Friday, August 19, 2016

Thoughts on Mukherjee's the Gene: an intimate interweaving of many different strands

I read with great interest Siddhartha Mukherjee's recent book The Gene: An Intimate History. This work represents a masterful weaving together, intimately, of many different strands related to the gene. First and foremost is the technical strand. Here Mukherjee goes into detail, explaining in simple language many key concepts behind genes. What I most liked was the discussion of the Mitochondrial Eve and the dating of populations in terms of coalescent theory and the overview of apoptosis and master regulators and how the careful tracing of cell lineages gave rise to the unintuitive idea of cell death. I also liked the account of the development of positional cloning as just a mental lightning bolt relating to what random markers on the genome connect to.

The next thread, of course, is the scientists themselves. Here we see them feuding and competing with each other. There is, of course, the famous tale of Watson and Crick versus Rosalind Franklin and how the former dynamic duo essentially stole the key concepts in "Photograph 51" from her. Then there are discussions of the rivalries of Morgan’s disciples, in particular Muller and Sturtevant, and the rivalry at the beginning of biotechnology between Boyer and Swanson in California versus Gilbert on the East Coast, racing to clone insulin and other genes.

A third strand relates to the ethical and social implications of genetics. Unfortunately the field has had quite a checkered past with eugenics beginning almost as soon as genetics. The book describes how eugenics, in a sense, set the backdrop for Nazism and the horrors of the Second World War. What is interesting is the contrast of the Nazi focus on genetic determinism with the Soviet notion, backed by their scientist Lysenko, which is diametrically opposite, that an organism could be profoundly changed by its environment. The book then goes on to discuss how we are coming into a new era of eugenics, dubbed new-genics, based on positive choice, in terms of having the genetic offspring of one's choosing.

The final strand of the book is in a sense the most intimate: the author often digresses on his own personal history in connection to genetics, discussing in particular his family battles with schizophrenia. It is sometimes hard to see how these anecdotes relate to the science, but they do add to readability.

Overall the readability of this book is fantastic. On the one hand, it has lots of simple aphorisms that stick in one's head. One that comes to my mind most is how Mukherjee concisely characterized the key elements of 20th Century science as the byte, the atom and the gene, putting those three concepts together in a simple phrase. Another great illustration of the book’s readability is how the author contrasts the biochemist versus the geneticist, with the first focusing on concentrating something more and the second looking for informative differences to pick something out of the crowd.

Overall I would highly recommend this book as it is a great way to soak up a lot of scientific knowledge while being exposed to other dimensions of genetics.



The Gene: An Intimate History
by Siddhartha Mukherjee