A panoramic history of the gene and how genetics “resonate[s] far beyond the realms of science.”
Mukherjee (Medicine/Columbia Univ.; The Laws of Medicine, 2015, etc.), who won the Pulitzer Prize for his history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies (2010), begins with Mendel and his “pea-flower garden,” and he never lets readers forget the social, cultural, and ethical implications of genetics research. Indeed, he dedicates the book to his grandmother, who raised two mentally ill children, and to Carrie Buck, the Virginia woman judged “feeble-minded” and sterilized according to eugenics laws passed in the 1920s. After Mendel, Mukherjee describes Thomas Morgan’s fruit fly studies in the 1900s, and he goes on to trace the steps leading to the discovery of the double helix, the deciphering of the genetic code, and the technological advances that have created ethical dilemmas. Early on, there was recombinant DNA, the insertion of genes from one species into another, and this led to mandates initially proscribing certain experiments. Then, there were the first disastrous attempts at gene therapy, which consisted of arrogant and sloppy science. Meanwhile, the human genome has been mapped, more and more genes have been associated with certain diseases (and even behaviors), and a new technique has been developed that permits the removing or replacing of specific genetic defects. Are we ready to apply that to an individual patient? Should it apply to sperm and egg cells so as to affect future generations? Mukherjee ponders these issues in the final chapters and epilogue, ultimately seeing the need for more research about the information coded in the human genome, since so much of it does not consist of genes. Throughout, the author provides vivid portraits of the principal players and enough accessible scientific information to bring general readers into the process of genetic lab science.
Sobering, humbling, and extraordinarily rich reading from a wise and gifted writer who sees how far we have come—but how much farther we have to go to understand our human nature and destiny.