The Gene

An Intimate History

By Siddhartha Mukherjee

How can I have so little to say about such a big book? More importantly, how can I have so little to say about a good book?

Siddhartha Mukherjee became book-famous a few years ago, with the publication of his magisterial history of cancer, ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘.  ‘The Gene‘ is his follow-up, a magisterial history of the gene (i.e. the basic unit of inheritance).

And it is reasonable to ask at this point: is everything that Mukherjee writes magisterial?  ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘ and ‘The Gene‘ have a lot in common: they are dense, comprehensive histories of science.  Nevertheless, they are also popular histories, written for non-scientists.  They are, despite their length, approachable works, framed by personal anecdote and driven by emotional concerns.

In fact, the entire framing of ‘The Gene‘ is personal. Mental illness runs with high prevalence through Mukherjee’s father’s family, and it is through the lens of this terrible heritability the Mukherjee first spies the gene itself:

“By then, heredity, illness, normalcy, family, and identity had become recurrent themes of conversation in my family. Like most Bengalis, my parents had elevated repression and denial to an art form, but even so, questions about this particular history were unavoidable. Moni; Rajesh; Jagu: three lives consumed by variants of mental illness. It was hard not to imagine that a hereditary component lurked behind this family history. Had Moni inherited a gene, or a set of genes, that had made him susceptible – the same genes that had affected our uncles? Had others been affected with different variants of mental illness? My father had had a least two psychotic fugues in his life…Were these related to the same scar of history?” (p. 7)

Mukherjee has a knack for picking interesting science. The genetic basis of inheritance is one of the most interesting and important fields in all of science, and its scientific history is a tangle of elegant experiments and moral dilemmas. And cancer is, I think most people would agree, the most important medical problem of our age, as well as one of the most complicated and intractable.

Mukherjee is a doctor, and he writes like one. I mean that as a compliment (sort of).  He is human-facing: he cares about patients.  Though the topics of both ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘ and ‘The Gene‘ fall within the realm of molecular biology, Mukherjee is essentially the writing about people: the scientists who study the topic, the patients who suffer because of the topic, the doctors who treat the topic.

This is, from my point of view, the great strength and the great weakness of both of Mukherjee’s books: they are human histories of scientific topics.  And, as someone who does science for a living, I have complicated feelings about that.

I love science, particularly biology, which is the research area in which I work.  I do not feel, personally, that science needs to wear a human face to be interesting, or lovable.  For those of us who live in genetics, the magic is in the science itself.

This is not necessarily true for most people, and I understand that. Most people are drawn in by human stories; they have trouble relating to plain science, or find it boring. Popular science exists, as a category, because most people are alienated by textbooks – they need to understand the stakes, and the context, of hard science, before they are able to muster the energy to care about it.

The Structure of DNA – the figure from Watson and Crick’s second paper

But the profound and breathtakingly beautiful thing about science is that it exists completely independent of our stakes, of our context, and of our feelings. Reading ‘The Gene‘, one has the sense that the science of genetics is the science of human genetics, that the machinery of inheritance exists to disrupt and inform our lives, and that its history is the history of its discovery by us.

This doesn’t trouble me for complicated policy reasons (“this emphasis on medicine as a lens for a biology hurts funding for basic research”), although those reasons abide. But when we teach people science through this lens, we teach them to care about science when it affects them, or someone they love. We do not teach them to love genetics for its own sake, for the majesty of its complexity, the careful tickings of molecular machines which happen in and around us at all times, whether we know them or not. Most of which we haven’t even imagined yet. Most of which we will not learn in my lifetime, or yours.

OK, but maybe that is an unreasonable ask. The truth is, most people don’t care about the incredible ballet of mitosis for its own sake – they care about cancer, because it might kill them. Because it has killed someone they love, and there are only so many things that we can care about in a natural lifespan and, for most of us, we ourselves are the most interesting thing around.

And, OK, if that is the case, if a 700 page human history of genetics will interest where a 700 page molecular biology textbook never, ever will, I would rather live in a world with the human history than not.

Siddhartha Mukherjee

But I don’t have much to say about that 700 page history itself. It is scientifically competent, but not, for me, scientifically revelatory. I learned some history I did not know (and I am always happy to do so), but I learned absolutely no science which a normal college biology major would not know already.

It’s always annoying when professionals complain about pop-science books, whining that subtleties were missed or the topic wasn’t covered in enough depth. It makes you want to howl at them to shut up, that the book wasn’t written for them in the first place! I know that I am not the intended audience for ‘The Gene‘, and I want to be clear: the fact that I didn’t learn anything is not because ‘The Gene’ has nothing to teach you. It is an exceptionally information-rich book; it just happened to be information I already had.

The Gene‘ is actually probably a pretty great book (as was ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘). ‘The Gene’ reminded me of how much I love genetics, how grand and moving I find the machinery of inheritance. To spend 700 pages reading about something I care so much about, how can I really complain? I wish I could do better for Mukherjee, I wish I had something profound to say about him, but I don’t. All I can say is, no matter how the science is framed, getting to spend 700 pages in the company of biology is always a treat.

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