On writing

Siddhartha Mukherjee on The Gene: An Intimate History

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author explains his personal quest to understand more about ‘one of the most beautiful, powerful and dangerous ideas that human beings have ever had'

'Almost exactly 150 years ago a lonely monk named Gregor Mendel, working with peas, stumbled on probably the most important biological discovery of the twentieth century: the idea that all biological instructions – the instructions that create our hands, our bodies and also our minds – are carried in a kind of unit form and passed intact from one generation to the next.

'My book, The Gene, is the story of that idea. It is a story of ourselves. It is the story of the code of code that maintains and builds and repairs humans. And it’s a story about the future, of a time when we can begin to intersect and change that code and thereby change our future. It sounds like a panoramic project, and it is, but it’s also a very personal story – it’s an intimate history.' – Siddhartha Mukherjee

Find out more about the family history that makes The Gene such a compelling read in the video below:
 

 

‘A well-written, accessible and entertaining account of one of the most important of all scientific revolutions’

Robin McKie, Observer

 

The Gene is as engaging, powerful and elegant a piece of science writing as you are likely to read this year’

Oliver Moody, The Times

 

‘Mukherjee leaves you feeling as though you’ve just aced a college course for which you’d been afraid to register – and enjoyed every minute of it’

Andrew Solomon, Washington Post

 

The Gene is a book about ourselves – about our history, about the code that builds and runs humans, and about what happens when we begin to change this code in the future.

This project – a biography of the gene – sounds panoramic, and it is – but this book began in a very personal way for me. For three generations, my own family has been marked by the history of schizophrenia – a heritable illness that has blighted the lives of many relatives.  Two of my father’s brothers died – one with bipolar disorder and one with schizophrenia. One cousin remains institutionalized in Calcutta. Their interrupted, demolished lives, gashed by an illness that destroys the mind, has had a greater impact on my thinking as a scientist, doctor, historian, father and son than I could have imagined.

Over the last year, we have begun to identify the genes that cause schizophrenia, leading to new tests and new treatments – and raising deep moral conundrums.  Would I test myself?  Would I test my daughters? What if only one of them turned out to carry this mark?  What would a world look like if we began to test humans for diseases before they occur, or treat them pre-emptively for future illnesses predicted by their genomes? How much of our fate is encoded in our genomes – and what would happen when we change it?

In parallel with my family history, my scientific work was also converging on genes. I am a cancer scientist and doctor, and my first book, The Emperor of all Maladies, is a book about the history of cancer – a biography of cancer.  That disease, perhaps, is an ultimate perversion of genetics – a cell that becomes pathologically obsessed with replicating itself. But to study cancer, I realized, is to also study its opposite. What is the code of normalcy before it becomes corrupted by cancer? What do the normal genes do? How do they maintain the constancy that makes us discernibly similar, and the variation that makes us discernibly different? This book is an attempt to answer these questions. It is, like Star Wars, a prequel to Emperor’s sequel.

The final impulse to write The Gene came from science. In just the last year we have invented technologies that allow us to change human genes intentionally and permanently. To understand this, imagine the entire set of genes in human cells as a collection of sixty-six Encyclopaedia Britannica. We have now invented technologies that allow us to open one volume in a single cell, and change one word in that cell, leaving all sixty-six volumes perfectly untouched.

You don’t need to be a scientist to realise that this technology is transformative. We can now intentionally change the code that governs our form, fate and future. We can reverse a terrible genetic disease such as Cystic Fibrosis, or tamper with genes that affect, say, height or IQ. The Gene grew out of trying to grapple with this advance: what does our future hold once we begin to change ourselves?

The story begins with a lonely monk working in a pea garden, who discovers genes. It intersects with Darwin’s theory of evolution and animates the macabre desire of the Nazi eugenicists to create a genetically perfect human race. The gene transforms twentieth-century biology and medicine, and it pervades highly contested questions concerning race, gender identity and sexuality.

This is the story of a simple scientific concept – that biological information is carried in units – that becomes one of the most dangerous, powerful and profound ideas in human history.

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