Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Gene: An Intimate History

The Gene is the engrossing, insightful, educational, suspenseful, thought-provoking, disturbing, unnerving, even chilling history of genetics.  Un-put-down-able. This is a book I may read twice. You should read it at least once (at least IMHO).

This book is bursting with information about the evolution of genetics from the seeds of Darwin and Mendel up to 2015, told in a clear, understandable, exciting way. It reminded me why I almost majored in genetics. The descriptions of dogged efforts to move one painstaking step forward over the course of a decade(!) make me relieved I chose a field with more immediate gratifications.

The book juxtaposes the spectacular advances of science with social and moral issues such as eugenics.  By coolly pointing out the ramifications of each step along the way, he induces a sense of wonder but also foreboding. For instance, the description of the American eugenics movement makes current US politics - with a sociopathic racist running for President with the support of a disturbing proportion of the population - even more terrifying. Of course, given the American eugenics sterilization schemes of the 1920s, Mukerjee might not be here to sound the alarm; his family had the wrong skin colour and a familial history of schizophrenia. By the way, Mukerjee scrupulously omits explicit mention of this fact. 


Mukerjee has a scintillating writing style. His vivid descriptions of the people involved and the evocative settings where major advances took place bring the book to life and made me marvel at his command of the language. He considers why different words were chosen and the implications of those choices. What a treat to find such scientific insight and writing skill in one person. I must confess I had to consult a dictionary a few times, and not just for scientific or medical terms. But when I found the word, it was clear it wasn’t there to show off, but to deliver exactly the right nuance of meaning.

There were several themes in this book that will keep me thinking for a while. You might see some of them turning up in future posts.

P. S. For past book reviews check here. If you like this book I think you'd like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Curiosity.

1 comment:

Lance Antler said...

I recently ordered this book - I had it out from the library but I couldn't finish it in time. His first book - The Emperor of all Maladies - was spectacular.