Gene – Part Autobiography Part History Part Scientific Enquiry

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s two uncles were afflicted with schizophrenia which manifested itself, within a few years of each other, when they were in their late teens wreaking havoc in their lives. One left home and never returned; the other ended up in a mental asylum.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s mother and his aunt were identical twins. Mukherjee’s aunt got married to a lawyer in Calcutta coming from a wealthy background and his mother to an average job doer in Delhi.

It was the 60s, and within a few years of the marriage, Calcutta, a city beset by social and political disturbances and creaking under a migrant population from Bangladesh, sank into chaos and lawlessness, becoming a city where people cared very less for hiring a lawyer.

On the other hand, Delhi, the capital of a newly independent India, saw wide spread prosperity providing even an average job doer enough opportunities for professional growth, raising the living standards of Siddhartha’s family while the financial condition of his maternal aunt, in Calcutta, steadily plummeted.

These two incidents reveal several characteristics of genealogy, one suggesting the impact of gene on lives and the other, impact of fate superseding that of gene. They form one pillar of The Gene: An Intimate History’s narrative which Siddhartha keeps returning to, to illustrate and enrich the other pillar of the narrative, which deals with how human knowledge about gene has evolved and people who have contributed to it.

There are many early exponents of genetics but those who laid out the basic understanding of purpose and functions of gene are Gregory Mendel a monk, of all people, and Charles Darwin. Darwin said genes carry information from one generation to another, Mendel said the posterity carrying this genetic information are not always uniform in their physical features but varied.

Advance in knowledge of genes has been accompanied by a yearning to manipulate genes to create perfect humans. This quest for perfection started in the US in the 1920s, where, with the collusion of the judiciary, social misfits (which could be anything from an insane person to a social dissenter) were identified and then sequestered to prevent any interaction with the society at large.

This method of perfection through segregation of undesired elements earned its enthusiasts in subsequent years. Among its greatest and most pernicious enthusiasts was Hitler whose elimination of Jews and other types of ‘social misfits’ was nothing but genetic cleansing or eugenics to create a pure German race.

Post WW2 when the world woke up to the horrors of the Nazi Germany practice, eugenics was banned in several countries including the US marking an end of the first if a little crude attempts to control the future.

Eugenics resumed in the 60s again and this time attempts were made to control the future through gene editing which survives to this day and progresses parallel-ly with improvement in knowledge of genes.

However, following the discovery of Nazi horrors in WW2 and subsequent government interventions, two things about eugenics changed. One is – removed from its former purported purpose of racial purity, it is now practiced to remove possibilities of genetically inherited diseases; and the second is – it is practiced only via gene manipulation and not any other form of experiments performed on or with humans.

And the third if you may is the ‘eugenics’ word has acquired a sinister connotation and is used only in reference to abominable racial practices performed at different times in history; ‘gene editing’ has become a widely accepted, secular variant of eugenics.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s ‘part autobiography part history part scientific enquiry’ narrative is very powerful. He peppers his narrative with literary references, mostly taken from children’s literature (Alice in Wonderland being his favorite), to make a point providing a pleasant relief from the claustrophobia of scientific details and also making a point bigger than the sum of its parts.