The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee – Book Review

Title: The Gene: An Intimate History

Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee

Genre/Themes: Non Fiction, Science, Biology, Genetics

Blurb from Goodreads

Spanning the globe and several centuries, The Gene is the story of the quest to decipher the master-code that makes and defines humans, that governs our form and function.

The story of the gene begins in an obscure Augustinian abbey in Moravia in 1856 where a monk stumbles on the idea of a ‘unit of heredity’. It intersects with Darwin’s theory of evolution, and collides with the horrors of Nazi eugenics in the 1940s. The gene transforms post-war biology. It reorganises our understanding of sexuality, temperament, choice and free will. This is a story driven by human ingenuity and obsessive minds – from Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel to Francis Crick, James Watson and Rosalind Franklin, and the thousands of scientists still working to understand the code of codes.

This is an epic, moving history of a scientific idea coming to life. But woven through The Gene is also an intimate history – the story of Mukherjee’s own family and its recurring pattern of mental illness, reminding us that genetics is vitally relevant to everyday lives. These concerns reverberate even more urgently today as we learn to “read” and “write” the human genome – unleashing the potential to change the fates and identities of our children.

Majestic in its ambition, and unflinching in its honesty, The Gene gives us a definitive account of the fundamental unit of heredity – and a vision of both humanity’s past and future.

My Review

The Gene: an intimate history‘ is a most readable story about what it means to be human.

It is a book that attempts to shine a light on the complex and often fraught history of understanding heredity. The book is laid out in a relatively easy to follow format with a writing style suited to those without a scientific background but with a keen interest in science. 

What makes this very readable for the non-scientist is how the author relates the history of the gene, determining the human genome and the advancements in gene therapy with his own family story of mental illness.

He also carefully chooses case studies which humanise the face of genetic research and helps to pose questions about ethics and scientific responsibilities while demonstrating the positive advances made by the scientific community. 

The book starts off with the workings of Gregor Mendel. Anyone with secondary level/high school biology will no doubt be familiar with Mendelian genetics and will recall their days of first creating punnet squares in science class!!

The book follows on from these early days through to the dawn of the eugenics era and how it so easily and chillingly turned into genocide with the rise of Nazism. 

A frequent motif throughout the book is focusing on the scientists behind the research and some of their actions which can best be described as being soap opera worthy!! It is this type of storytelling that provides the lay reader with moments of respite from the more technically heavy detail. People will no doubt be familiar with the testy relationship between the founding fathers of DNA structure, Watson and Crick, and Rosalind Franklin whose work was instrumental in their determination of said structure. More recent soap opera worthy stories surround the Human Genome Project with private enterprise facing off against publicly funded research. 

As this is a book describing the history of the gene there is a lot of science terminology.

It is unavoidable.

In my opinion I think it was handled as expertly as possible and I felt that there were sufficient explanations of the scientific processes behind the ever advancing technologies.

I should however point out that my background is in scientific research and therefore none of the processes and themes described therein were new to me, but as I read I firmly kept the perspective of a non-scientist in mind with regards to my review of the book. 

The chronological style of the book helped to layer up the information learned piece by piece and I felt this was so skilfully done that I wished I had read this book as a young undergraduate coming to grips with simple genetics. I think it would have made excellent supplemental reading in my early undergraduate studies because of this, and the pop-culture style of the book, which would have made a refreshing change from some of my more stilted text books. And therefore, I would highly recommend this book as additional reading to any science student requiring an understanding of genetics within their first year of their degree course. 

I was however, somewhat disappointed with the coverage and explanations given to the topic of epigenetics.

This was the weakest aspect of the book and needed to be further explored to provide a more complete view of current genetics in my opinion.

However, this book still felt very relevant. It was more or less completed in the spring of 2015 and the author had stayed relatively up to date with his references. The last section of the book was excellently laid out and I thought gave the facts of current gene therapies and gene targeting with minimal bias. 

Other buzz-worthy topics mentioned in the book which will no doubt be of interest to many include discussions regarding gender and sexual identity, IVF treatments, genetic screening (breast cancer, CF, Huntington’s) and targeted gene therapies to name but a few. 

Overall this was a very enjoyable read and while it won’t be an easy read for anyone without a scientific background I would still heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning about genes and heredity, and who especially wants to inform themselves about controversial topics such as genetic screening, stem cell research and the tangible possibilities of future manipulation of our genome.

The book ends with a warning for the future about the responsibility of scientists and society at large when it comes to the negative possibilities of genetic intervention. 

But an infinitely deeper quandary is raised when an intelligent organism learns to write its own instructions. If genes determine the nature and fate of an organism, and if organisms now begin to determine the nature and fate of their genes, then a circle of logic closes on itself. Once we start thinking of genes as destiny, manifest, then it is inevitable to begin imagining the human genome as manifest destiny.

When we claim to find “genes for” certain human features or functions, it is by virtue of defining that feature narrowly. It makes sense to define “genes for” blood type or “genes for” height since these biological attributes have intrinsically narrow definitions. But it is an old sin of biology to confuse the definition of a feature with the feature itself. If we define “beauty” as having blue eyes (and only blue eyes), then we will, indeed, find a “gene for beauty.” If we define “intelligence” as the performance on only one kind of problem in only one kind of test, then we will, indeed, find a “gene for intelligence.” The genome is only a mirror for the breadth or narrowness of human imagination. It is Narcissus, reflected.


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