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.

Seveneves

By Neal Stephenson

All Posts Contain Spoilers

It’s been a long time since a book has upset me this much.

I mean that as a compliment.  Novels elicit a very few, predictable emotional states from me: intellectual appreciation, amusement, the fun of learning something new, and sometimes, when they are really excellent novels, anger or sadness at the unfairness of the world, the cruelty of people.

But it is rare that a novel makes me feel the way ‘Seveneves‘ has: dreadful, afraid, oppressed, a little grief-stricken, and, I think, even rarer that the novel should be End-of-the-World science fiction, a genre which normally moves me little*.  Most apocalypse scenarios are far-fetched MacGuffins; they have very little emotional resonance in of themselves, at least for me.  You are meant to care about the characters – the apocalypse is there only to put them in extremis.

SevenEvesBut ‘Seveneves‘ is different.  The premise of this novel is that, one day, one normal day, in our world in our reality, a rapidly moving cosmic event, perhaps a small black hole, causes the moon to shatter into seven large pieces.  The pieces have the same center of gravity as the intact moon, and so remain in orbit around the Earth.  As they begin to collide with one another and fragment, astrophysicists figure out that their collision and fragmentation rate will accelerate.  Eventually, the pieces will begin to fall to Earth in an ‘Hard Rain’; they will super-heat the atmosphere, setting it alight, killing all life on Earth and boiling the oceans.  At the time of the initial event, the Hard Rain will begin in approximately two years.

Seveneves‘ is the story of humanity’s preparation for the Hard Rain, its desperate attempts to put as many people on the International Space Station as possible, and the sequelae, in space, of the extinction of life on earth.

Stephenson
Neal Stephenson

I’ve been trying to figure out why ‘Seveneves‘ is so effective.  It isn’t because it’s perfect.  Neal Stephenson has great strengths as a writer, and some weaknesses, most of which are on display here.

For example, he has trouble with endings, and the ending of ‘Seveneves‘ is emblematic: the book wraps up suddenly and anti-climactically after nearly 800 pages of vividly-imagined plot, as though Stephenson, after saying what he wanted to say, got bored and wandered away from his writing desk.

And not all of it is equally well-imagined.  Stephenson loves physics and engineering: there are pages and pages of loving, fastidious descriptions of orbital mechanics and robotics programming, so long and so detailed that they come to feel almost punitive.  No detail of physics is left unelaborated.

However, much of the second half of the book hinges on a small miracle of biology taking place, on a revolution in gene-editing technology which would require that genes work entirely differently than they, in fact, do work in real life.  The future of humanity relies on, and cannot be understood without, this miracle, but it receives only a paragraph of Stephenson’s attention.  He doesn’t even posit a mechanism of action – he simply asserts that genes work this way, and that scientists may manipulate them thus, with such and such results.

It goes like this:

“…the point is that I can get a digital record of its DNA.  Once that’s in hand, it turns into a software exercise – the data can be evaluated and compared to huge databases that shipped up as part of the lab.  It’s possible to identify places on a given chromosome where a bit of DNA got damaged…It is then possible to repair those breaks by splicing in a reasonable guess as to what was there originally…if it’s a disease – something on the books, defined in the medical literature as such – I will fix it…Once all that is done, each of us gets a free one…one alteration – one improvement – of your choice, applied to the genome of the fertilized ovum that will grow into your child.  And your child only….So, Camila, if you think it would improve the human race to get rid of its aggression, why then, I will search through the scientific literature for a way to reach your goal genetically.” (p. 552- 562)

Habitat Ring
A graphic from the novel – you can see that, when he cares to, Stephenson really thinks things through.

Maybe it’s because biology is my day job, but this unevenness bothered me.  The point of hard science fiction (well, one of the points) is the science; to just gloss over the parts you’re not interested in so you can rush back to describing robot movements cheats the reader.  This is especially glaring when they are crucial to the plot, when they represent far and away the most important scientific advance depicted in your science fiction book!

But this unevenness doesn’t blunt the emotional effect of this novel, which springs, I think, from two things:

  1. There is something viscerally upsetting about the disintegration of the moon.  The effect on the reader of imagining a moonless earth is primitive and unsettling and super-effective.  And Stephenson achieves it with very little fuss – there are no long passages of devotional description of the moon, no exploration of its place in our cultural imagination.  The novel begins when the moon ends, and, like the old cliche, you discover that you had been unaware of what you had until it was gone.
  2. According to Stephenson’s premise, humanity has two years in which to confront its own annihilation.  Some authors would have taken that opportunity to show a depraved humanity, a burning, anarchic world, man’s heart of darkness let loose.  Stephenson does not, and the mostly calm manner in which his world walks towards its own destruction is more affecting than mayhem and evil could have been.  Most people continue to live lives which very much resemble their old lives, but why?  What meaning can your routines possibly have when, in the near future, you and everyone you love will die in flames?  For that matter, what meaning do they have now?

I didn’t enjoy this book – that verb is inappropriate.  In fact, I spent much of it in the grips of a morbid agitation, unable to relax or be cheerful.  But I was completely glued to it; all my free time went to reading it.  If you’re looking for a feel-good romp, this is not your book.  But if you’d like to be freaked out, to work hard for the privilege of being unsettled, if you want to spend some time absorbed in a genuinely dark, movingly dark, future, this is your book.

*Although, now that I think about it, the only book which has unsettled me in this way in recent memory is, weirdly, also sci-fi: ‘The Reality Dysfunction‘, by Peter Hamilton, which describes a vision of the afterlife which made me want to run screaming into the nearest church.