Literary Review

On the origin of humans

The Gene: An Intimate History; Siddhartha Mukherjee, Penguin, Rs. 699.  

Religion, spirituality and moral philosophy have generally had the monopoly over stoking, assuaging and manipulating humanity’s insatiable urge to find out where we came from and where we are going. But science has wrested the first part — of the mystery of our origins — from religion and emerged as its sole arbitrator.

Twentieth century advances in cell biology and understanding how evolution worked revealed that not only do humans not sit on top of the evolutionary ladder but that there is no ladder. The human is just another ape, a mere twig, in the relentlessly branching tree of life. Also, the design and body-plan of organisms were mediated by strange pieces of chemical blocks — genes — that worked the same way in bacteria as they do in humans; there are no ‘human genes’ but just various permutations that sometimes lead to humans.

The winding paths and inventive methods that biologists deployed to arrive at these insights underlie Siddhartha Mukherjee’s magisterial The Gene: An Intimate History.

Those who’ve read Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, will feel like they are visiting a favourite eatery. The book’s size forewarns you of the commitment you must make. Mukherjee distills scientific terms and efficiently uses characters — scientists mostly — in a broadly chronological narrative and details the historical context in which pioneering geneticists and biologists interpreted the results of experiments in pea-pods, fruit-flies and worms.

Unlike Mukherjee’s previous investigation of cancer — an affliction that is now global and widespread in public discourse but has strangely never been the subject of a comprehensive, historical investigation — the history of genes and the nuances of genetic engineering are already the subject of several kinds of journalism, scientific discourse, film and science fiction. That leads to the question: what novelty could a scientist-cum-author of Mukherjee’s erudition and authorial gifts add?

On the surface, Mukherjee brings more of himself into this work than in Emperor... He discusses mental illness in his father’s family, how genes may have influenced the personalities of his mother and her identical twin. There’s more banter, more wordplay and greater disclosure of Mukherjee’s own opinion in the vast terrain of explanatory science, than the journalistic distance that he maintained in Emperor

The book begins by summarising how the early Greeks and Enlightenment-era Europeans thought about heredity, how traits from nose sizes to haemophilia were passed through families and how women were thought of as mere foundries for the sperm, the carrier of the vital force that spawns humans.

Charles Darwin dealt the first blow to these ancient views that posited that all life had a common origin and nature was a sieve that favoured those best acclimatised to their surroundings. This might have merely been an intriguing idea had it not coincided with a period during which science — in the form that we recognize today — was itself coming into being. The early 20th century on the cusp of two World Wars and simmering with novel ideas of nationhood, colonialism and dealing with sweeping social change and hyper-inventive technological products of the industrial revolution, significantly influenced the embryonic science of genetics.

Mukherjee sets these scientific discoveries in the context of racism, of how emerging knowledge of the mechanism by which traits of disease were governed by concrete statistical rules caught the fancy of European and American white-supremacists and subsequently Nazism and even the early Communists, who cited the science of eugenics to argue for ‘improving’ humans by culling out the ‘feeble’ and the ‘unfit’.

Thus, even as Mukherjee builds up to the 21st century’s most important scientific event — the sequencing of the human genome or rather, the printing of the first atlas of the DNA that encodes human genes and the personal egos that drove its proponents — he also harks back to the moral and ethical questions that geneticists in the 60s and 70s continually grappled with while becoming aware of man’s growing finesse at manipulating the transfer of DNA across species.

Anyone today can test for a mutation for sickle cell anaemia or Huntington’s disease and calculate the odds that one’s children might acquire the same complex of genes. However, beyond being ‘disease free,’ people also want designer babies. Is this reminiscent of the old days of weeding out the unfit?

He also reminds us that technologies today can create humans with genes scrubbed clean of disease, even as we poorly understand downstream consequences of such editing. “The history of human genetics has reminded us, again and again, that “knowing apart” often begins with an emphasis on “knowing,” but often ends with an emphasis on “parting,” Mukherjee notes.

Being a cancer researcher and based in the United States, Mukherjee is privy to the latest in the world of human genetics and biotechnology and because of the admirable balance he achieves in discussing science, sociology and ethics, The Gene is an essential textbook for every aspiring geneticist, biologist or anyone who’s curious about the invisible forces that lurk in our bodies.

The Gene: An Intimate History; Siddhartha Mukherjee, Penguin, Rs. 699.

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 12:08:44 PM |

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