Monday, August 15, 2016

Book Review: The Gene - Highly Recommend

I have been eagerly awaiting my turn on the hold list for this book, The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, for several reasons. In a recent newspaper article in The Indianapolis Star, the author is noted for his ability to make science "humorous and approachable." Moreover, I knew the subject matter was fairly seminal to the topic of my most recently written YA novel, The Probability Code. Ever since I began researching for the process of writing that novel, I have been fixated on things like eugenics and the future of genetic testing and treatment.

This book was absolutely fascinating, moderately foreboding, and thoroughly accessible. I thought the book was structured well. Framed by the story of Mukherjee's own family experience with mental illness, the author presents a history of our understanding of the gene. I wasn't aware that eugenic ideas went all the way back to Plato. Apparently, in his book The Republic, "Plato argued that if children were the arithmetic derivatives of their parents, then, at least in principle, the formula could be hacked: perfect children could be derived from perfect combinations of parents breeding at perfectly calibrated times." Of course, Mukherjee noted many other names I was already familiar with, names like William Bateson, Francis Galton, Charles Davenport, Gregor Mendel, and Charles Darwin. But he moved on from those names and introduced many further key figures in the development of our understanding of the human gene.

I took four pages of notes from the book (mostly comments I felt reinforced the plausibility of my novel - since several writer friends have questioned whether such a world is realistic or believable). Sadly, if we are not headed for the actual world I have envisioned, then we are certainly playing with a similar set of matches. The author's commentary on these moral issues fell fully in line with my own sentiments and questions. For example, in thinking about the possibility of eliminating schizophrenia or bipolar disease, the author highlights the very realistic dilemma that such action might equally eliminate certain abilities and intensities that come with the darkness of disease. He wonders aloud whether we can truly eliminate mental illness without, in the process, eliminating creative impulses. Mukherjee writes of a young girl, named Erika, who suffers from an incurable disease. He aptly observes, "We might eliminate Erika's mutation from the human gene pool - but we would eliminate Erika as well." The possible losses in a world devoid of mutations is staggering to consider. As they say, "Into every life a little rain must fall." Without the rain would we truly be able to appreciate the rose?

He sums it up well toward the end of the book, when he writes, "Illness might progressively vanish, but so might identity. Grief might be diminished, but so might tenderness. Traumas might be erased, but so might history. Mutants would be eliminated but so would human variation. Infirmities might disappear, but so would vulnerability. Chance would become mitigated, but so, inevitably, would choice." The technologies are rapidly falling into place to not only create genetically modified organisms in the fields, but genetically modified humans in our houses. Is this a triumph or a tragedy? Time will tell.

I'm thankful to Siddhartha Mukherjee for painting the picture in such a way that the reader can visualize what impact the gene can have on our existence and our future. While I didn't share his firm belief in evolution, I found much to agree with in this lengthy (500 page) treatise. It was a fascinating read and I couldn't help but share whole passages with my family as I stumbled upon page after page of intriguing documentation and commentary. I suppose now I must search out his previous masterpiece, The Emporer of All Maladies. He has certainly proven his power with a pen. I highly recommend this book.

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