The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

I’m not a huge science book fan – except sometimes physics or astronomy – but  biology?  Not!   So had the All-nonfiction reading group not selected this title for it’s September discussion I would likely never have even glanced at it.   In fact,  I was really tempted to give it a pass anyway.   Fortunately,  I tried the sample and found myself a bit intrigued.  This is more a history of genetics and the story of how the scientists came to the understandings they have today as well as the ramifications for tomorrow.  So history is a super-favorite genre –  I’m in.

The Gene: An Intimate History
by Siddhartha Mukherjee
2016/ 608 pages
rating: 9    /  history/science

The  ideas and the history of the science of genetics are far more fascinating than I had anticipated – from the thoughts of  ancient Pythagoras about male sperm and Aristotle’s ideas of human shape and form , to Darwin and Mendel and Nazism all the way to 2016 and the ideas of recombinant DNA.  The future? –  Well … that seems to be all about how to make choices?

Mukherjee has his own stake in this story and he’s quite frank about it. (Maybe in the way that Atul Gawande did in Being Mortal)   Mukherjee’s  family is afflicted with a form of hereditary schizophrenia and he takes the reader on a bit of a memoir concerning a brother and uncles and even his father.   This is interwoven at appropriate times throughout the book and really humanizes the subject.  It’s a subject which absolutely needs to be humanized – personalized – made real.

Following a very nicely written survey of the history of the sciences of  genetics and evolution which comprises the bulk of the book,  Mukherjee ponders the idea of “disease” and  what is “normal,”  what is “best” as well as what is “race”  and what is “intelligence,”  “creative,”  and other aspects of the human being.    Are genes actual determiners of our destiny?  What about environment?   Free choice?

The photographs are nice but I  kind of wish there had been one clear diagram of what a gene looks like with a bunch of its parts labeled.   Also,  I wasn’t too sure about the technical side – what kind of microscopes were the scientists using at what times?

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