The Gene: An Intimate History

The Gene: An Intimate History

Siddhartha Mukherjee burst on the literary scene with his first book Emperor of the Maladies, winning a Pulitzer prize and spawning a PBS TV series by the esteemed Ken Burns. In 2016 Mukerjee returns with The Gene: An Intimate History, another fact-packed but personal approach to a topic that looms large in modern day vernacular:

Six years after his non-fiction debut, Mukherjee is back with what he’s calling a prequel, rather than a sequel to his first book, The Gene: An Intimate History. Like Emperor, it’s a genre-defying tour de force. “It is memoir, it is family history, it is science, it is medicine,” said Mukherjee
Smithsonian Magazine

The concept of genes, as the code blocks of life, is endlessly fascinating. At it’s heart is the nature nurture debate which philosophically speaking is a riveting line of inquiry. But today the science around genes and genetics is evolving rapidly, changing that conversation with each new advance. The same spirit of the maker revolution more associated with 3D Printing is at play in biotechnology as well. The idea that we can start to code and debug the human genome to make healthier and more performant human beings, has never been more real than it is today. It is in to this reality that Mukherjee brings his historical and scientific overview, and also a continuation of the work he started with Emperor of the Maladies, “a tale of ‘normalcy before it tips into malignancy.'” New York Times.

On the surface the book is a two-parter, divided between historical context and up-to-date scientific genetic theory and practice:

The major part of The Gene is made up of a sweeping history of genetics that takes us from its dawn – with the garden pea experiments of Gregor Mendel, who revealed the existence of individual units of heritability – to modern gene-editing techniques, which allow scientists to alter or replace genes more or less at their leisure. It is an ambitious trip, to say the least.
The Guardian

What made Emperor fly above and beyond other popular science writing was the authors personal touch, and that is clearly at play again in The Gene:

Mukherjee’s first book, “The Emperor of All Maladies,” published in 2010, was subtitled “A Biography of Cancer”; the subtitle of “The Gene” is “An Intimate History.” This rhetorical use of humanist designations for scientific books reflects his inclination to soften the edges of medicine. He is all doctor, but he is also all bedside manner (and hence his books are bedside-table manner). He nourishes dry topics into engaging reading, expresses abstract intellectual ideas through emotional stories and repackages intimidating hypotheses in language that is almost cozy. Don’t worry if you can’t make heads or tails out of biology, these titles seem to say. You’ll like these books anyway. Mukherjee swaddles his medical rigor with rhapsodic tenderness, surprising vulnerability and occasional flashes of pure poetry.

But it is here that perhaps the book falls a little shorter than Emperor, with reviewers calling out that by necessity of the topic, Mukherjee struggles to balance his personal stories with the complex science:

As he did in “Maladies,” Mukherjee relies here on personal narrative as touchstone: his mother and her identical twin sister and the surprising ways they differ; his paternal uncles and the curse of mental illness. But the real center in “The Gene” is inevitably the string of nucleotides that makes up our DNA.

Even a writer as dexterous as Mukherjee can’t avoid an accumulation of specific terminology, leading to thickets of dense material
Chicago Tribune

The New York Times review draws on this point also, “Even when the going is easy, readers should be prepared for parentheticals like this: ‘i.e., ACT CCT GGG –>ACU CCU GGG.'”

But Mukherjee is clearly a skilled writer, someone who has the depth of scientific understanding matched with a novelists ear for simile, metaphor and humor:

Fortunately, Mukherjee is an assured, polished wordsmith – his previous work, on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, won a Pulitzer – who displays a penchant for the odd adroit aphorism and well-placed pun. Thus Mendel, who gave up his research on rodents to work instead with garden vegetables, is praised for “giving peas a chance” while genes are described, rather neatly, as pixels of heredity. Genes are described, rather appositely, as “pixels of heredity”, while the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, sanctioned in 1906 by eugenicists to confine those deemed “socially abnormal”, is likened to a Hotel California of mental illness. “Patients who checked in rarely ever left,” says Mukherjee.
The Guardian

Reviews called out this scientific denseness positively also, commenting that the book left a feeling that you are really learning as well as enjoying the ride:

“The Gene” has its own elegant, twisting structure, in which evidence is suspended between the spines of history and science. It never pretends to ingenuousness; indeed, one is often tempted to give the author an A for visible effort. But with a marriage of architectural precision and luscious narrative, an eye for both the paradoxical detail and the unsettling irony, and a genius for locating the emotional truths buried in chemical abstractions, Mukherjee leaves you feeling as though you’ve just aced a college course for which you’d been afraid to register — and enjoyed every minute of it.

As a science book there are some in the community that question Mukherjees understanding and choice of focus on some areas not others:

pre-publication excerpts of this book in the New Yorker unleashed a torrent of criticism in the genetics blogosphere, showing just how much scientific and ideological passion the old nature-nurture dispute still retains, and how concerned geneticists are that the public are under the impression that the environment is everything.
The Guardian

Nature magazine in particular provides a luke-warm review due mainly to the sweeping and linear approach Mukherjee has taken. This approach lends itself to popular publication but perhaps not to the scientific establishment of which Nature magazine is clearly a part:

Discovery is presented not as a messy reality full of dead ends, but as a linear thread leading inexorably to today. Conclusions of past experiments are presented in terms of modern understanding, rather than as a way to explore confused contemporaneous interpretations. This is a road often followed by scientists and clinicians who write history; it irritates historians, who know that the past was more complicated.

But this review spoke to me as one of disappointment rather than anger. A feeling that the author hedged his bets and is capable of more:

More-consistent grappling with the ethical, philosophical and historical debates that have swirled around these issues for decades might have led to a more detailed hint of what those precepts might be. This vagueness is frustrating: Mukherjee’s visceral and thought-provoking descriptions of the horrors of early-twentieth-century US eugenics clearly show what he is capable of in this regard, both as a writer and as a thinker.

Mukherjee has achieved almost celebrity status since Emperor so there is much interest around his new release. Consequently there are plenty of places to read, see and hear more from the author himself.

For an example of Mukherjee as a skilled storyteller listen to this great short story on The Moth.

As a thinker, see his TED Talk and a great video at BigThink.

There is also wonderful interview on The Diane Rehm Show.

Book details:
The Gene: An Intimate History
By Siddhartha Mukherjee
Illustrated. 592 pages.

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Image from Thomas Wensing on Flickr under Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0 License