For years, people have recommended Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book about cancer, The Emperor of all Maladies, to me. It’s sooooo good, they would say, not like you think a book about cancer would be. I don’t read a ton of nonfiction and a book about the history of cancer has always sounded incredibly grim, despite what anyone says, so I’ve always politely ignored their suggestions. After reading The Gene however, I’m actually considering picking it up. Mukherjee is an incredibly talented writer.
The Gene delves into the scientific, cultural, and political histories of genetics. I studied chemistry in school so I was pretty familiar with the scientific history, but the cultural and political histories were mostly new to me. Having all three told at once was a revelation. He starts with the early flounderings of scientists like Pythagoras wrestling with the basics of heredity and moves through the centuries to scientific breakthroughs like Darwin’s evolution and Mendel’s pea pod experiments. Along the way, Mukherjee weaves these discoveries between the historical context and social impact of the science. By the time we get to the 20th century, eugenics is a full-blown movement having serious impact on multi-continental racism/sexism and the eventual rise of Nazi race cleansing. Moving into the 21st century, he talks more about ethical concerns surrounding gene therapy and our growing abilities to manipulate our own genetic codes.
This might have been a full five-star read for me if it weren’t for a few nitpicky structural issues I had with the book. He weaves the story around several personal stories of genetics. One of those stories is his own family’s struggle with genetic schizophrenia. His personal narrative is very effective, but he didn’t go as deep into the other few personal stories, so in comparison, they felt shoehorned into the narrative.
Despite that minor complaint, I would wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone. Mukherjee has a gift for explaining scientific concepts in a way most laypeople would understand and the way he weaves it through history is masterful.