Book Review of The Gene: An Intimate History

Review by Vipul Murarka

The Gene By Siddhartha Mukherjee is an extremely well researched book in the field of human genetics. The book is beautiful amalgamation of past, present and what lies ahead. When i used to read about these discoveries, i always used to wonder about the story behind discovery. In school and college i had learnt that Francis and Crick deduced the structure of DNA but this book tells you how it all started; how they developed on the cues of others to build this. Many such amazing incidents are mentioned in the book.

The book beautifully portrays how genes study started; right from the times of Aristotle till date. The research that the author has done is commendable. It was more of a story telling kind of session for our protagonist, the gene, rather than a scientific read. The way he has beautifully woven research stories with amazing facts maintaining a timeline is something not all can do. Some of the interesting facts which i weren’t aware of were that for someone to be straight or gay, there is a gene (or a choromosome region) that plays the huge role and that this gene could only be passed on by females. I became engrossed reading about American Eugenics (selecting only the fittest over ill-fitted, healthy over sick), Sterilization law of the Germans (which killed over four hundred thousand people), how the period of hunger winter has been etched in the genetic memory of the Dutch of which Audrey Hepburn was the victim, and to how far did they go (or humans can go) that could have possibly put a dead end to genetics in the 1920s itself.

After describing the history of genetics in tremendous detail and the present in meticulous form, Siddhartha gave a taste of what lies in future of genetics.

There are some shortcomings that I felt while reading this book. A person need to have the basics of biology and biotechnology (to some extent) to understand the book. While he has made efforts to explain the concepts, but because he has refrained from using diagrams (except for about just 5 drawings), things will be somewhat difficult for a layman to understand. Siddhartha has also not considered citing examples from plant kingdom genetics which has grown leaps and bounds. For example, GM of plants is not mentioned at all in the book. There are some amazing breakthroughs in the genetics of plants which could have been touched upon too.

There were some good quotes in the books. Few that stayed with me were
“Freaks become norms, and norms become extinct. Monster by Monster, evolution advanced.”

“Normalcy is the antithesis of evolution”

I would like to end by citing another quote from the book “Influence of genes on our lives and beings is richer, deeper, and more unnerving than we had imagined.”

I will give this book 3 out of 5 stars.

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