The Gene, an Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, explains and explores the origins and evolution of genetics through the lens of personal experience. Coming from a family with a history of psychological conditions, cancer physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee tries to reconcile himself to the answers his analysis suggests in this superbly written book.
As a discipline, Genetics has provoked debates, discussion and often terror. The thought that we are becoming increasingly capable of manipulating our own genetic make-up is the bête noir of Medicine. How far should we take it? Eradicating sickness and infirmity appears at first a laudable objective, until you consider that dealing with these weaknesses is part of what makes us human in the first place. Consider this remark, which Mukherjee makes towards the final chapter,
“Illness might progressively vanish, but so might identity. Grief might be diminished, but so might tenderness. Traumas might be erased, but so might history.”
Perhaps a parallel can be drawn between cosmetic surgery and genetic ‘surgery’. Smooth out the wrinkles and you wipe away the past, but often at the price of your identity. If it were no worse than that, perhaps the scale would still tip in favour of improvement, but genetic manipulation is far from superficial. It reaches deep beneath the surface of our skin, into the depths of personality, identity and fate. It is “the human genome as manifest destiny”, and our new ability to rewrite our genetic code is one terrifying, exhilarating step on from understanding it.
We learned to “read our own instructions” over the course of the last half century or so. The journey began with Darwin, but we do not know exactly where it closes. What are the limits, and how can they be morally evaluated? We do have one point of historical reference – enough to send a shiver down the spine of most of us. The Nazi eugenics programme shunted into place just before the outbreak of the war. Years before the Nazi war machine was assembled, the German parliament had already given Hitler a blank sheet of paper. On it, he tried to rewrite the genetic future of the German nation. It would be Aryan; it would be white and as close to ‘perfection’ as a line up at a Hitler Youth parade. That meant eliminating an awful lot of people: people with mental illness and people with physical disabilities were ‘lives unworthy of living’. At first, they were singled out and sterilised, but before too long the moral slipway that genetics was facilitating led to the expediency of murder. Racial hygiene soon followed, and the rest is sorry history.
But not every scientist in Germany stayed to witness Hitler’s lunacy. Many of them left, including Albert Einstein, wisely putting as much distance as was possible between the Third Reich and his own powerful research. The brain drain led some of these exiled scientists to venture off into new territory. When quantum theorist Erwin Schrödinger delivered a lecture in 1943 he asked the question, what is life? Another decade passed before the answer could be provide us with the model that we needed to manipulate it. The double helix of DNA is “an iconic image, etched permanently into human history and memory”. The code of life was broken, the model of its structure assembled over a beer in a pub. Well, almost.
The beauty of this book is the way it entwines family history with the broader history of the gene. As the author writes, he reminisces on the stories of his own genetic inheritance. I would have welcomed more of that, and lapped up what there was. The compassion is understated but strong; the memories are offered as a footnote to the text. Nature versus nurture has always been the issue of genetics. To what extent is our destiny programmed in our genes? Is it locked inside our DNA, waiting for events to turn the key? “Bengalis have only one event in their history”, the author’s father answers. “Partition”.
Any Cop?: Fascinating science, gripping narrative.