It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.―
DIANE DE BEER
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of all Maladies) published by Scribner
This isn’t my normal go-to literature as I would much rather focus on people and their intriguing lives but as I was pointed in this direction not only because of the content but also as a result of brilliant writing, I decided – wisely – to give it a go.
The author had scored a Pulitzer prize for his previous book investigating cancer and as with this one, he was initially pushed in this direction because of family and their influence or lack thereof on one another. “Madness,” he writes, “has been among the Mukherjees for at least two generations, and at least part of my father’s reluctance to accept Moni’s diagnosis lies in my father’s grim recognition that some kernel of the illness may be buried like toxic waste, in himself.”
He explains that the story of the birth, growth and future of one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science: the “gene”, the fundamental unit of heredity, and the basic unit of all biological information.
In this prologue, he also notes that there are stories within all the stories he tells as he goes along, “But this book is also a very personal story – an intimate history. The weight of heredity is not an abstraction for me.”
So apart from the personal touch which turns the reading into something easily accessible, Mukherjee is an extraordinary writer. It’s not just the language he uses to tell his story (and I have to assume English is not his mother tongue) but also the way he tells it, how he questions the world and also that he comes from a unique perspective.
The book is 495 pages long followed by extensive notes, a bibliography and index and some parts of the reading might be more gripping than others, but if like me, this is foreign territory, you will be gripped from start to finish. After all, we are talking about every human being, how they are formed and how they function.
It’s all a complicated business and it is this that keeps you fascinated. A sentence like this for example: “The results were startling for three reasons. First when Wilson measured the overall diversity of the human mitochondrial genome, he found it surprisingly small – less diverse than corresponding genomes for chimpanzees. Modern humans, in other words, are substantially younger and substantially more homogeneous than chimpanzees (every chimp might look like every other chimp to human eyes, but to a discerning chimpanzee, it is humans that are vastly more alike).” Makes you think.
As do his musings on the beginnings of the human race in southern Africa. “The population was likely quite small, even minuscule by contemporary standards. The most provocative estimate is a bare 700.
“Mitochondrial Eve may have lived among them, bearing at least one daughter and at least one granddaughter.” That’s why it is a difficult book to put down.
Some sentences will stop you in your tracks: “You can sequence DNA from an African-American man and conclude that his ancestors came from Sierra Leone and Nigeria. But if you encounter a man whose great grandparents came from Nigeria or Sierra Leone, you can say little about the features of this particular man. The geneticist goes home happy; the racist returns empty-handed.”
This is an endless trove of gene information that might influence health and happiness – or not. Though, as it frequently does when talking genes, the story comes with a twist writes Mukherjee: “The very genes that enable a cell to peel away mortality and age can also tip its fate toward malignant immortality, perhaps growth, and agelessness – the hallmarks of cancer.”
You very quickly understand that there are no easy answers. Someone might think they have found a cure for something and around the corner, there’s information that turns the whole theory around. It puts a whole other spin on this field and an understanding as a novice when you hear certain public pronouncements, it can just as quickly fade away not to be heard of again. Only to appear much later in a different guise.
Just reading about the different findings and how patience, often the best attribute when dealing in this kind of painfully slow research, was often missing, resulting in mistakes – and sometimes hampering ongoing research and findings because of blunders – some of them fatal.
But with patience comes perseverance and these scientists know how to keep pushing and putting their heads down until they find positive outcomes to the benefit of mankind.
One of the scary things according to the author for many is what is known as “gene management”. And he quotes: As the political theorist Desmond King puts it, “…We are all going to be dragged into the regime of ‘gene management’ that will, in essence, be eugenic. It will be in the name of individual health rather than for overall fitness of the population, and the managers will be you and me, and our doctors and the state.
“Genetic change will be managed by the invisible hand of individual choice, but the overall result will be the same: a co-ordinate attempt to ‘improve’ the genes of the next generation on the way.”
He points out that all the parameters whichever way we look at it are inherently susceptible to the logic of self-reinforcement. “We determine the definition of ‘extraordinary suffering’. We demarcate the boundaries of ‘normalcy’ vs ‘abnormalcy’. We make the medical choices to intervene. We determine the nature of ‘justifiable interventions’.”
He underlines that in the final analysis, humans with a specific set of genomes are responsible for defining the criteria to define, intervene on, or even eliminate other humans endowed with other genomes.
“Choice seems like an illusion devised by genes to propagate the selection of similar genes.” And that’s the scary thought. You can see the red lights flashing all over the place especially in the kind of environment we find ourselves in today.
If people successfully start meddling with the gene pool and someone in power says to a certain group of people, “if you’re not happy here, go back to where you came from”, just imagine what could all go wrong in our world when people really start fiddling with genes.
In the end, normal is defined by whom? “The book,” says Mukherjee, began as an intimate history – but it is the intimate future that concerns me.”
The last century, he reminds us, taught us the dangers of empowering governments to determine genetic ‘fitness’., then the question that confronts us now in this current era, is what happens when this power devolves to the individual.
“It is a question that requires us to balance the desires of the individual with the desires of a society.” That will remain the dilemma.
It is one thing to manipulate genes, he notes, it is quite another to manipulate genomes. And it is that difference that a reading of this book will explain in much fuller detail and understanding, something we should all understand in a field that could improve our world in unimaginable ways but also steer humankind into a world we would rather not imagine.
That is why he is pleading for a manifesto for this post-genomic world. He was already predicting that by the time this book was published (2017) new frontiers would have been reached and I’m sure they have been.
It’s a glorious and gripping read about something that is applicable to everyone on this planet. Many will know exactly what the author is talking about and might find his specific take on this world the thing they focus on, for others, who have perhaps only a vague understanding, this is a book that navigates the world in a way that will make sense to even the novice.