”The Gene” by Siddhartha Mukherjee is a must read for anybody interested in the history and science of one of the major scientific breakthroughs of the last century: the basis of heredity. But it’s Mukherjee’s sense for the future, the conflict between knowing and doing, that really makes this book a homerun. If you haven’t already, read it immediately!
I have to say this is one of the best books I have read in a very long time. It reminded me of “Genome” by Matt Ridley, a book that made me want to study medicine. That was back in the early 2000’s – ancient times – right around when the 10 year project to sequence the human genome was nearing it’s completion and there was a feeling of standing at a new frontier. Now we sequence human genomes in 10 days and the world seems different, more mature, but also less optimistic: the frontier is perhaps murkier then we thought. Still, Genome made a huge impression on me almost 20 years ago, and The Gene revoked that sense of wonder and excitement again.
The book is built up as a chronological history of genetics, starting off with Darwin and Mendel and ending with Jennifer Doudner. In between Mukherjee explains the discovery of heredity by Mendel, the rediscovery by Bateson and the almost immediate conversion of this new science into the political eugenics movement in Europa and the United States during the 1920’s. The chapters on the corruption of science in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union are brilliantly written and scary. The book then follows the exciting scientific discoveries that lead to realization that the gooey gunk in cells is the basis of life, that it could be mutated and finally how we now try to manipulate our genetic fates by fashioning our knowledge into new tools: medicine made in bacteria, fixing corrupt genes using gene-therapy. The scientific journey described in the book were particularly interesting for me as a PhD-student. Drama and major discoveries are described side by side, alongside Mukherjee’s family’s battle with mental illness, making the history all the more personal and human.
However, for me the best part of the book is the commentary and the broader conclusions Mukherjee weave together. Broadly speaking, here is a doctor writing with hope but also some concern about where we are heading. In one of the final chapters outlining what we know about our genes, he has put together an absolutely brilliant description of the interaction between nature and nurture:
“Genes must carry out programmed responses to environments – otherwise, there would be no conserved form. But they must also leave exactly enough room for the vagaries of chance to stick. We call this intersection “fate”. We call our responses to it “choice”. An upright organism with opposable thumbs is thus built from a script, but built to go off script.”
Built to go off script – isn’t that a wonderful sentence? Does our off-script nature, our complexity, mean that we can never edit or change our genes? No, probably we are a lot more malleable then we think. As a case in point, Mukherjee describes how a single gene can switch our gender identity from male to female. Since the technology to edit our genes – in the form of CRISPR-Cas9 – is becoming more and more available, where does that leave us? This simple fact, that we now have the technology to edit our genes, argues the author, is why genetics should not only concern scientists and philosophers, but increasingly everyone.
Having our history in mind, it’s hard to be optimizing about how we will approach this challenge: the stewardship of our genome might be the ultimate test of our knowledge, ends Mukherjee. Still the future is now: in many places in India and China, a much more crude genetic and “eugenic” experiment is taking place with the massive selection against female fetuses. The fact that different cultures and individuals already now approach gene-editing – here for a gender - of our common genetic history very differently, is extremely sobering and should make you wonder. As genome-editing techniques become more prevalent and more precise, there is an urgent need to discuss when and how to use them: broadly speaking, how do we ensure that we don’t cause more harm then we set out to cure? Should we let each individual set of parents decide, the doctors or the politicians? Should we ‘enhance’ our species or only ‘cure’ genetic diseases?
“The Gene” does it’s utmost to make sure that this discussion happens on an informed background and for this it is truly a magnificent book. If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend that you go to your local supermarket and immediately buy 3 or 4 copies to distribute among your friends.