I recently read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Gene – An Intimate History.” Mukherjee, an Indian-American physician and oncologist, is a leading mind in the world of genetics research, and his sentiments on the field are truly fascinating.
The text weaves a seamless storyline made up of parallel narratives — both personal and clinical. Mukherjee uses his family history of inherited mental illness as a background to explain the past, present, and future of genetics and genomics, intertwining these moments and experiences to provide the reader with an informative yet engaging read.
Mukherjee explains how ancient concepts of heredity evolved from Aristotelian theories of spiritual transmission of characteristics, to the medieval belief that offspring solely took after their father, as they were the result of miniscule homunculi in the gametes of the father.
Focus expands to Austrian friar Gregor Mendel’s pea plant experiments in the late 1800s, through which Mendel was able to postulate the theory of a material inheritable unit responsible for the characteristics of offspring.
Mukherjee then takes us into the 1900s to explain the birth of the field of modern genetics, exploring several key moments along the way:
- Thomas Hunt Morgan’s work on fruit fly eye colour and his subsequent discovery of sex linkage in chromosomes.
- The eugenics movements in the 1900s ranging from the persecution of socially undesirable individuals in America and Britain (like the psychological and legal profiling system used to categorize the ‘feeble-minded’ as either imbeciles, idiots or morons) to extreme instances of racial purification as in the Nazi regime.
- James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA, the double helix, finally answering the mystery behind the indivisible inheritable unit theorized by Mendel. This caused the greatest paradigm shift ever in the field of Biology (next to Darwin’s work on evolution and natural selection).
Genetics’ present and future
Eventually, Mukherjee’s focus shifts to the recent past, when entrepreneur Robert Swanson founded Genentech, the first company to begin commercializing the advances made in molecular genetics. Mukherjee discusses the moral issue that faces humans when considering gene editing technologies: if we are able to rewrite the very code that makes us who we are, what does that render humanity?
The future is also quite bright, according to Mukherjee, as gene editing technologies will allow us to fight disease on an unprecedented scale and, in the process, forever alter the evolutionary pathway of humans.
Mukherjee also questions the correct use of gene editing technology, asking if people will indeed use it to heal themselves, or if they will simply allow it to become a cosmetic technology through which to achieve aesthetic perfection. Theses suggestions are profound, and I, for one, was prompted to consider the several potential outcomes of gene editing technologies.
At its core, “The Gene – An Intimate History” is an enthralling and mesmerizing look into mankind’s harnessing of its own genetic makeup, an account of previously unfathomable scientific achievement and potential.