Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Gene: An Intimate History

Title:  The Gene: An Intimate History
Author:  Siddhartha Mukherjee
Publication Information:  Scribner. 2016. 592 pages.
ISBN:  1476733503 / 978-1476733500

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In the winter of 2012, I traveled from Delhi to Calcutta to visit my cousin Moni."

Favorite Quote:  "History repeats itself, in part because the genome repeats itself. And the genome repeats itself, in part because history does. The impulses, ambitions, fantasies, and desires that drive human history are, at least in part, encoded in the human genome. And human history has, in turn, selected genomes that carry these impulses, ambitions, fantasies, and desires. This self-fulfilling circle of logic is responsible for some of the most magnificent and evocative qualities in our species, but also some of the most reprehensible. It is far too much to ask ourselves to escape the orbit of this logic, but recognizing its inherent circularity, and being skeptical of its overreach, might protect the week from the will of the strong, and the 'mutant' from being annihilated by the 'normal'."

I am exhausted! I have just spent the last two days furiously reading this book. I feel like I have taken a journey through time, place, and my own life. I feel like I have read both a textbook and an epic adventure tale. That is my testimonial to Siddhartha Mukherjee's writing. He has taken a serious, dense scientific topic; captured history, terminology, facts, and figures; and presented it in an incredibly approachable, readable way. I find myself unable to put the book down because I want to know what comes next.

I have an interest in science, but I am not a professional in a scientific field. I took science courses in school, but have not made a study out of science. This book manages to explain the topic in terms I understand without making the explanation seem "dumbed down" for a non-scientific audience. Literary and philosophical quotes begin each chapter, providing a non-scientific introduction to the concepts to come. The book uses analogies from music, cooking, literature (from the philosophers to the Hitchhiker's Guide), and daily life to provide an anchor for the concepts. The personal stories of the people - including the author's own family - provide another bookend for the scientific information. Well placed puns  and other plays on words (look for them!) become another technique. All these factors create a framework to convey the science and to make it readable and memorable. Will I remember every term or every name? Probably not, and I really don't have a need to. Will I remember a lot of the information and the overarching history? Absolutely and often because of these connections.

All writing techniques aside, this book is serious science. It teaches. My guess is that, even at almost 600 pages, it is an introductory course in genetics, presenting a simplified description of the both the science and the history. In the text, the book describes itself. "It is tempting to write the history of technology through products:  the wheel; the microscope; the airplane; the Internet. But it is more illuminating to write the history of technology through transitions:  linear motion to circular motion; visual space to subvisual space; motion on land to motion on air; physical connectivity to virtual connectivity." As a casual reader, I will not fact check this book; nor will I rely on every fact in a matter of scientific or medical significance. I am here for an introduction to the science and the story of the history.

This book delivers on that promise. It begins with the monasteries of the 1800s and ends with a look to the future in 2015. Within this timeline, it takes a topical approach, leading the reader from scientist to scientist, from laboratory to laboratory, and often from patient to patient - the often unwitting participants in the journey of discovery. This is as much a discourse on scientific research as a story of the people involved - past, present, and perhaps, future.

It is also a gateway to a conversation about the future. The ethical questions that surround genetic research and the use of that research impact all of us. For example, just last week, a closed door meeting took place at Harvard Medical School. The project under discussion was once called The Human Genome Synthesis Project. The attention getting newspaper headline about the meeting read, "Scientists Talk Privately About Creating a Synthetic Human Genome." Loosely interpreted, it means creating a human being from DNA created entirely from chemicals in a lab. Think about it. The more the scientific community learns, the bigger the questions become. This book provides some knowledge with which to look at those questions. This book is an important for us all to read and understand.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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