When I was at school genes were all about peas, finches and the double helix. They still are but our understanding of the gene has undergone a revolution since I last studied biology. Since then the entire human genome has been mapped opening the doors to all manner of possibilities that was previously the stuff of particularly outlandish science fiction. Siddhartha Mukherjee takes us on a journey of immense complexity in a chatty and easily understand manner.
Right at the beginning, we learn about why this is an intimate history of the gene, as opposed to a straight explanation. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s father’s family is littered with people with mental health problems. Is this just coincidence or are genes at play? If genes are at play, then why isn’t everybody affected? That is where we start but in order to answer that question we need to know what a gene is.
Back then to the genetics of my schoolroom. Mendel and his peas, things I learnt; Mendel was a monk and when he published his findings nobody listened, it wasn’t until years later that the importance of what he had seen was realised. Darwin and his finches, he was far more successful in having his views heard. Fast forward to the middle of twentieth century and the race to find out the structure of DNA that was won by Watson and Crick. Then on to when I was sharing a student house with geneticists, some of whom reckoned that their subject was in the midst of a revolution and would change the way we live our lives. How far fetched they sounded then and how far sighted they seem now.
Scientists have mapped the human genome, learnt about the genes that control Cystic Fibrosis, among other chronic conditions, and they can splice the genes of one organism into another. All these then open up a can of ethical worms. Do we want to create the ‘perfect’ human? What is a perfect human? How do you stop the unethical creating new and terrible viruses? None of these questions have definite answers. Siddhartha Mukherjee takes us from the beginnings of the science through to present day in a brilliantly readable way. Questions of morality, both past and present, are raised. If you read only one science book this year, then make it this one.
DISCLAIMER: I was sent a PRC via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
THE GENE: AN INTIMATE HISTORY by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Published by Vintage Publishing
Hardback £25, Kindle £12.99