Documenting the invisible hand of genetics

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on March 10, 2018
Same pinch: Twins have long been valuable study resources for geneticists. Photo: M Karunakaran

Same pinch: Twins have long been valuable study resources for geneticists. Photo: M Karunakaran   -  The Hindu

The Gene: An Intimate History; Siddhartha Mukherjee; Penguin/Allen Lane; Non-fiction; ₹699

The Gene: An Intimate History; Siddhartha Mukherjee; Penguin/Allen Lane; Non-fiction; ₹699

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s second book proves that much like genes, great literature can comfortably outlive its creators

It has been pointed out by several critics that some of the most compelling literature being produced around the world these days have a medical aspect to them. There are books written by doctors who are trying to improve and further humanise medical practices (Atul Gawande’s Better and Being Mortal). Paul Kalanithi was a surgeon and he wrote a devastatingly gripping book about dealing with the death sentence that is advanced stage cancer ( When Breath Becomes Air). What makes both Gawande and Kalanithi special is the fact that after reading their books, you begin to feel an acute sense of your own limitations and, through this, the limitations of mankind as a whole.

God knows it’s been a while since we felt that. A cursory look at the world of popular literature will tell you that what sells today is the exact opposite, namely, projections of near-infinite empowerment: fantasy works that follow an egalitarian approach towards distributing power or motivational books/management manuals or memoirs that drip entrepreneurial intent on every page.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s books are a critical and commercial windfall for publishers because they have fingers in both pies.

On the one hand, his books display a refined, aesthetic delight in the scientific and medical progress, past and present. On the other hand, he strikes cautionary notes with great regularity, pointing out the closed-mindedness and pettiness that his colleagues, past and present, can easily stoop to.

With The Gene, Mukherjee takes on the science that has perhaps the most important implications for us in the next 20-30 years. We have come a long way since the time of Dolly the sheep and Robin Cook and Co writing dystopian shock-jock thrillers about cloning. Mukherjee understands that his readers know the broad headlines: the gene code cracked, DNA mapping, stem cell research and so on. But like the best historians, he knows that headlines are reduced to being superficial if students do not remember the human stories behind them.

And so we meet, dear, bumbling old priest Gregor Johann Mendel, one of the founding fathers of genetics, a man whose pathbreaking research was overlooked for decades, simply because he lacked the technical background that would have made his claims more believable to the scientific community. The author introduces us to Mendel, a fresh inductee to Brno’s (now in the Czech Republic) Order of Saint Augustine: Mukherjee’s prose here is beautiful, fleet-footed, funny; more Groucho than Karl.

“Nothing about Mendel’s early years suggested even the faintest glimmer of the revolutionary scientist who would later emerge. He was disciplined, plodding, deferential — a man of habits among men in habits. His only challenge to authority, it seemed, was his occasional refusal to wear the scholar’s cap to class. Admonished by his superiors, he complied.”

Mukherjee’s portrayals of Mendel, as well as the geneticists who followed him, show off his impeccable sense of narrative. Literary references, too, flow thick and fast in the first half of the book. Here’s an epigram for the book, culled from Murakami’s 1Q84:

“Human beings are ultimately nothing but carriers-passageways- for genes. They ride us into the ground like racehorses from generation to generation. Genes don’t think about what constitutes good or evil. They don’t care whether we are happy or unhappy. We’re just means to an end for them. The only thing they think about is what is most efficient for them.”

But what is even more impressive is the way Mukherjee deconstructs complex scientific ideas and procedures, often as the culmination of theoretical work done over the preceding 30-40 years. A long excerpt published in The New Yorker (about epigenetics) had a section of the scientific community up in arms about the alleged inconsistencies, but Mukherjee, to his credit, handled the situation well and had the humility to tweak his book in response to the criticism.

My favourite segments in the book, however, are the ones where the author writes about his family to prove a point about the nature of genes. Mukherjee’s father had brothers and uncles who had various forms of mental illness. Their stories, and the stories of those tasked with their caregiving are heart-rending. They are the most powerful motivation that a scientist can have for pushing aggressively towards greater knowledge and application of genetics.

It needs to be pointed out that Mukherjee’s books do not belong to the pop science genre populated by the likes of Carl Sagan, James Gleick or Simon Singh, all of whose books are very enjoyable (and informative) without possessing what you would call literary heft.

The Emperor of Maladies felt like the beginning of a new era of great science writing, but The Gene has confirmed that Mukherjee’s is great writing that just happens to be about science, like John Banville’s trilogy of novels about Newton, Copernicus and Kepler, respectively; or the graphic novel Logicomix. Read it to understand the crossroads humanity finds itself at: a point where scientific, philosophical and moral conundrums coalesce.

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Published on August 05, 2016
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