“Like Pythagoras’s triangle, like the cave paintings at Lascaux, like the Pyramids in Giza, like the image of a fragile blue planet seen from outer space, the double helix of DNA is an iconic image, etched permanently into human history and memory,” Siddhartha Mukherjee writes in The Gene: An Intimate History, a fascinating and often sobering history of how humans came to understand the roles of genes in making us who we are — and what our manipulation of those genes might mean for our future.
Mukherjee, an oncologist, won the Pulitzer Prize for an earlier nonfiction book, The Emperor of all Maladies, a history of cancer and its treatment that also delved into the lobbying, fundraising and awareness effort known as the War on Cancer. Mukherjee interspersed some stories from his medical practice in the narrative history of Maladies; in The Gene, he gets even more personal, writing about several family members with inherited mental illness.
He goes back to ancient Greece for early theories about how human characteristics are passed through generations, including Aristotle’s surprisingly prescient thought that the transmission of heredity was primarily the transmission of information.
Nineteenth-century pioneers Gregor Mendel (whose abbot, Mukherjee jokes, “didn’t mind giving peas a chance”) and Charles Darwin are given their due in crisp, detailed accounts of their work. “The essence of Darwin’s disruptive genius was his ability to think about nature not as fact — but as process, as progression, as history,” Mukherjee writes.
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Unfortunately, their advances indirectly led to the first, but hardly last, wave of eugenicists, and such horrors as the court-sanctioned sterilization of Carrie Buck to prevent her “feebleminded” line from continuing, and the Nazi eugenics program, including Josef Mengele’s notorious twin studies. “Mengele’s experiments putrefied twin research so effectively, pickling the entire field in such hatred, that it would take decades for the world to take it seriously,” Mukherjee writes.
The Gene captures the scientific method — questioning, researching, hypothesizing, experimenting, analyzing — in all its messy, fumbling glory, corkscrewing its way to deeper understanding and new questions. Scientists had a fuzzy notion of what genes were long before they could explain how they worked. One of this book’s surprising heroes is Erwin Schrodinger, the physicist who also gave the world a thought experiment about a cat in a box to illuminate the dilemma of quantum mechanics. In a 1944 lecture published as “What Is Life?” Schrodinger imagined what a gene is and how it must work as if he saw DNA in his mind, including “a chemical with multiple chemical bonds stretching out along the length of the ‘chromosome fiber.’ ”
Mukherjee’s thrilling account of how James Watson and Francis Crick developed the double-helix model also describes Rosalind Franklin’s overlapping research — and the contributions of other scientists to the nutrient dish of the times. Approaching our own times, the pace of discovery quickens as researchers refine both their questions and their tools, leading to the Human Genome Project and gene therapy — and to difficult ethical questions.
Scientists now have the ability to manipulate almost any gene and to incorporate that genetic change permanently in an animal. But should they do so in humans? Leading researchers in this field, such as Jennifer Doudna of University of California, Berkeley, one of the inventors of genome-editing technique, have called for a moratorium on using that technique in human germline engineering — i.e., making gene changes that would be passed on to offspring.
Jim Higgins reviewed this book for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.