the gene is a double helix, but this discovery took years to come to, and Mukherjee tells the story of Watson and Crick, and their discovery/construction of this model in the 1950s that completely changed how Science imagined the Gene and the arrangement of the ACGT bases alongside it. There are also segments about the patenting of the Recombinant DNA technology that subsequently and controversially gave us the mass production of insulin et al. The Human Genome Project, the struggles and prospects of Stem Cell research, the future of Gene Therapy, the Asilomar Conference of 1978 where Scientists proved to the world that they had the capacity and discipline for self-censorship to preserve a moral and ethical position. There is so much goodness in Science!

There are two themes of the book that made the utmost impact on me. The first is our mass cultural delusion of what is normal and what is “other”. For instance, we live in societies that ‘other’ persons with disability, gay persons, persons with certain [genetic] illnesses and often make their lives difficult to live. Mukherjee emphasises severally that what is interpreted as normal is simply a statistical advantage. We then use this advantage to create structures that promote persons who are like us, and this only creates inequalities for members of our species who are just as naturally occurring as we are. (Consider this, there was no concept of dyslexia until we invented reading, and then all of a sudden people with dyslexia were suddenly disadvantaged). The word unnatural is a misnomer when used to describe things that occur in nature. No such thing. He reminds us that it is because we have so much variety that we evolve.

The second idea was the inextricability of politics and Science. As long as there are capitalistic/political motivations in the world, there will always be Pseudo-science to support said motivations. For instance, Eugenics in Nazi Germany rested on the work of a Josef Mengele, who was a PHD graduate, and a professor of Race Biology (which is not even a real thing). In the year 2000, Bill Clinton was going crazy when it became apparent that a private entity [and not the government] would likely be launching the results of the The Human Genome Project. In 2001, George W. Bush withdrew funding from embryonic stem cell research. As long as Science exists under political and capitalistic structures, there will be political influences on Science, and it’s upon us to be critical of what is sold as Science by the powers that be.

There is only so much I can write on this book, even after going way above our usual word limit (I apologise). I can’t possibly review it all. I learnt about the case of Jesse Gelsinger which made me cry like a baby (check it out), that until the 70s, insulin used to be produced from ground up dogs’ and cows’ liver, that dry vs wet ear wax is genetically determined and that there are so many women scientists in history, we have just not learnt enough. On and on.

This book is large, uber detailed and delights in occasionally being Super Science-y. However, it is incredibly enjoyable and readable [even for us who are not sufficiently nerdy]. It is impossible to state with accuracy how much I want to read it again.

Highly highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5 stars