January 7, 2017

Review: The Gene: An Intimate History

The Gene: An Intimate History The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my favorite non-fiction books of the past few years was The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. It won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize. This book is both a sequel and prequel to Emperor. One of that book's main themes is that cancer is a genetic disease, with cells basically running amuck because of mutated DNA. I don't know if the author realized he was setting his next book in motion by saying this, but this book is pretty much the followup he had to write.

Needless to say, it is quite heavy on the science. Personally, I love this kind of stuff, but be aware that this book is 500 pages, not counting the endnotes, and it's definitely not something you can race through at the beach. It traces the discovery of genes and DNA, from Gregor Mendel's "units of heredity" to modern-day epigenetics. Siddharta Mukherjee, as was made clear from his first book, is an expert at explaining incredibly complex scientific material to a layperson audience. He is also an engaging writer in his own right, as evidenced in this excerpt from p. 310, discussing the beginnings of the Human Genome Project:

"If the Genome Project had not found Collins in 1993, it might have found it necessary to invent him: he was almost preternaturally matched to its peculiar challenges. A devout Christian from Virginia, an able communicator and administrator, a first-rate scientist, Collins was measured, cautious, and diplomatic; to Venter's furious little yacht constantly tilting against the winds, Collins was a transoceanic liner, barely registering the tumult around him."

Mukherjee also adds a deft personal touch to the story, with his family history of mental illness. This humanizes the author, and makes it clear that his imposing tome is a bit more than a dry scientific premise. If you loved The Emperor of All Maladies, as I did, I think you will enjoy this.

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