Recently, I finished reading The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD. Scribner, 2016. 596 pages. Most of us in Cancer Land are familiar with Mukherjee’s acclaimed 2011 Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies. The latter was made into a PBS documentary. You can read my review of that four-part television series here. The book and the documentary are both very well done. The Gene will be presented as a three-hour Ken Burns – Siddhartha Mukherjee collaborated documentary film on PBS as well in spring of 2020. I’ll be watching.
I decided sharing a few thoughts about The Gene would be especially fitting with HBOC (Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer) Week coming up next week. However, this book is not just for those impacted by hereditary illnesses.
This book is for anyone wanting to understand more about the secrets of DNA and how the science of genetics came to be.
Reading this book was no small undertaking due to the book’s subject matter, detail and length. More to the point, my concentration ability isn’t what it was prior to cancer. It just isn’t. (Is yours?)
But I was determined to make my way through it, and I did. Now I want to tell you, my Dear Readers, a little bit about it.
First, I’ll tell you about the book’s layout:
The Gene begins with a compelling Prologue: Families. It’s then divided into six parts. Part One: The “Missing Science of Heredity” 1865-1935. Part Two: “In the Sum of the Parts, There Are Only the Parts” 1930-1970. Part Three: “The Dreams of Geneticists” (1970-2001). Part Four: “The Proper Study of Mankind Is Man” (1970-2005). Part Five: Through the Looking Glass (2001-2015). Part Six: Post-Genome (2015-…). Epilogue: Bheda, Abheda. There is also a helpful glossary, timeline, notes section, extensive bibliography and index.
I’m not gonna lie, this book is not a light read. It’s long. And detailed. In some ways, it reads like a biology or genetics text book. It took me several weeks to read it. Let’s just say, it covers a lot of ground.
I’m not sure how much actual information I retain, but who cares? Having this resource to refer back to is what matters.
Though not a light read, The Gene is captivating nonetheless.
Covering centuries of scientific questioning, research and hypothesizing, Mukherjee guides the reader on a compelling and sometimes sobering journey carefully explaining how humans slowly came to understand the complex role of genes in determining who we are.
As Mukherjee reminds us, from the beginning of human history, people have wondered how traits of likeness are passed on from parents to children. Aristotle was among the first to present theories. Around 350 B.C., he proposed that men and women carried their likeness in their blood. Hence, the term bloodline that still is used today.
Centuries later, Gregor Mendel, the renowned botanist and monk forbidden to experiment on mice, instead turned to the gardens of the abbey. For years, he kept intricate records and accumulated mounds of data from which he ultimately identified units of heredity based primarily on his study of peas. He is sometimes referred to as the father of modern genetics.
In 1869, Darwin published his famous, On the Origin of Species. I mention these two men because most of us learned about them during high school or college biology courses. But there have been so many others that contributed to the ultimate rise of what has come to be known as the “missing science of heredity.” Mukherjee covers many of their contributions as well in great depth. Honestly, writing this book must’ve been a massive undertaking.
Jumping forward to the the period from 1900-1909, Mendel’s work was rediscovered. The word gene was born.
What is a gene anyway? (Glossary p. 499)
A unit of inheritance, normally comprised of a stretch of DNA that codes for a protein or for an RNA chain (in special cases, genes might be carried in RNA form)
Sounds simple enough, but indeed, it is anything but.
One big take for me from reading this book is this important reminder: history and science are intricately interwoven and the impact of both is often quite profound.
Reading The Gene is like reading a book about history as well as one about science.
Scientific progress is often painstakingly slow. Research takes years. Results are slow to come. Perseverance is key. This book illustrates the non-linear, slow evolution of the study of heredity. I came away with a great sense of appreciation for the many men and women who brought us to where we are today.
And clearly, we still have far to go.
In addition to providing the reader a concise, thorough, well-explained timeline about the evolution of genetics, Mukherjee also poses questions we need to contemplate about ethical dilemmas that have arisen and that will continue to arise as we advance in our knowledge. He reminds us that the nature vs nurture debate goes on and that thinking of either as absolutes makes no sense.
And perhaps the biggest question of all, how much gene selection, intervention, manipulation or modification are we willing to accept before that invisible line is crossed?
Of course, I couldn’t wait to read the section titled, “Genetic Diagnosis: ‘Previvors'”.
Mukherjee suggests the recently coined word previvor has a “distinctly Orwellian ring.” (What do you think?)
The segment titled, “Lebensunwertes Leben (Lives Unworthy of Living)” was, of course, disturbing. Mukherjee walks us through that particular dark period of humanity’s history – when Hitler and his Nazi party embraced the concept of “racial hygiene” also referred to as genetic cleansing. The ghastly, slippery slope of sterilization of those who “failed to measure up” accelerated to the formation of extermination camps and mass murder. Genetics became part of something evil.
What a dark period indeed.
But before we start to feel too morally superior, we shouldn’t forget that eugenic sterilization based on the labeling of certain individuals as feebleminded was going on right here in the US.
In 1924, feeblemindedness was further defined as being one of three sorts: idiot, moron and imbecile.
As Mukherjee writes:
Feebleminded women were sent to the Virginia State Colony (for Epileptics and Feebleminded) for confinement to ensure that they would not continue breeding and thereby contaminate the population with further morons and idiots…the place was never meant to be a hospital or asylum. Rather, from its inception, it was designed to be a containment zone.
For me, the most fascinating parts of this book are the parts in which Mukherjee gives us glimpses into his personal life. Or more aptly, into his family’s seemingly genetic disposition to mental illness. Especially moving are the accounts of his uncles’ and cousins’ sudden appearance of schizophrenia.
In fact, before their marriage, Mukherjee was compelled to tell his future wife about the madness in his family:
It was only fair to a future partner that I should come with a letter of warning.
The Gene is dedicated to Mukherjee’s grandmother who loved and defended the most fragile of her children. I found that touching.
I loved the personal parts of Mukherjee’s book the most. I’m hoping there will be a memoir, at some point.
Topics for discussion and debate in The Gene are too many to list, and the vast amount of science-based information shared within the pages cannot be properly summarized in a blog post. Not by this blogger anyway.
What I hope this post does do is spark your interest in reading this book for yourself.
The study of the gene and the human genome has opened a new frontier filled with much promise and opportunity but considerable angst and dilemma as well.
As Mukherjee writes:
By the mid-20th century, the gene had become one of the most dangerous ideas in history.
What we do with our ever-expanding knowledge will perhaps be the ultimate test of our humanity.
Regardless, history will continue to be written, and to some extent at least, we will all be accountable for what transpires.
Would you like a chance to win a FREE copy of The Gene: An Intimate History?
If so, leave a comment stating you wish to participate by 5 pm on October 2nd, and you’ll be entered in my giveaway! A US mailing address is required.