The Gene, An Intimate History; Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Gene starts out as a very interesting history of the discovery of the “gene” and the evolution of the field of genetics, and ends up in a head-on collision between the science and ethics of human genetic modification.
The intimate history of the gene is a roller coaster ride of awesome discoveries and unspeakable horrors, as is par for the course whenever humanity gets an inkling that they just might have figured out a way to control life. It’s a reeeeeallly long book, so here’s a quick rundown.
- Awesome: Darwin and Mendel come up with the basic theories to describe evolution (through natural selection) and heredity (through heritable units, or genes).
- Horrifying: Eugenics and Hitler’s quest for a master race.
- Awesome: Watson, Crick, Wilkins AND ROSALIND FRANKLIN determine the structure of DNA. A little aside here: Franklin does not get recognized for her contribution to this discovery nearly enough. The first problem is that she didn’t win the Nobel prize because she had sadly passed away before the award was given, and Nobel prizes are never awarded posthumously. But that doesn’t mean her name should get left out of references to this monumental work. Second, Watson and Crick stole her research without permission. This is true, and I give you leave to take a quick break and look it up. The work they stole provided them with key insights leading to them being able to complete their 3D model of DNA. Third, she had an abrasive personality which was off-putting to the men and gave them an excuse for not asking for permission to use her work. I give kudos to Mukherjee for seeming to give her appropriate acknowledgement.
- Horrifying: Genetic engineering becomes a real possibility using viruses and bacteria as transport vectors, at a time when there are no ethical guidelines at all for how to manage and control it. Fortunately, at a meeting of the minds in Asilomar, California, scientists decide to self-restrict what they can do (for example, let’s not put cancer genes into a human-compatible bacteria). With great power comes great responsibility.
- Awesome: The Human Genome Project and the discovery of single-gene illnesses that might one day prove to be treatable, or even curable, using gene therapy techniques.
- Horrifying: We now stand on the threshold of a potential eugenics two point oh where we can literally manipulate genes in embryos to manufacture humans to our specifications. Certainly we can create multiple embryos in vitro and then genetically test them in order to choose the one we want to implant. This is inevitably going to lead us to a world where we can define what’s “good” or “bad”, and what’s “normal” or “abnormal”. Once again, we have great power. But are we responsible enough to have it? Here’s a sobering final thought. Evidence suggests that social and political attitudes are highly concordant, suggesting a genetic component. What might some power-driven political organization be inclined to do if a gene sequence could be found that tends people towards their viewpoints? I’m pretty sure I know what Hitler would do.
- Awesome: what I’m looking for here is cures for cancer and other single-gene diseases. Let’s get on that, science!
Rating: Mukherjee is a wonderful writer, and if you love science enough to haul yourself through 500 pages of it then I highly recommend you buy yourself a copy of this book.