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.
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.