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NON-FICTION: Breaking the code

March 12, 2017

The Gene: An Intimate History By Siddhartha Mukherjee Scribner, US ISBN: 978-1476733500 608pp.

Full disclosure: I hate Siddhartha Mukherjee. And I’m willing to admit that my hatred is not rational. It is absolutely, firmly rooted in the fact that it feels appallingly unfair — not logically, just emotionally — that someone can be so accomplished, both as a scientist and a storyteller. Mukherjee has a remarkable ability to translate academic, abstract concepts into personal narrative. His Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies, used his background in treating cancer patients to cross personal and professional boundaries. But where The Emperor of All Maladies focused on Mukherjee’s experiences with patients, his new book, The Gene, shines a light on his own familial experiences.

It starts with Mukherjee’s own family history; two of his uncles are victims of “unravellings of the mind,” and the haunting spectre of mental illness permeates his life so deeply that he feels compelled to confess it to his wife before they get married. Luckily for all, rather than spend umpteen pages on his own personal demons, Mukherjee speedily plummets into the historical origins of today’s genetic science, ranging across over a century and a half of the discipline. The Gene is a blitzkrieg of erudition, blending history, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies and of course, biology, to examine heredity and the human condition: how much of who and what we are is predetermined?

In prose which is sometimes grandiose, sometimes complex, but mostly readable, Mukherjee describes how the first abstract intimations of what a gene could be were expressed by Pythagoras and Aristotle; how Gregor Mendel and his pea plants translated abstraction into appearance; how James Watson and Francis Crick were able to actually understand the structures that enabled it. Ultimately, he addresses how we are at a stage in history where we can narrow down the impact of a fundamental reality — say, biological gender — to a single gene.


Mapping the history and future of the gene that defines who we are in a single book is not an easy task


The structure of the book is much the same as that of its subject. Bracketed between the twisting phosphate backbones of personal history and scientific enquiry are the acid bases of ambition, theology, gender and culture that have paired together to express hundreds of different perspectives on genetic science as it stands today. (Can you tell that I, once upon a time, had pretensions of being a biologist?) But rather than just focusing on “an intimate history” (as the book’s subtitle goes), Mukherjee takes a swipe at some of the bigger issues: how will knowing our genes change who we are, and what impact will this knowledge have on our futures?

The context of these questions is sometimes horrifying to be sure, with historical flashbacks to not just the well-known ‘racial hygiene’ movement of the Nazis, but also the 1920s, when the Supreme Court of the United States approved the sterilisation of individuals in an effort to eradicate hereditary mental illnesses. This is not just for shock value; it’s quite disconcerting to realise that the word “eugenics” started life as an earnest descriptor of efforts to better the quality of life for human beings. And while Mukherjee does not shy away from describing these (at best) misguided efforts, neither does he harp on about them ad infinitum, preferring instead to link the evolution (pun intended) of genomic science to the larger issue of understanding what it is that makes us who we are.

In attempting to build this link, The Gene races through a dizzying array of historical attitudes. It attempts to understand how we get from pea plants of various heights, to a point in time when, for a few hundred dollars, you can get your genome (and its consequent indications of physical or mental landmines) mapped in its entirety. This road map of scientific progress is presented as a bit of a fait accompli — Mukherjee seems to make the argument that it’s almost inevitable for research to lead to progress, a bit like Lego building blocks stacking one upon the other to create an artefact of knowledge. This is a seductive premise, and despite the fact that Mukherjee tends to be disproportionate in his devotions (e.g., the fairly stunning fact that we homo sapiens co-existed with, and could interbreed with, Neanderthals merits about a paragraph), it is one that makes for a good read.

But let’s park the question of historical importance to ratio of page space, because despite some glossing over (which is almost impossible to avoid given the scale of this book), what Mukherjee does best is frame “real” stories in the context of their “real” implications. He makes it a point to link the discoveries of major conditions with actual ethical dilemmas and concerns — much how he did in The Emperor of All Maladies — attempting to make his tale an intensely personal read rather than a dry academic treatise. While this is a powerful narrative tool that he has used to great effect in the past, here Mukherjee struggles with the application of this approach, at least when it comes to his own family. They merit occasional mentions — powerful ones to be sure — but these are sporadic and feel more like a poorly used plot device, a break from all the sciencey stuff, if you will. It’s a shame, because this collation of the personal with the abstract is really what Mukherjee does best, and it would have gone a long way towards making this book slightly less abstruse.

The only real problem — and it’s a stretch to even call it a problem — with The Gene is that it is dense. Really dense. The sheer amount of background and context, of the science and of explaining said science, can make this enormously difficult to read. It’s not surprising though — just think about how mind-boggling it is that in the last four decades we have not only identified the building block of life, we have managed to figure out what it is made of, where in the human cell it can be found, and how it can be edited. Compressing the entire centuries-long creation myth into one book is no easy task, but it would be sycophantic and untrue to pretend that Mukherjee has written something that is easily accessible. This is, I suspect, also a slightly unfair outcome of having set such a high bar for well-written non-fiction in his last work. Still, to be a victim of one’s own success is certainly not the worst fate in the world.

Our DNA influences not just what we are, but who we may well become; conversely this comprehension comes as a matched-pair only with an equal level of fundamental cluelessness: as Aristotle said, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” Genes, as Mukherjee points out, are incapable of telling us “how to ... comprehend human diversity.” Although The Gene is, despite its best efforts, unable to so do either, it would be a mistake to confuse a lack of answers with a lack of insight and erudition.

The reviewer is a bibliophile and aspiring author

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 12th, 2017