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Book Review: The Gene – An Intimate History

12 September 2016
Appeared in BioNews 868

The Gene: An Intimate History

By Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee

Published by Bodley Head

ISBN-10: 1847922635, ISBN-13: 978-1847922632

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'The Gene: An Intimate History' is the latest book from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee. Taking a similar approach to his previous work 'The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer', Mukherjee interweaves his personal history with a comprehensive and extensive review of the history of genetic research. 'The Gene' is a truly impressive achievement describing how the mystery of the gene and heritability were slowly unravelled throughout the 20th century, and the groundbreaking discoveries that have brought the field of genetics to where it is today, while always questioning the implications of our ever-expanding genetic knowledge on the future of the human race.

The impetus for Mukherjee's book comes from his awareness that a shared genetic inheritance for mental illness (bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) has proliferated throughout his family – affecting uncles, aunts, cousins – and the subsequent fears that this presents for his own family. Well versed in the language of genetics and the role of genetic mutation in the development of serious illness, Mukherjee's oncological research career combined with his personal history makes 'The Gene' a true labour of love.

The first part of the book provides an in-depth history of the discovery of the gene and the nature of heritability. It starts with the theories of the Ancient Greeks but really flourishes when it approaches the modern day and the story of Gregor Mendel, the monk who discovered heritability through breeding peas with different dominant and recessive features, but whose work was largely forgotten until the turn of the 20th century. The rediscovery of Mendel's work and a surge of interest in genetics in the early part of the century led to the rise of the eugenics movement. Kick-started by Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, the development of eugenics was based around the desire to improve the quality of the British population by encouraging the breeding of those with the most favourable characteristics and the removal of the disabled, the mentally ill and the weak from the gene pool. The book details the rise of the eugenics movement in the USA, using specific examples of how suspected low intelligence destroyed three generations of one family, and its demise following the adoption of eugenics during the Nazi regime and their use of sterilisation programs and experimentation. It is this cautionary approach that runs throughout 'The Gene': groundbreaking gene research can open up many possibilities, not all of them ethically sound.

We then embark on an enthralling trawl through the history of the modern biological revolution that was post-war genetic research – a race to discover all and everything about the gene. Scientifically thorough yet totally accessible, this account details each significant step in the assimilation of knowledge about what genes are and how they work. We move from a time where genes were simply an abstract concept underlying our individual traits through to the precise knowledge of the structure, location, operationalisation and mapping of the genome.

This is a book for readers of any background, from scientists to those with simply a worldly interest in the subject matter. Mukherjee rarely descends into complex and highly technical explanations of the processes involved, yet still manages to create an informative and educational narrative. Potentially lacking in detail for some, this book is not intended as a textbook but as a fascinating overview of the basis of the human race. The consequences of each discovery are debated, bringing us right up to the modern day. The rise of new technologies and the creation of 'new' genes enabled scientists to make giant steps in genetic research, and the subsequent involvement of big business leading to the explosion of genetic research in the mid-part of the century, culminating in the mapping of the human genome in the 1990s.

'The Gene' is not just narrative, however, and by the end the reader is left with a number of moral dilemmas and questions as to where the constant breakthroughs in genetic research will take the human race. The advantages of manipulating or removing genes permanently from a gene pool for those with gene-dominant diseases such as Huntington's disease are obvious. However, Mukherjee suggests that we need to exercise caution. Despite a viable genetic basis, the role of the gene in many diseases, such as schizophrenia, is far from clear. Multiple genes may influence the onset of many disorders, but so does the environment. Our understanding of the gene–environment interaction is still limited.

Mukherjee has created a masterwork of the history of the gene and its study. In this popular science book, scientist and non-scientist readers alike will feel they have a true understanding of the history, biology and ethics of genetics.

Buy The Gene: An Intimate History from Amazon UK.

22 January 2018 - by Ewa Zotow 
The programme starts with a bold statement: 'No other field of science has experienced such an upheaval in the last few years as human evolution.' There is a reason for it: the recent addition of the DNA research to the toolbox of techniques available to evolutionary scientists has led to remarkable findings...
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