Tuesday, August 23, 2016
The Stuff We're Made Of: The Gene
Genetics fascinates me. Just looking at family photos makes me wonder why does so-and-so look more like this ancestor than that one? Why did I end up with this nose? But genetics is more than skin deep. It shapes how we behave, and what challenges we will face in life.
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddartha Mukherjee is the biography of the gene. The story begins when the gene was just a twinkle in Darwin's eye. By the beginning of the 20th Century, scientists knew what the gene was but hadn't laid eyes on it yet. Once the gene was discovered it seems that our knowledge of the material that makes us us increased rapidly to the point we are at now, poised to eliminate genetic illness.
Of course, it isn't as easy as zapping our genes with a laser and taking care of the problem. There are many steps to get there and technologies still to be discovered. Once people realized genes were a thing, they tried to manipulate them, with often disastrous results. The atrocities carried out by the Nazis began as a way to control humans' genes through eugenics. Gene study was tainted by these horrors and scientists had to rebuild the gene's reputation. Following this was a series of dramas: infighting, competitiveness, hubris, and tragedy. But also amazing discoveries!
Dr Mukherjee highlights the most important stories in the gene's life. He tells the tales of the men and women who devoted their lives to puzzling out what makes up the gene. Throughout the book he tells his own personal story with genetic illness, the thread of schizophrenia in his father's family. The Gene also features the stories of other devastating illnesses: hemophilia, Huntington's, sickle cell anemia, breast cancer, and cystic fibrosis. It also looks at the role genes might have in shaping personality, identity, and sexuality.* Finally, Mukherjee speculates on the future of the gene and how it might influence our evolution.
The Gene is more readable than your high school biology textbook. Mukherjee uses real world examples to explain complex ideas. Even so, I had to slow down and reread parts. There are ideas I'm still confused about- the gene variation of humans as they moved across the globe for one. I just couldn't visualize it and understand it completely. I admit when the science was dense I sort of zoned out. It was hard for me to focus. Most of this was early in the book. Once The Gene hit the mid-20th Century mark I found it more interesting and easier to follow.
The Gene is a big book (600 pages, 80% of it reading material). I had it out from the library and if I didn't feel the rush to finish it I might have let it languish in the Currently Reading category on Goodreads for some time. I DID finish it and with a few days to spare!
The Gene is a very interesting history of a branch of science that affects us all. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in genetics.
*The studies on sexuality discussed in the book were all on gay men. I wondered, where are the lesbians?! It seems like only looking at half of this demographic won't give science the whole picture, right?