Two years ago I was diagnosed with a genetic disorder. Although in terms of my general health the consequences are minimal, it has had a significant impact in terms of life choices and presented emotional challenges for me and my family. I'll keep it vague but the point is that for the first time in my 37 years on earth, my genetic make up announced itself in a very loud way that I could not ignore.
Our genes are inherently personal and it is fitting that Siddhartha Mukherjee's second ambitious book The Gene: An Intimate History begins with his own genetic story, sadly one of schizophrenia that has hit several family members.
From there, Mukherjee takes us into the long winding road of discovery as modern science has slowly built its understanding of the building blocks of life. Starting with the lonely monk, Gregor Mendel, first theorizing the idea of genes to the recent attempts to manipulate the human genome, Mukherjee describes the history in minute detail.
But as much as this book is about the history of scientific discovery and complex concepts (which Mukherjee is able to do in a way that the lay reader is able to understand), the heart of the book is about the ethical questions that the gene has presented us. From the ugly history of eugenics in the first half of the twentieth century to the overly hasty rush to experiment with genetic therapies, Mukherjee forces us to address questions that go beyond science and delve into moral issues that our increased knowledge of our make up presents.
Mukherjee had a tough act to follow after his really groundbreaking chronicle about cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. I am not sure if The Gene is quite its equal but it still is a monumental accomplishment.
For me personally, this was the book I needed to read, to contextualize my own genetic journey, and give me understanding of how freak randomness shapes our fates, for better or worse.