Matthew reviews Mukherjee’s new book in Nature

May 12, 2016 • 10:15 am

Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies, and subject to a bit of discussion on this site in the last week, has now published a new book: The Gene: An Intimate History, and our own Matthew Cobb has just reviewed in in Nature (free link).  The book is doing well on Amazon, and Matthew asked me to add this statement for our readers:

“This review was written about a month ago, long before the New Yorker kerfuffle. Although I wasn’t entirely enamoured of the section on gene regulation/epigenetics, it was only a few pages long and I didn’t think it was worth making a point about – there were other fish that needed frying. The book gives a somewhat different take on the issue to that in the New Yorker article, which is not an excerpt from the book – Mukherjee explicitly highlights Ptashne’s criticisms of the all-methylation interpretation of gene regulation (aka epigenetics).”

As for Matthew’s review, it’s mixed, criticizing the first half of the book and praising the second. I give a few excerpts from his review:

Not so good stuff: 

Despite its subtitle (‘An Intimate History’), the historical sections of The Gene, ranging from 1860 to the present, are not intended to show the convoluted route to current knowledge. They are primarily a tool for explaining the basics of medical genetics.

As a consequence, the complexities of the past are ironed out. Discovery is presented not as a messy reality full of dead ends, but as a linear thread leading inexorably to today. Conclusions of past experiments are presented in terms of modern understanding, rather than as a way to explore confused contemporaneous interpretations. This is a road often followed by scientists and clinicians who write history; it irritates historians, who know that the past was more complicated.

. . . Furthermore, because the book centres on medical genetics, anyone expecting an exploration of the state of genetics as a whole will be disappointed. Our Genes would have been a more appropriate title than The Gene.

Good stuff: 

The writing comes alive in the book’s second half, covering the 1970s onwards, and introduced by Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope’s line: “The proper study of mankind is man”. Mukherjee, as a physician, rightly takes that declaration as his own. Here, the book does become intimate. Mukherjee’s account of the development of biotechnology companies in the 1970s is enriched by personal recollections from Nobel-prizewinning biochemist Paul Berg, in whose laboratory Mukherjee worked in the 1990s. The passages that describe patients with genetic diseases are full of the compassion that we would all wish from our doctors. At other points, Mukherjee brings in examples from his own family, in particular his uncle and cousin, who both had schizophrenia, to frame the narrative and form the starting point for his examination of the role of genetic factors in disease.

. . . A final section examines what Berg described to Mukherjee as “the future of the future” — the amazing possibilities for manipulating the human genome that are within our grasp. Mukherjee outlines the rise and fall of gene therapy in the 1990s, always with a clinician’s compassion for the tragic stories behind the technology; and discusses the potential for gene modification with tools such as CRISPR–Cas9. This section concludes with some of what Mukherjee does best, combining stories of real patients with the ethical dilemmas raised by their conditions — in this case, what would happen if their disorders were the subject of prenatal or pre-implantation testing?

Read this review (and others), and then decide if you’ll order the book. Whether you will, of course, has already been determined.

15 thoughts on “Matthew reviews Mukherjee’s new book in Nature

  1. I pre-ordered the book and will receive the Kindle addition on Tuesday, the release day.

    I need to finish reading “Life: The Leading Edge of Evolutionary Biology, Genetics, Anthropology, and Environmental Science” by John Brockman,

    and then:

    “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself” by Sean Carroll

  2. Regarding Matthew’s criticism of the linear narrative: I think not too many “general” readers would read a history that explores a lot of dead ends. It just makes for a confusing (and often not-engaging) narrative. (Though it might be good to note them in passing.)

    In my opinion, it’s important for a writer of history to do the job of distilling the story to one that is compelling to the reader.

    Similar criticism have been made of other history books that I enjoyed very much (e.g. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Churchill’s The Second World War.)

    1. One thing that Weinberg’s recent book does that avoids both “endless dead ends” and “linearity” is that he explores *why* it is that someone was wrong to hold thus and so, and make it sound plausible, given what we know now. Another physicist I saw a paper from recently (whose name escapes me at present) wrote a “physics of Aristotle” paper which explains he was not qualitatively far wrong in physics as we understand it now. (But his chemistry is worse, for example.)

    2. To Matthew:

      I thoroughly enjoyed your recent book, Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code. (Gets my highest recommendation.)

      I enjoyed it so much I bought a second copy (HB!) and gave it to a friend who is a zoologist and does avian genetics for a living. He enjoyed it very well too!

  3. I read this review yesterday and it helped me put the book into perspective one much different from my kneejerk response. I wish the title had been “Our Genes,” which provides a hint of what it is (and isn’t).

    While I haven’t read the book (will sometime), I was struck by how fair your review appears appears to be. The point on what historians of science/biomedicine want v scientists/clinicians is important for general readers.

    I also appreciated the comments about Mukerjee as a clinician, the kind of Doc all of us like to be treated by and to be around. His humanity comes across in everything he does and was really displayed in his book on cancer. I recall my sadness upon reading the book on cancer that he was no longer going to be a practicing oncologist.

    I also like his writing.

    Thanks Dr. Cobb.

  4. Whether I will order the book, of course, has already been determined. Unfortunately, I cannot simplify my decision by consulting the result of that determination; I just have to go through the tedious processes of apparent free will in order to arrive at the predetermined result. Why doesn’t somebody provide a universe designed for more efficiency?

  5. Where is this written:

    The book gives a somewhat different take on the issue to that in the New Yorker article, which is not an excerpt from the book – Mukherjee explicitly highlights Ptashne’s criticisms of the all-methylation interpretation of gene regulation (aka epigenetics).”

    The book was finished way before the NYer thing etc appeared.

  6. I’m reading the book now, a little bit more than half of it, and his misunderstanding of the central dogma (Crick latter regretted the choice of the word ‘dogma’) put me off for a while. I find it odd that nobody noticed this.

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