Review by Cath Murray

10 Jul 2016, 5:00


The Gene: An Intimate History

By Siddhartha Mukherjee

If you’re not a science teacher, you may think this book is not for you. Think again. Whatever your background, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene will make you more connected to medicine, science, history and frankly, the trajectory of human thought.

My only caution would be not to recommend it to too many people. Once this becomes common knowledge, we won’t sound half so impressive. So slowly does it… But for the select few, here’s why it matters.

First, arts people (and school leaders), this book on genetics kicks off with an entire chapter on the history of the eugenics movement’s role in the Second World War. Cross-disciplinary, tick!

Second, science teachers, here’s a thought. I never imagined that as a non-scientist I would be able to really grasp how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Much less, to visualise the processes by which haemoglobin carries oxygen or the structure of DNA is determined. And I don’t profess to have the answers to how to get teenagers passionate about science, but I can’t help feeling that Mukherjee’s text brims with potential.

The biologists were the cool kids when I was at university. They went on field trips to exotic places, slept in hammocks, studied chameleons and practised free love. We philosophers sat around getting stoned, applying the brilliance of our barely formed minds to the problems of the universe. They got out there and studied things that you can lay hands on.

So you can’t lay your hands on genes, but you can, it seems – if you have Mukherjee’s literary talent and scientific knowledge – paint really clear analogies of how they work.

How did I get this far in life, I found myself wondering, without knowing that the predominant theory of procreation, for a couple of hundred years, was that the sperm contained microscopic blow-up dolls that were implanted then inflated inside a woman’s womb? They called them homunculi.

Or that the gentle-mannered Eastern European monk Mendel (famous for diligently recording his selective breeding experiments on tens of thousands of peas and compiling the first proof for indivisible units of heredity, later christened genes) was shunned as an outsider by the academic community and his work ignored for 40 years?

Such is the power of Mukherjee’s story-telling, that I reached page 105 – of a book on genetics, people! – before encountering a concept that was not entirely accessible.

Herding student ecology groups around the tropics for four years in the hope of some kind of intellectual osmosis, I heard some cool stories along the way. The entomologists used to describe metamorphosis by saying that the caterpillar turns into a kind of soup inside the chrysalis, which re-forms itself into a butterfly. And to be honest, this all sounded like so much magical thinking to me. But Mukherjee walks the reader through the genetics until this becomes not only comprehensible, but kind of obvious. “Oh yeah, of course!” you find yourself thinking, “Caterpillar soup makes butterflies – totally logical.” Need I say more?

And don’t even get me started on how the chapter on forced sterilisation of undesirables as a response to mass immigration of the 1920s contains some poignant messages for our time.

Having grown up in a fundamentalist religious community and refused to have my biology teacher even explain evolution to me, I spent a lot of time at university hovering in the background, hoping to catch some of the intellectual breeze wafting off the biology students, who lived and breathed natural selection and whose bible was Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

Surely The Gene has to be the new bible for a new generation of aspiring biologists, biochemists and, frankly, thinking people?

So whether you’re a teacher or parent attempting to inspire a reluctant teen to get excited about science, or you simply want an erudite anecdote, this book is for you. It’s a dazzling example of scientific story-telling, and definitely my book of the year.

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