By Gita Mallya, Plant Biology, ‘19
Author’s note: I wrote this piece for my UWP 104E class with Brenda Rinard during Fall Quarter 2017. The assignment was to read a classic book based in science and then to write a review on it. I chose this book because I have always been fascinated by genetics and the study of genes even catalyzed my decision to study biology. Although the review was a class assignment, it gave me the opportunity to explore and think critically about a subject I feel passionately about. I would like the reader to come away with the notion that scientific study is not always as cut and dry as it may seem, and that The Gene is a worthwhile read that weaves science and history in a captivating way.
Heredity and its mechanism evaded human knowledge for hundreds of years before the concept of “the gene” was concocted, when Danish botanist Wilhelm Johannsen used it to describe Mendelian heredity in 1909. In Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History, the story of how the modern-day study of genetics arose is detailed through personal narrative, social consequences, and history that is far from sugar-coated. Mukherjee prefaces his writing with his own intimate past: explaining a family line riddled with unfortunate genetic disorders and mental illness. This book is based in science but hits hard when it comes to empathy. It details both the suffering of the afflicted themselves and the devastation of their families. The Gene: An Intimate History provides the educated reader with an accessible text to understand where the study of genetics has come from and where it is going, told through history, narrative, and intrigue.
Today’s understanding of genetics was contributed to in small portions by many people. Mukherjee describes not only the big names mentioned in high school biology classes, but also those whose contributions may have been brushed over. Around 500 B.C., Pythagoras theorized that male semen collected information about the man’s physiology throughout his life time and this information was transferred to the woman, whose job it was to house and feed the fetus. Up until the mid-1800’s with Darwin’s exploration on the Beagle, little had been postulated about heredity. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was balanced precariously on the loosely-based assumption that some type of hereditary information was passed down from parent to offspring, the vehicle for which was not yet known. Mukherjee goes on to credit the works of Mendel, who showed a pattern of inheritance in pea plants, and Morgan, who worked with fruit flies to find that the chromosome is responsible for inheritance. Many other scientists who contributed to the foundation of modern genetics are also mentioned, including Watson, Crick, and Franklin, who discovered DNA’s structure, and Paul Berg and Peter Lobban, the creators of recombinant DNA. The Human Genome Project, which mapped the sequence of the human genetic code, was one of the biggest group efforts in biology and a huge contribution to understanding disease in our own DNA.
Mukherjee makes the field of genetics more transparent and pertinent by revealing his own experiences, exposing the gritty underside of genetic interference such as eugenics, and humanizing scientists with small successes and big failures in their individual experiments. Mukherjee had two uncles and a cousin afflicted by genetic disorders, which affected his life and his work. Understanding his personal connection to the field makes his claims more believable. He has an intimate stake in the truth, so why would he tell the reader anything else? He has seen suffering in his family and beyond, and because of this personal tie, he has dedicated himself to telling his family’s story and continues to research the cause of such devastating diseases.
Even if there were some genetic remedy that might solve these disorders, tampering with the genetic code leads to dangerous ideas. The American eugenics movement is an underexposed period in the country’s history, and Mukherjee does an excellent job of reminding readers of its occurrence and implications. The book even reminds us that the Nazi “rassenhygenie,” or “race cleaning,” was inspired by the American and British eugenic movements, such as the American supreme court case against Carrie Buck. Her sterilization was deemed legal due to fact she was considered “feeble-minded.” These memories remind us of a cruel history in genetics, and the moral and ethical considerations that need to be addressed when messing with our own genetic makeup. Who is to decide who is genetically “superior” and which traits are “perfect”? Who is to say that those afflicted with genetic disorders are less worthy of the human experience? Erika, a 15-year-old girl suffering from a degenerative disorder, was “by far, among the most articulate, introspective teenagers” that Mukherjee had ever met, though if she were born in the future, her genes may have been altered or thrown out, creating an entirely different person. At this point scientists must decide if the human genome should be tampered with. Is she any less deserving at a chance at life?
Although the time for answering these questions is swiftly approaching, science is hardly ready to be altering genes en masse. This negligence is clearly illustrated in the experimental trial of Jesse Gelsinger, another teenager afflicted with a genetic disorder. His treatment was severely under-researched and nowhere close to ready for human trials, ultimately leading to his death when the experiment was performed on him. The Chinese conducted a similar gene therapy trial with embryos, one which could be more accurately described as a publicity stunt, due to their lack of success and extremely low survival rates for the embryos involved. These experiments seemed to show that the world of genetic alteration is far from understood, and its failings can be lethal. Studies such as these underline a big question: should we alter our own genetic code at all? Mukherjee seems to add these storylines in as one cumulative cautionary tale. While the field of genetics is making big strides, scientists cannot throw caution to the wind in the name of scientific progress. While new discoveries and treatments are being posited everyday, Mukherjee shows that without proper scientific and ethical considerations, they can end in tragedy.
Mukherjee’s book is a highly detailed glimpse into the world of genetics, both past and present. The history is laced with narrative and drama, exposing both the triumphs and failures of scientists and their studies, a refreshing take from only hearing about their successes when presented in an academic setting. The personal touches that Mukherjee adds, as well as his illumination on the deeper meaning of genetic studies and their consequences, makes what could be a very dry history into a readable story. Such a story could be picked up by anyone from a university student to an educated adult who just wants to learn more than what might be presented in a textbook.