- Il était une fois le gène. Percer le secret de la vie by Mukherjee Siddhartha
Siddhartha Mukherjee, an American oncologist of Indian origin, here recounts an original and interesting history of genetics. The book is a panoramic 150-year history that covers all the most remarkable episodes in the discipline. From the friar named Gregor Mendel who began hybridization experiments in 1850, first on mice and flowers, later on peas, to the launching of the Human Genome Project and the advent of gene therapy in the late 1990s, readers gradually discover how ideas about and understanding of the laws of heredity and reproduction evolved. In the process, we discover personalities, struggles for influence, internecine conflicts, and the occasionally anecdotal circumstances in which some fundamental biology discoveries were made.
The originality of this historical approach to genetics lies in the fact that Mukherjee is also recounting the story of his own family, a family affected by schizophrenia and manic-depressive psychosis, pathologies with which two of his uncles and a cousin were diagnosed. The author has us share from the inside, as it were, the daily difficulties encountered by his relatives, the denial and repression of the facts by other relatives, the need to investigate the problem as a genetic disease to know what kind of family health to expect in the future, and the fear of asking for that information. This personal dimension goes together with the author's confirmed opposition to certain aspects of genetics inquiry. Mukherjee devotes an entire chapter to the eugenics of Francis Galton, recalling many past abuses committed by states in the name of ideology.
While extremely interesting and well documented, the book suffers from an epistemological weakness. Because Mukherjee confines himself to the notion that concepts are built and developed gradually over stages, the history of biology that he offers us is linear and nearly continuous. This means that the book does not have the scope of François Jacob's history of heredity, for example, in which the guiding understanding is that "[e]ach period is characterized by a range of possibilities defined not only by current theories or beliefs, but also by the very nature of the objects accessible to investigation, the equipment available for studying them and the way of observing and discussing them. It is only within this range that reason can manoeuvre".(1) [End Page 570]
1. François Jacob, 1970, La logique du vivant, Paris, Gallimard, p. 19. [The Logic of Life: A History of Heredity, trans. Betty E. Spillmann, New York, Pantheon Books, 1973, p. 11].