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“The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee – A Review & Giveaway

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.

Fascinating, right?

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.

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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. 


The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, A Review & Giveaway




18 thoughts to ““The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee – A Review & Giveaway”

  1. Nancy, I’d love to get a copy of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s new book! Thanks for the offer.

    I hate to admit it, but until last year I had only a vague understanding of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, though there is a light history of both in my family. I had heard of HBOC but not BRCA! I think after my mom died of metastatic breast cancer (recurrence 17 years after initial diagnosis and treatment), I just didn’t have the emotional or mental bandwidth to take in any info about hereditary cancer and my potential risk. All my health care providers said that since my mom didn’t get diagnosed with BC until after menopause, there probably wasn’t a genetic link. It’s what I wanted to hear, so I didn’t question it.

    Last year I was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer and promptly referred to a genetic counselor. I ended up testing BRCA2+, and later learned two maternal cousins had also tested BRCA+ back in the late 90’s but didn’t inform their extended family.

    Well, I think I’ve grown in my understanding of genetics’ role in the cancer landscape, and the emotional toll taken by knowing a mutation runs in the family. Your blog has helped me cope with my cancer slog/trek/forced march/“journey “.

  2. My paternal grandma died in her 50’s after breast cancer metastasized to her brain. Two of my paternal aunts are both breast and ovarian cancer survivors and carry the BRCA2 mutation. At age 38 I was diagnosed with breast cancer and tested positive for the BRCA2 mutation. And I have two children. I share this information because it’s so incredibly important to bring awareness of HBOC (hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome) to our communities. Even with a family history I didn’t know I carried the mutation until I found out at a fairly young age that I, too, had breast cancer. Spread the word so we can work together to help spread awareness of genetic mutations and the impact on our health! I’m currently writing a memoir about this exact topic. Thanks for reading this post.

  3. I would like an opportunity to get this book, too. However, as mentioned in a comment above, I don’t have the energy to read something like this. the sad part about having breast cancer is that it forces you to earn a Ph.D in a subject you never had any interest in. Makes reading about this stuff very hard.

  4. I would love a chance to win a copy of this book. Science fascinates me and especially genetics. Even more so since my BRCA mutation status became my reality. You always have the best posts!

  5. Hi Nancy,
    Thanks again for recognizing that this week is HBOC Awareness Week. I’m unable to work right now because of the ongoing side effects of estrogen depletion (there are many that the doctors didn’t fully explain -grrr), but the good news is that I have more time than ever before. I’ve been starting my days by watching The Today Show which has featured some remarkable stories to kick off October which is national Breast Cancer Awareness month. I’m hopeful that this news platform will reach its wide audience by covering stories about hereditary breast and ovarian cancer so that the public can be better informed. THANK YOU for being on top of ALL aspects of breast cancer! I really enjoy following your blog.

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