Thank heavens Gregor Mendel was a lousy priest. Had he shown even the faintest aptitude for oratory or ministering to the poor, he might never have determined the basic laws of heredity. But bumbling he was, and he made a rotten university student to boot; his failures drove him straight to his room, where he bred mice in secret. The experiment scandalized his superiors.
“A monk coaxing mice to mate to understand heredity was a little too risqué, even for the Augustinians,” Siddhartha Mukherjee writes in “The Gene: An Intimate History.” So Mendel switched – auspiciously, historically – to pea plants. The abbot in charge, writes the author, acquiesced this time, “giving peas a chance.”
Love Mukherjee, love his puns. They’re everywhere. I warn you now.
It is Mukherjee’s curse – or blessing, assuming he’s a glass-half-full sort of fellow – to have to follow in his own mammoth footsteps. “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” his dazzling 2010 debut, won the Pulitzer and almost every other species of literary award; it became a three-part series on PBS.
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In his acknowledgments to “The Gene,” Mukherjee, a researcher and cancer specialist, confesses that he once feared his first book would also be his last – that “ ‘Emperor’ had sapped all my stories, confiscated my passports and placed a lien on my future as a writer.”
The solution, he eventually realized, was to tell the story of the gene. It is his debut’s natural prequel, a tale of “normalcy before it tips into malignancy.”
By the time “The Gene” is over, Mukherjee has covered Mendel and his peas, Darwin and his finches. He’s taken us on the quest of Watson, Crick and their many unsung compatriots to determine the stuff and structure of DNA. We learn about how genes were sequenced, cloned and variously altered, and about the race to map our complete set of DNA, or genome, which turns out to contain a stunning amount of filler material with no determined function.
Many of the same qualities that made “The Emperor of All Maladies” so pleasurable are in full bloom in “The Gene.” The book is compassionate, tautly synthesized, packed with unfamiliar details about familiar people. (Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, used to rank the beauty of women on the street by “using pinpricks on a card hidden in his pocket.” Ick.)
But there are also crucial differences. Cancer is the troll that scratches and thumps beneath the floorboards of our consciousness, if it hasn’t already beaten its way into the room. It commands our attention. In Mukherjee’s skilled hands, the story of this frightening disease became a page-turner. And in the middle of it all, agonizing over treatment protocols and watching his patients struggle, was the author himself.
There are far fewer psychological stakes in reading about the history of genetics. “The Gene” is more pedagogical than dramatic; as often as not, the stars of this story are molecules, not humans. Mukherjee still has a poignant personal connection to the material – mental illness has wrapped itself around his family tree like a stubborn vine, claiming two uncles and a cousin on his father’s side – but this book does not aim for the gut. It aims for the mind.
So what does this mean? That there are many excursions deep into the marshes of biochemistry and cellular biology. Bring your waders. It gets dense in there. Mukherjee can write with great clarity about difficult genetic concepts but the science gets increasingly complex, and it lasts for many pages.
Mukherjee’s explanations are sometimes so thorough they invite as many questions as they answer – if, as he says in a Homeric footnote on Page 360, the Y chromosome is so unstable it might eventually disappear, will we still reproduce?
I do not mean to suggest Mukherjee has neglected to attend to big questions or ideas in this work; they just get lesser billing than I’d have liked.
The Gene: An Intimate History
By Siddhartha Mukherjee
Scribner, 592 pages