- The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, in a sense, is structured like a double helix. It is a chronological account of the major discoveries in the story of the science of heredity. Running parallel to it is a narrative of the engagement with ethical and social questions raised by eugenics. The Eurocentric narrative of the science of heredity is peppered with concepts from the Sanskrit tradition, and neatly woven into the narrative are descriptions of events from the author’s own personal history, which raises questions about the extent to which genes determine people’s lives. Although Mukherjee’s narrative leads us to believe that there has been a progression of scientific knowledge from the time of the pathbreaking findings of Mendel and Darwin, the author clearly indicates that the eugenic mindset has remained fairly constant throughout.
While reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s extremely lucid The Gene: An Intimate History, I remembered sitting in a philosophy talk in which the speaker, a well-known analytic philosopher who is much influenced by Gandhi, made an extremely powerful pedagogical statement: “we cannot move forward unless everyone in this room has understood this point.” Although his very clearly written scientific account is chronological and situated geographically in Europe and America, Mukherjee adds a special charm to the scientific narrative by bringing in concepts from Indian intellectual traditions and by weaving into his narrative a poignant family story. It is the story of a family whose members went through traumas of migrations caused by historical events such as the partition of Bengal around the time of Indian independence and who faced debilitating mental illnesses. However, despite a neat weaving together of the scientific and the personal, the two strands remain clearly distinct. This might indicate that even if the Western scientific rationality and Eastern storytelling styles coexist, they may remain in separate cognitive boxes.
The Sanskrit word abheda metaphorically relates to a distinct unit inseparable from an individual, thus standing for something almost like a gene. It is the composition of such indivisible units that build the human genome, which interacts with the environment and determines the appearance, the constitution, the behavior, and the illnesses of an individual organism. The idea of gene therapy is basically to identify the damaged units and repair them, if possible, so that the individual organism gets to live a relatively trouble-free life.
The word abheda occurs in the family strand of the story; the author’s father uses it to refer to some factor that is responsible for mental illness in their family. Mukherjee focuses special attention on schizophrenia and bipolar disease, which seem to have a significant genetic component. He also suggests that certain special abilities may go hand in hand with such illnesses and autism. The narration comes closer to home when he relates the occurrences of schizophrenia and bipolar disease in his own family. His own identity as a Bengali-American doctor-scientist-writer is also intertwined—he interweaves a troubling historical narrative of the partition of Bengal into a largely biomolecular scientific story. Along with this illustration of how genetic and environmental factors interact to produce complex conditions like schizophrenia, the author expresses—perhaps unusually for a science writer—his own anxiety about being predisposed to it. Perhaps the vividness of his writing gives glimmers of certain unusual talents that may accompany such predispositions.
The Gene summarizes a major chunk of the research that has happened in relation to the gene in the last many decades. In the initial part, the author clearly draws out the relationship between evolution and genetics, thus showing how variations in [End Page 260] genes lead to natural selection, which is the engine of evolution. Later, one notes that he stays away from theoretical controversies such as debates about the target of natural selection: the view that natural selection targets a complex entity, an aggregation of different organisms that functions in a symbiotic manner and not a single organism.
The ethical questions concerning scientific curiosity and intervention...