Winton Pawprints 

Winton (c.1995-2012) was our beloved shop cat and still has the last word every month in her regular column.

The Gene

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, June 01, 2016
file half-way through my book of the month. Pulitzer Prize-winner, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s, new book, The Gene is not a book to be rushed. He is a pleasure to read, but while the story of the quest ‘to decipher the master-code that makes and defines humans’ is a compelling narrative that races along at times like a page-turning crime novel, the actual science takes a bit of sitting with. It’s not Mukherjee’s fault—his explanations are extremely accessible—but I don’t think it’s likely I’m going to be able to hold forth on the adenine thymine and guanine cytosine structure of DNA any time soon.
The book begins with Mukherjee visiting his cousin Moni who has been confined to an institution for the mentally ill in Calcutta, with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Mental illness runs through the family—two of his father’s brothers (but not Moni’s father) ‘suffered from various unravellings of the mind’. One, Rajesh, died at 22 in the throes of an acute manic phase of bipolar disease. The other, Jagu, although diagnosed with schizophrenia, lived at home hidden away in Mukherjee’s grandmother’s room. Both Mukherjee’s father and grandmother believed that these illnesses had been precipitated, even caused, by the ‘apocalypse of Partition—Partition splitting apart not just nations, but also minds’. In the ‘nature’ vs ‘nurture’ argument, this ‘nurture’ explanation stood until non-Partition child, Moni, started to exhibit Jagu’s trajectory of visions and voices in his adolescence. When Mukherjee ‘flirted’ with teenage angst involving the usual bad behaviour, his father took him to the doctor who had diagnosed Jagu—‘It was hard not to imagine that a hereditary component lurked behind this family history. Had Moni inherited a gene, or a set of genes, that had made him susceptible—the same genes that had affected our uncles? My father had had at least two psychotic fugues in his life—both precipitated by the consumption of bhang. Were these related to the same taint of history? ... My attempt to answer these questions launched this book. What is the nature of heredity? How did we imagine heredity in the past, and what do we know about it today? Can we alter heredity? If such technologies were available, who would control them, and who would ensure their safety? Who would be the masters, and who the victims of this technology? How would the acquisition and control of this knowledge—and its inevitable invasion of our private and public lives—alter the way we imagine our societies, our children, and ourselves?’
Mukherjee then enters Gregor Mendel’s pea-flower garden where through his meticulous breeding of peas he discovered (although didn’t name it) a unit of heredity that finished off theories of heredity that harked back to Pythagoras and Aristotle. Mendel, unacknowledged in his lifetime—his discoveries largely ignored, is the first of the many fascinating portraits of scientists alone in their laboratories ‘producing that single illuminating experiment after one thousand non-illuminating experiments have to be sent into the trash’—I have a list a mile long of biographies I want to seek out.
The dark side of genetics, charlatan science in the form of eugenics—forced sterilisation, Nazi experimentation and genocide for racial purity—have, of course, been in lockstep with advancements in the understanding of heredity to catastrophic effect, and Mukherjee weaves this through his history—I look forward to his thoughts on our brave new genome world. Winton

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