Siddhartha Mukherjee is a physician, biologist, and oncologist, and this is a book all about genes — a massive and complicated area of science (science!) that he breaks down wonderfully for his readers. The audio book was 20 hours long. It took me an entire road trip to get through. I loved it.
The subtitle of The Gene is An Intimate History, and intimate is right. This book is so incredibly detailed — he examines every single aspect of genes: how they affect our personalities, appearances, strengths, weakness, for our generation and the next. He also brings his own intimate details to the table — there’s a history of mental illness in his family, and Mukherjee goes back to his uncle’s life and health multiple times. It’s just one more example in a massive book of examples about how every little bit of us is affected by genes.
Okay, so, like I said, Mukherjee shares with us a LOT of information and if you are any kind of nerd you will surely find at least some of interesting. Here’s what I particularly enjoyed nerd-ing out over:
Studying the human genome allows us to identify the genes that cause certain disorders. But of course, that’s relatively new to science. I loved the case studies in this book, which Mukherjee presents to use to show how diseases and disorders were identified by scientists and doctors prior to genetic testing being available. Back before the internet, before medical journals, before widespread communication really — doctors would see a patient with unusual symptoms, treat them as best as possible and maybe never encounter something like that again. It would take a special set of circumstances and a very motivated doctor to notice something like, say, phenylketonuria. They’d have to realize that the symptoms they were seeing actually added up to something, then figure out the cause, and then move forward with figuring out a treatment. PKU is incredibly rare, and presents initially in babies as a weird odor and bad skin. Eventually, it causes irreversible developmental delays and other health issues. Mukherjee introduces us to Pearl S. Buck and her two children affected by this genetic disorder. We also meet Norwegian physician Ivar Asbjørn Følling, who identified the disease in his patients and eventually figured out how to manage it with diet. Now, we prick a baby’s heel at 10 days old, run a test and know instantly if that child is affected, therefore interceding before that child experiences any ill effects.