A new Ken Burns series on genes and genetics

April 8, 2020 • 9:30 am

Both Matthew and reader Leon alerted me this morning to a new two-part series (four hours total) by Ken Burns, based on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book The Gene: An Intimate History. You can watch the first episode (aired on PBS last night) by clicking on the screenshot below. I just learned about it, and haven’t yet watched it, but Matthew—who’s featured in it seven times—has, and has provided a brief précis below the screenshot. I’d recommend watching this at any time, but certainly now that most of us are housebound, searching for videos and other stay-at-home activities, it’s a good substitute for more mindless stuff.

The first episode is called “Dawn of the Modern Age of Genetics”, and has this summary:

Part One interweaves the present-day story of the Rosens, a young family on an odyssey to find a cure for their four-year-old daughter’s rare genetic disease, with stories of the exciting discoveries of the early pioneers in genetics. This episode also tracks the dark period in human history when a little genetic knowledge was used to justify terrifying human experiments.

And here’s Matthew’s take:

The first episode of this Ken Burns documentary The Gene: An Intimate History just aired on PBS in the US. It’s in two parts, each nearly two hours long. It’s based on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book of the same name, and like the book, it mixes history and basic science with personal stories relating to human genetics, in this case looking at rare genetic diseases, and in particular Huntington’s Disease, a lethal and very unpleasant neuro-degenerative disease that hits people in their late 30s. The talking heads threading the various bits together include Mukherjee himself, Eric Lander and three friends of Jerry with whos readers of this site will probably be familiar: myself, Andrew Berry of Harvard and Steve Jones from UCL.

One of the most powerful sections—and certainly, if the Twitter response to the programme is anything to go by, the most surprising, for many viewers—is the part commented on by Andrew, which shows the links between the powerful US eugenics movement and Nazi Germany. My comments relate to various key historical moments in the story—this was recorded roughly 18 months ago. While I would take issue with the way some bits of the history are framed (to take just two examples, the significance of Photo 51 in the discovery of the double helix structure is, yet again, really over-played, thereby missing the key moment; and while there is a severe anachronism in the persistent use of the term ‘information’ prior to 1953, including the suggestion that Schrödinger used the term in his 1944 book What Is Life? [he didn’t mention it]), in general this is a very solid summary for the general viewer.

There is some really nice archival/reconstruction footage (especially of all those hairy scientists at the Asilomar Conference on recombinant DNA in 1974), and there is a very powerful thread which follows a British woman whose family has Huntington’s Disease, and who decides, in her late 20s, to take the test to see if she has the disease. Her motivation is both to find out the truth and, in the case of bad news, to be able to participate in the development of treatments.

Highly recommended! But be quick, it won’t stay up long. Non-US readers will need to use a VPN to convince the PBS servers that they are in the USA. . .

15 thoughts on “A new Ken Burns series on genes and genetics

  1. I thought it was very well done especially the way they intertwined human examples of genetic diseases with the science. I was one of those who were astonished by the role the US eugenics movement played in the development of the Nazi regime.

  2. I stumbled across this last night. I also thought it was a good elementary explanation for the general public. Once we emerge on the other side of this pandemic I’m hoping that one possible positive aspect will be an upgrade in people’s knowledge of viruses and science in general. But we will have to keep disavowing nonsense (non-science) at every step. I have seen some pretty dumb and at times dangerous posts on Facebook. Dr. Oz kind of stuff. Jeebus.

  3. It’s in my calendar.
    I am wishing that Ken Burns would do a documentary on the 1918 flu pandemic. I predict it would reveal that many of the debates and behaviors then are what we see today, and it would provide the general public with a good lesson about that.

  4. Got it taped off the tube and will watch it soon. Read the book when it came out and Mukherjee’s recent piece on covid-19 in the New Yorker. I just hope Ken Burns hasn’t put banjos in the background…

  5. I also watched it last night. I thought it was very good and did not think the minor errors distracted from the overall quality. I remember being fascinated with the coverage of the Asilomar Conference back then. I was aware of the effect of the American eugenics laws on Nazi policy. I thought the fact that so many biologists who made advances in genetics were former physicists who needed to find new work when the atomic bomb was finished.

  6. I watched it last night, thought it was well presented overall. Did a good job of covering the history of the ideas and experiments that led to molecular biology as we now know it and to some current applications. I thought the focus on rare diseases was interesting too.

    It might well be available in the US on the PBS app on a smart TV or other device, for a week or so (per the interwebs this is true – I have not checked). But act quickly, they are normally pretty quick to pull these things off and make you pay for them.

  7. Very well done overall, especially in the
    deft combination of the history of Genetics with the human interest of families suffering inherited disease alleles. I liked the portrayal of Morgan and the fly room, of Alfred Sturtevant, of the famous Venezuelan Huntington’s cluster, and the intelligent narrations by Mukherjee and Cobb. Only two minor quibbles: in recounting how Mendel discovered elementary conserved factors of inheritance, it ignores the further discovery (from the 3:1 ratio in the F2) that there had to be exactly TWO of them; & the now standard overplaying of Rosalind Franklin’s photo 51.

  8. Looking forward to watching this as I was very impressed by the book. Before I read the book, I thought I knew what a gene was; when I finished the book, I did not, and still do not, know what a gene is, but boy do I know a lot more about genetics.

  9. I knew I had seen this before, so I tried to find the date … good luck … I just don’t know why a date was missing? Could it be because they want everyone to think that it is new and 2020? Maybe many would not watch shows that are a little bit old, even if they are historically excellent? But this does matter since there are many new developments that change things … Reminds me of the theological tomes that do NOT have dates, since they are considered so important that they are forever timeless! History is important … consider ‘War of the Worlds’ … or an announcement of the Spanish Flu … from 1918 … but sounds like Covid … or ‘This is That’ or fake news … or written sarcasm … unless one enjoys being fooled … like surprise!

  10. Thanks for the reminde. I was sure that my dvr was taping it but went to check and found it had screwed up. Fortunatel there’s a repeat tomorrow morning at 3am. Typis due to typ8ng in BRIGH5 s7nlight- hallelujah!

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