Review, The Gene: An Intimate History

What is the best way to start a book review? Perhaps, by telling why one picked it up in the first place.

Therefore, I will start from there. I can think of the following reasons:-

  1. My uncle and an aunt(both siblings of my mother) are suffering from cancer. In both cases, different types of cancer have moved towards malignancy. With so much suffering in the horizon, I wanted to get a proper overview of the disease. And, whether there is a way out for them. Cancer is a disease of genes going berserk. Naturally, I read this book as a succession to the author’s Pulitzer Prize winning work.
  2. There comes a point in life, where one wants to know about everything he sees around and inside himself. One part of that big question deals with life. What drives it? What creates such diversity? How DNA fits into the picture?
  3. The last was about being a human. Can we become the creators and torchbearers of our fate? Can we change the genetic code which controls us? Can we eliminate our shortcomings? Surely, these questions require ethical reflection. Who can forget about the extermination of Jews? Or on even a large scale, the selection and removal of females before/after birth in countries like India. But mostly, I wanted to know about the actual possibilities created by technology and scientific knowledge.

So, did the book satisfy my quest? Yes, to a large extent.

The author, being a cancer-genetics researcher provides a knowledgeable and exhaustible account of the history of genetics. The timeline is roughly from the era of Aristotle to the CRISPR/Cas9 technology of 2015. And, the history is intimate. The author brings the story of how three male members(across two generations) of his family succumbed to variants of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and manic depression. These disorders — though they can appear sporadically in a young man — are currently known to show a heritable pattern, being spread across various genes.

Though lots of techniques, mishaps and people behind the scientific quest are discussed in the book, the main discussion always revolved around what genes mean and how they result in form and function of complete organisms. As if the author kept reminding the reader not to oversimplify and draw conclusions from the facts that are presented — there are many things which we don’t know about the instructions that made us. An important lesson indeed.

This book might take a lot of time to finish because of its length and the material discussed. But, is it worth reading? Absolutely. There is a high chance that 21st century will be about genetics(as 20th century was to quantum physics and the atomic bomb). There will be hard questions. There will be unpleasant answers.

As they say, it is always wise to know about the times we are in. When we begin to write our destinies — everything will depend on the kind of choices, we make.

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