Mukherjee has a gift for making gripping, vivid narrative out of the cataclysmic but largely invisible drama of molecular biology. There’s something both comic and poignant in watching generations of fallible, eccentric geniuses try to peer into their own cells and puzzle out the codes that made them that way.
The Gene has its own elegant, twisting structure, in which evidence is suspended between the spines of history and science. It never pretends to ingenuousness; indeed, one is often tempted to give the author an A for visible effort. But with a marriage of architectural precision and luscious narrative, an eye for both the paradoxical detail and the unsettling irony, and a genius for locating the emotional truths buried in chemical abstractions, Mukherjee leaves you feeling as though you’ve just aced a college course for which you’d been afraid to register — and enjoyed every minute of it.
Many of the same qualities that made The Emperor of All Maladies so pleasurable are in full bloom in The Gene. The book is compassionate, tautly synthesized, packed with unfamiliar details about familiar people (Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, used to rank the beauty of women on the street by 'using pinpricks on a card hidden in his pocket.' Ick.) But there are also crucial differences. Cancer is the troll that scratches and thumps beneath the floorboards of our consciousness, if it hasn’t already beaten its way into the room ... There are far fewer psychological stakes in reading about the history of genetics.
Its breadth can at times be exhausting, but Mukherjee has a knack for transforming seemingly dry subjects into elegant and urgent narratives. His topic is compelling. The pull of inheritance has fascinated and troubled writers for centuries.
The prelude to modern genetics, particularly the ideas of Darwin and Mendel and their eventual integration, is well told. The book has many deft narrative passages, including lively descriptions of Mr. Mukherjee’s two mad uncles. But the uncles pop up randomly and, because there is as yet no genetic treatment for their disease, never really connect with the main theme. After a lively beginning, The Gene gets sidetracked into the history of eugenics...Mr. Mukherjee’s book will command attention because of its ambition and the success of his previous book. Its virtue is that it covers a broad, complex field in an accessible way. Too bad that he has marred a good yarn: The fascinating history of modern biology didn’t need to be spiced up with politicization and misguided hand-wringing.
As he did in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies (2010), Mukherjee views his subject panoptically, from a great and clarifying height, yet also intimately...Mukherjee arranges his history not just chronologically but thematically. This is necessary. Science seldom progresses in a neat logical order anyway, but genetics, especially, encompasses and influences many subjects at once: biology, information science, even psychiatry.
[Mukherjee] renders complex science with a novelist's skill for conjuring real lives, seismic events...Despite the book's elegant craftsmanship, some technical sections will lose lay readers, particularly among the dense thickets of his later chapters, as Mukherjee delves into thrilling recent developments in gene therapy, epigenetics and gene 'editing.' Sometimes the specifics can't be dumbed down for the rest of us, despite a beautiful prose style.
...Mukherjee punctuates his encyclopedic investigations of collective and individual heritability, and our closing in on the genetic technologies that will transform how we will shape our own genome, with evocative personal anecdotes, deft literary allusions, wonderfully apt metaphors, and an irrepressible intellectual brio that is suggested by the various epigraphs with which he prefaces each of his dozens of chapters, quoting everyone from Kafka to Snoop Dogg.
Eugenics is typically represented as a passing pathology, but Mukherjee suggests ways in which some of its impulses are endemic to the science of heredity. His sweeping and compellingly told history – and there is no more accessible and vivid survey available – is about hubristic ambition as much as stunning achievement ... Mukherjee is right to nudge us away from any simplistic notion that our genes determine our physical and mental identity. The scientific jury is still out on the various versions of epigenesis, but Mukherjee has done much good by concluding his history of genetics with provocations to think critically about some ways we commonly oppose heredity and the environment.
Like its predecessor [The Emperor of Maladies], this one is both expansive and accessible, a breezily written manual to the potent little 'unit of inheritance' that helps make us who we are ... This is a rich, occasionally whimsical book. Lengthy discussions of Mendel’s findings and Charles Darwin’s explorations are interspersed with playful references to Philip Larkin’s poetry and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The architecture of the double helix is explained in gratifyingly clear language, and groundbreaking initiatives like the Human Genome Project are imbued with fresh details. Pseudo-scientific claims that one racial group is intellectually superior to another are methodically dismantled, and pioneering researchers whose contributions were marginalized — mainly because they were women — finally get their due.
[The Gene] beautifully navigate[s] a sea of complicated medical information in a way that is digestible, poignant, and engaging ... some of the sections do sag — the middle chunk is a retread of my undergraduate courses biochemistry and biophysics — but the book comes back to life in the final third, where all of its wonderful traits are on full display.
On one level, The Gene is a comprehensive chronological compendium of well-told stories with a human touch. But at a deeper level, the book is far more than a simple science history. It includes another narrative thread that is, by design, discomfiting...Mukherjee celebrates the acquisition of scientific knowledge of DNA and how it guides the development and functioning of an organism. He makes clear that the technological application of that knowledge offers major benefits to human health. But readers now engage with his discussion of each advance by asking their own ethical questions. That engagement is what makes the history, as the subtitle notes, intimate.
After rehashing that relatively well-known history, he traverses more recent, obscure, and often contentious topics, including eugenics, gene therapy, and the daunting ethical challenges of the future. In short, the work serves as a kind of primer on the whole of the topic, an unsurprising repackaging of a few major sections of an undergrad biology degree. That said, it’s more appealing than any other molecular biology text I can recall...Some readers have found the book a little too light...But to argue too much about the fine points of The Gene seems to misunderstand its purpose. The book doesn’t serve only to attempt a summary of the technical points of a field that — as Mukherjee accurately reports — often advances through contentious debates. Rather, it serves to make the generalities of the topic accessible to the 90-odd percent of Americans who do not hold degrees in genetics or molecular biology.
Mukherjee is an assured, polished wordsmith who displays a penchant for the odd adroit aphorism and well-placed pun ... This is a big book, bursting with complex ideas; without careful presentation, the reader would have struggled ... I found the book’s priorities erratic ... The latter stages of the narrative also present us with a rather irritating American triumphalism ... Fortunately, these flaws do not detract seriously from an otherwise well-written, accessible and entertaining account of one of the most important of all scientific revolutions, one that is destined to have a fundamental impact on the lives of generations to come. The Gene is an important guide to that future.