The Gene: An Intimate History
by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Penguin Random House (2016)
A book of both history and science, this couldn’t have a better title – it’s quite simply the comprehensive story of the discovery, disentanglement and manipulation of the gene.
From the first pea-breeding experiments of Gregor Mendel to the potential for gene editing (by way of Charles Darwin, the Nazis and many others), The Gene is by the Indian-American oncologist famous for the 2010 book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.
Mukherjee writes beautiful prose that has an edge of florid beauty and an unexpected sense of humour: when describing Mendel’s attempt to extend his experiments to mice, Mukherjee writes that the abbot of his monastery refused but that he “didn’t mind giving peas a chance”.
Even if you’re only passably familiar with genetics, it’s a treat to learn the origins of words such as “genetics” and “mutant”. Among the tidbits of interesting trivia is that genetics generated the first effective chemical insulin treatment in the 1950s, and the first genetic hybrid organism was built in the 1970s, with concerns about the safety of genetic engineering raised soon after.
Among the fascinating dimensions the book brings to light is the history of the gene as a political tool. As early as 1905, one of the early purveyors of the science wrote that since genes were discrete particles, we might one day have the means to manipulate the “composition of individuals” and “leave a permanent mark on human identity”, adding ominously that “when power is discovered, man always turns to it”.
Such efforts have of course been used to justify mass race-specific slaughter everywhere from 1940s Europe to 1990s Rwanda. Mukherjee deftly suggests that the gene has some of the characteristics of technology or money – a morally neutral framework we can use to enable both our best and worst social behaviours.
There’s also plenty of fascinating science on offer. An example is the phenomenon of gene transition – where cells close to each other can spontaneously transmit genes between them with no need for sexual reproduction.
As the story gets closer to the present day, the science gets more complicated and some of the deeper principles and equations might go over the head of the lay reader. But the descriptions of the human characters, their collaborations and rivalries and the socio-political scene that swirled around them, bring the story vividly to life.