The Gene: a cinematic chronicle of genetic advances

This complicated and sometimes painful subject is explored sensitively and thoroughly through the lens of both historical and contemporary science.

Genetics, although comparatively young, is perhaps one of the most controversial, broad-reaching and unavoidably personal fields in modern biology. As we learn in the opening chapters of this book, humans have obsessed over heredity and reproduction for thousands of years – Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle all had their own pet theories. And now, as a label, “genetics” can describe a dizzying array of biological topics from complex molecular and biochemical interactions to the study of whole ecological systems.

But Mukherjee, brilliantly, does not start with all of this. Instead, his prologue opens with the most personal of stories – the story of how first two of his uncles, then a cousin, were affected by episodes of acute mental illness. His family members were each diagnosed with either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, two disorders which are known to have a common genetic component. From the off, Mukherjee encapsulates and personifies the latent fear within each of us that our genes are somehow ‘out to get us’.

Unusually for a science writer, Mukherjee puts as much emphasis on the people and events of his narrative as he does on the underlying science. We meet Gregor Mendel, father of classical genetics, as a humble and uneducated but eager young monk in the gardens of his monastery in Brno. Charles Darwin’s self-assurance and precision, Frederick Griffith’s painful shyness, Rosalind Franklin’s intensity and aloofness – Mukherjee paints windows into the lives and worlds of these celebrated scientists with astonishing clarity. It’s a clever tactic, and one which really makes the book shine. Even the most apathetic reader cannot help but be drawn in by the humanity of his writing.

In fact, people and their stories are the framework around which this book is written. We return to Mukherjee’s family several times throughout the book, revisiting and recapitulating the ultimate question in genetics: do our genes define us? Are we our genes? This complicated and sometimes painful subject is explored sensitively and thoroughly through the lens of both historical and contemporary science. From early eugenics experiments to modern gene editing technologies, no stone is left unturned.

Mukherjee’s writing has been described as “cinematic” (Guardian, 2016) and this is almost an understatement. A natural storyteller, he writes in grandiose, sweeping statements that tug you along from discovery to discovery with a sense of awe and majesty that fits the subject matter perfectly. After all, what is more humbling than knowledge of one’s own beginnings, of the stuff that makes you unique? Genetics is a field with a uniquely personal slant, and Mukherjee captures, exploits and illustrates this well. The whole book just comes together very naturally – the storytelling, the people, the human aspect. There is no doubt that Mukherjee is a talented author.

This book is by no means a short read, totalling just over five hundred pages (excluding notes and index). It meanders lazily through the early 1900s, examining historical ideas and deftly demonstrating the evolution of our modern understanding of genetics, but descriptions of more recent (and arguably just as fundamental) breakthroughs are a little pithy and feel rushed, with little actual scientific detail. Then again, part of the book’s charm is in its ability to see the big picture; to look at the people and the stories rather than just the science. Indeed, this is perhaps more of a science history book than a science book proper.

The Gene manages to chronicle advances in the field of genetics with both a sense of grandeur and a vulnerable intimacy. Couple this with Mukherjee’s flair for storytelling, and the result is a unique, gripping and very much readable book.

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