Book Review 388: The Gene
THE GENE: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. 592 pages. Scribner, $32
Evolution by means of natural selection is the profoundest concept in biology; it may be the profoundest concept that humans are capable of. It can be expressed in a couple of sentences, and this has seduced many people to think that it is easy to understand.
This applies as well to those who pursue it as science or medicine as to those who disbelieve it because of religious bigotry.
But it is not easy to understand. We are now just 150 years from the germinal researches of Darwin and Mendel and capable — thanks to the research of a couple of yogurt scientists (yes, really) — of manufacturing genes to order with a high specificity.
Yet Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Gene” is both a cautionary and a triumphal story. Time after time, people have thought they knew enough to move from research to action. Some of these people were (and they are still around) ignoramuses who knew nothing about genetics; some were among the most advanced researchers and thinkers of their time.
(The following paragraph is relevant to Mukherjee’s book but is not explored in it. The antievolutionists of today who smear evolution as the progenitor of fascism or racial exterminationist ideologies are not only ignorant of the science of evolution, they turn history upside down. Evolutionary thinkers were (and some still are) guilty of racist and murderous thinking, but such thoughts did not have to await the “Origin of Species” to be thought. They were already around. The racists found evolutionary knowledge, especially as it stood in the late 19th century, handy to their purposes, but they had other impulses, primarily derived from Christianity. The word eugenics preceded the word genetics by 20 years.)
Natural selection requires something to select against, and it soon became clear that that something was physical. Darwin drove incorporeal vital forces out of biology, but for a long time that something was almost entirely unguessable. The word gene did not arrive for about 50 years and it remained an idea without a physical analogue for a long time. .
Not until the 1940s was it known for sure what genes were made of. After that huge conceptual breakthroughs came just about every decade — almost as if a kind of Moore’s Law (but slower paced) was acting in genetics.
The structure of the gene was revealed in ’53, the code was cracked less than 10 years later, and barely 10 years after that the prospect of genetic manipulation, as reality not dream, was so imminent that a famous conference on the ethics of knowing about the gene was called at Asilomar. There was “no comparable moment in scientific history,” Mukherjee says.
Mukherjee, a cancer researcher, is superb at explaining the concepts and experiments behind these breakthroughs (although as the reach into the gene becomes ever more detailed the explanations for lay readers become less so), but the best parts of the book are the ethical puzzles.
Mukherjee’s family included examples relevant to genetic research– a pair of identical twins, a cluster of apparently heritable madnesses — and it is here that his portrait of the gene becomes intimate.
His views are cosmopolitan, perhaps as a result of his family background, as refugees from what was then East Pakistan, then as migrants to America, and his own transoceanic education (Stanford, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford). Thus such insights as that the (apparent) power to direct genes led to concerns about biohazards among American researchers, moral hazards among students in Europe.
Soon enough ordinary people will have to come to terms with both. Mukherjee quotes the researcher Eric Topol: “Genetic tests are also moral tests. When you decide to test for ‘future risk,’ you are also, inevitably, asking yourself, what kind of future am I willing to risk?”
That, at least, is a more humane question than the assertion of the fascist eugenicists that “the future belongs to me.”