The Gene: An Intimate History

The science of genetics was born in mid-19th century with the discovery of the basic mechanisms of heredity in the pea garden of an Austrian monk. Although, humans have acted as agents of genetic selection, for thousands of years, by breeding offspring with desired traits, it was Mendel’s discovery of the existence of dominant and recessive traits in pea plants, that set into motion the modern field of genetics.

 Siddhartha Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher has written a comprehensive, engaging and insightful history of the gene as well as  an analysis of the ethical dilemmas, the challenges and the medical benefits of the genomic science in the 21st century.

The Gene is also a personal history. Entwined with the Gene’s history is Mukherjee’s own Bengali family history of mental illness, which erupts from shared genetic inheritances and define the lives of past, present and future family members.

The book covers 150 years of history, from Gregor Mendel, the monk who discovered the basic principles of heredity, working in his pea garden in Brno, through to Darwin and to his half- cousin, Francis Galton, one of the first proponents of the ‘eugenics movement’ to Oswald Avery’s pinpointing of DNA as the carrier of genetic information, to James Watson and Francis Crick and to the recent years where the sheer ingenuity of the scientists demystified the genome.

The Gene is a book of scientific progress, the benefits of direct genetic modification can be enormous, “to carve out a life of happiness and achievement without undue suffering”, but the possibilities of a  serious, irreversible mistake are also immense. Genetic modification has the potential to alter the course of human evolution to something completely unexpected, even harmful. Are we really ready to take this step?