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The Gene: An Intimate History – Book Review

Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Publisher: SCRIBNER, Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Copyright: 2016, ISBN: 1476733500
Cover: Jaya Micelli
Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, April 3, 2017




Summary: Incredible reading adventure into the emergence of genetics as a science. The history, the methods, the people.

Author Siddhartha Mukherjee starts THE GENE with a description of his 2012 trip to Calcutta to visit his cousin Moni. He describes the circumstances surrounding the eventual diagnosis of his uncle, Rajesh, with bipolar disorder. Throughout the book, Mukherjee continues the saga of his extended family and his uncle. By the end of the book we understand why he started where he started and why he ended the book the way he did. Between the beginning and, there is a lucid, informative and clear discussion of the history of genetics. When you really ponder that history, when you work through all the twists and turns of how biology and physics converged surrounding the subject of genes, the book is more a history of humankind’s attitude toward itself.

For a discussion thread regarding genetics in your everyday life, an excellent starting place is an equally riveting though short saga of the website 23andMe. 23andMe once provided an individual’s complete genome along with probability or chance estimates of gene expression. This was a mistake.

Apparently, their big mistake was initially including the probable expression of disease-causing genes in the reports they issued to customers. The practice changed after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stepped in. (Russell Brandom wrote a summary of the 23andMe situation in November 2013). Information is power and knowing your genetic profile is potentially a very controlling power over the direction of your health. Maybe too much control for those who monetize health. You might make an independent assessment of how powerful genetics are by how FDA reigned-in the 23andMe genetic profile information and ordered them to halt and desist. 23andMe made the unforgivable error of stepping out in front of the medical community, exposing suppositions before the medical community could toss-in their opinions–or perhaps find a way to profit from the information. FDA stepped back from their prohibition against 23andMe on April 6, 2017 by allowing 23andMe to report on Personal Genome Service Genetic Health Risk (GHR) test for ten diseases. To be fair, just knowing your genome, knowing for instance that you have the APOE-4 gene linked to Alzheimer’s Disease, really does not tell you very much about the likelihood of having the disease and even less about the APOE-4 gene. Even before the FDA, in effect, chastised 23andMe for distributing its health reports, there was plenty of scientific research backing it up. THE GENE makes this perfectly clear.

When Gregor Johann Mendel went to the University of Vienna in 1851 to take courses in biology–more taxonomy than biology according to Mukherjee–he encountered Christian Doppler. Doppler, a physicist, became Mendel’s mentor. It was Mendel who laid the foundation for the science of genetics. The science however would have to wait nearly thirty years before Hugo de Vries retraces Mendel’s work and finally began the unraveling of a simple question: how do humans become human.

Just how revolutionary the concept was that the blueprint for biological forms–heredity in other words– was centered in a physical, biological process? Mukherjee gives a very good history pre-Mendel, pre-de Vries of how philosophers and scientists believed humans replicated themselves generation to generation. He starts with Pythagoras’ “theory . . . that hereditary information (‘likeness’) was principally carried in male semen.” Then along comes Charles Darwin and the environmental adaption of species. Then the question of what mechanism allowed humans to propagate themselves was reduced to the more simplistic, how are humans made. The answers did not start revealing themselves until a hundred years later.

Most of us do not asks ourselves how the form of the human body is maintained from one generation to the next. We make the assumption that a human body is a human body, the body of a spider is a spider: form is programed by genes. We would be ever so slightly mistaken and make additional assumption that are simply wrong. Apparently these popular assumptions lead to actions like the Federal Drug Administration and its handling of 23AndMe. Because you have the APOE-4 gene which has been statistically linked to the development of Alzheimer’s Disease does not mean you will get Alzheimer’s Disease. Genes are not form nor are they destiny.

It is here that THE GENE brings to the reader’s attention a scientific perspective of very practical value. By going through the history of how James Watson and Francis Crick finally arrived at sequencing the DNA code in 1953, we are able to see the subtle shifts in perspective a host of preceding biologists and physicists brought to the problem.

From Aristotle (philosopher), to Darwin (taxonomist), to Mendel (agriculturalist), it took only a minor shift in perspective to unravel the question of how humans (and all life forms) pass biological identities from one generation to the next. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the carrier of genetic information. RNA (ribonucleic acid) is the messenger carrying instructions from the genetic. The elegant swirl of life starts with the blueprint (DNA) and emerges in a complex layering process (RNA) resulting in a towering facsimile of that blueprint. The shifts in prospective: From the elegant simplicity of Pythagoras’s theory that heredity was a function of male semen (spermism), to Aristotle’s equally elegant and logical deduction that it took both male (message) and female (material) to construct life, to the genius of Charles Darwin’s “ability to think about nature not as fact–but as a process, as a progression, as history.”

The one idea that the reader does not take away from THE GENE is that this is the end of the story. That the mystery of life, the process of life has finally been unraveled. Far from it. Equally unfathomable is how the process of life gave rise to intelligent life. There are plenty of hints, but nothing definitive.

As Mukherjee briefly discusses, the natural history of Christian doctrine contained in Genesis was challenged by a “mechanistic view of nature”. The newly emerged view of the nature threatened a steady-state view of the world in which an intelligent being (God) created everything. The ramifications of this challenge continues to this day with a continuing argument over intelligent design versus random chemistry, big-band versus god. It will not be settled until science answers the ultimate question of how it all started–the universe, life, human intelligence. THE GENE offers a little hint by its very approach to the subject of genetics. If the hint is every partially correct, the argument over intelligent design versus random chemistry will keep going for a long time to come.

The process of genetics suggests that all advanced life forms on the planet are an agglomeration of simpler life forms–viruses, bacteria, protozoans. These simple life systems built more and more complex life systems eventually giving rise to the diversity of species we have today. The diversity arose because at some point the life system under development effectively fends off any individual simple life form not fulfilling the agglomerative self-sustaining function. If this is true–even it only partially true–then all life forms on the planet are connected by the process of life. But now, the inexplicable. Simple life-systems have generated an animal that must hunt for food to survive–a wolf, for instance. Simple life-systems have also co-designed another animal which must hunt and graze to survive but is also hunted by the wolf–a rabbit. There are a lot of distinctions that can be drawn between a wolf and a rabbit. Life is not one of them. The same analogy can be drawn for humans. But it is here that science falters.

If we take the proverbial thirty-thousand feet view, human intelligence can indeed be a biological construct derived from simple life forms coagulating to form a higher life system. Though not a topic in Mukherjee’s THE GENE, his explanation of how genes influence and control the process of life makes it clear that biology could in fact be intellect. However, the biology and the physics of life producing intellect can only be pursued so far. Then we encounter this René Descartes wall of I AM. There is no biological or physical reason for a life form to be aware of a self. If anything, the biology and chemistry of life would dictate just the opposite. Ant and bee farms come to mind.

There is no doubt that the genetic processes of life influence the human mind. The influence probably occurs in more ways than can be counted and cataloged. The human mind however seems distinct and separate from life processes. As stated before, the topic of life origins and the primordial development of the human species is not a subject Mukherjee explores. Yet, his clear and concise exploration of how we have altered and expanded our view of the fundamental building blocks of life invariably leads back to the most fundamental of questions: where did we come from?

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