Total Read Time: 4 Minutes
Dr. Mukherjee’s ‘The Gene’
Siddhartha Mukherjee‘s survey of the history of genetics is an incredible story, which doesn’t skimp on the science. He is an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, a cancer physician at the CU/NYU Presbyterian Hospital, and the Pulizer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies, a history of Cancer. I first heard of his work when I attended a couple of talks he gave at the University of Nevada, Reno in 2017. The talks were fantastic! The Gene is his opus of genetic history.
A topic that is rarely touched on is what ancient societies thought about heredity. From Aristotle to Victorian times, the author explains pieces of history I’ve never before heard. Classes about genetics usually start with Mendel or Darwin. While they are discussed at length, Dr. Mukherjee also dives deeper. Theories which sound bizarre to the modern ear were commonly held beliefs centuries ago. Even at the start of the 20th century there was little wide knowledge of heredity and genetics. The term ‘Gene’ wasn’t even coined until 1909.
Nature vs. Nurture
A big part of The Gene was based on the differences between genetics and epigenetics. The latter deals with how certain genes can be influenced by environment. At its core this is the basic, and not so basic, issue of nature vs. nurture. Dr. Mukherjee acknowledges that a confluence of factors can influence human DNA. In the book, he seems to lean toward the epigenetic spectrum.
Right now, we don’t know exactly what causes most genetic disorders. Relatively few genetic diseases are caused by a single-gene mutation. Most genetic diseases involve anywhere from a few, to dozens or even hundreds of gene mutations. However, what turns certain genes on or turns off is something many scientists are working to crack. He seems to think our environment plays a bigger factor in gene on-off switches than is normally acknowledged. The Gene makes a convincing argument for this.
Dr. Mukherjee describes the history of the eugenics movement in Europe and the United States in detail. What struck me most how pervasive the propaganda was in the United State. It’s a part of our past that is seldom remembered. The U.S. started its Eugenics movement by trying to effect the breeding of a ‘superior stock’ of human in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Dr. Mukherjee asserts that although the United States did forcibly sterilize some individuals after court order, Nazi Germany expanded the movement and warped it into something far worse. When we think of eugenics now, we think of the Nazis. Most history classes in the U.S. don’t cover our own atrocities in this area, or only glosses over them. In The Gene, those missteps are in full view, without bias, for the reader to interpret on their own. I like this kind of unbiased writing. I feel that we all should come to our own conclusions.
Perhaps most disturbing is that the eugenics movement itself has never gone away. You read that right. Instead, it has only morphed into more subtle forms of hubris. An example today include sex selection and abortion in countries like China and India favoring male children. The movement itself, the author believes, has become a more self-selective process, where parents can now choose some, and will choose far more characteristics, of their children in the future. From sex to eye color, stature, etc. The science, he argues, is there or in development. Plus, we can already screen for Down’s Syndrome and other genetic disorders in utero. The question is not a matter of can, so much as should we pursue these avenues of selection. Genetic tests are getting easier to do, not harder. As more people test, more will choose to act, regardless of laws in place.
Siddhartha Mukherjee outlines the hottest topics happening in genetics today. Some really fascinating stuff. In addition, he brings his audience up to speed on a host of recent developments. He talks about the safeguards currently in place and the countries which eschew similar restrictions. Chinese scientists in particular have an unparalleled freedom to pursue morally dubious scientific topics. Now it is becoming a question of keeping up. Should the United States fund scientific experiments that may be questionable to some if it means staying in the game long-term? Also, can China develop a sustainable competitive advantage by being the only country to have a regulatory system condusive to radical innovation? Only time will tell.
Dr. Mukherjee’s Take
Dr. Mukherjee thinks that certain advances are inevitable. Like the creation of the atomic bomb. Once the science was worked out, it was only a matter of time. The question was who would make it. The science is there or nearly there on many fronts. Therefore, is genetic engineering and meddling only a matter of time now? Will this lead to a revitalized eugenics movement? What would that mean for the United States and abroad?
Questions abound, I came away from the book more informed on the subject of genetics. However, I am also more quizzical. Dr. Mukherjee gives the reader just enough info to know how much they don’t know. (A lot). If we are to begin to answer these questions, then more people need to be informed on the history of the gene and genetic manipulation.
Finally, the author also works in his own family’s story of mental illness throughout, something that adds a great deal to the book. Multiple members of his family had schizophrenia. The author describes the genetic implications involved, in addition to his own risk. If you’ve ever wanted to know about the gene, or genetic theories through history, then there is no better book available. I highly endorse The Gene!