REVIEW: The Gene
Siddhartha Mukherjee’s latest venture into science writing
Jeanette Ferrara • June 2, 2016
The double-helical DNA molecules in our cells encode our genes, defining our very existence. [Image credit: Pixabay user Peggy_Marco | CC0]
Pulitzer-prize winner Siddhartha Mukherjee’s latest work is as hefty as his last, literally. Coming in at 592 pages — the exact same as his 2011 book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer — The Gene isn’t a lightweight. But despite the physical weight of the book and how much space it took up in my carry on luggage, I was glad I brought it with me on a three-hour flight. It wasn’t the dense, textbook-like history of genetics I expected, but a fairly enjoyable traipse through the history of how humans have come to understand our genes over the past two centuries.
Even though the book doesn’t look like “light reading,” it was well paced, and I polished it off in only a couple of hours. Granted, I’m a fast reader (Middlemarch took me 3 hours), but if a book is too dense, it does slow me down considerably. But I couldn’t put The Gene down. The writing, although occasionally wordy, flowed well and the chronological arc was well-laid out and easy to follow.
However, if you think of the subtitle of a book as a promise of what it will entail — in this case, “an intimate history” — Mukherjee lived up to his promise. It was (if not too concise at 592 pages), a fairly concise history of the gene. What made it “intimate” was Mukherjee’s inclusion of family history. He wove stories of several relatives who have suffered and continue to suffer from mental illness through the chronological, impersonal history. Mukherjee starts with the monk Gregor Mendel’s foundational experiments breeding peas for desired traits, backtracks a little bit to Aristotle’s idea that babies are crafted out of menstrual blood by semen, and ends with the future of the Human Genome project. Where can and will we go, now that we have sequenced the human genome?
Mukherjee does favor longer, more complex sentences over simple ones. Occasionally, the length of Mukherjee’s sentences muddled his meaning, and I had to give them a second or third read before I understood what he meant. He does help his readers out by using recurring motifs that effectively and simply illustrate his complex topic. These motifs illustrate the evolution of human understanding of what the gene is and what it encodes. Mukherjee could have done even more to incorporate these kinds of illustrations throughout the whole book.
Mukherjee also does some real good with his platform. He gives due credit to several of the female scientists who made significant contributions to our understanding of the human gene but were ignored in their own time. Rosalind Franklin, for example, took the first x-ray images of DNA that Watson and Crick used (some might argue stole) to determine the structure of DNA. They were the ones who received a Nobel prize for the work. Mukherjee also recognizes Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier’s contributions to the development of CRISPR gene editing technology. Although Doudna and Charpentier’s work is contemporary, there are still those who seek to write them out of the CRISPR developmental narrative. Mukherjee ignores the patent controversy surrounding CRISPR, instead focusing on the science of gene manipulation itself.
It was really nice to read a book written by a male author and see female scientists and their contributions well represented. Personally, I could have done without Mukherjee’s recurring family narrative — but mostly that is because when I pick up a history book, I don’t expect memoir-esque revelations about relatives and family history from the author. But again, that is a personal preference, and such details are what made it a truly “intimate” history.