A Book A Week Challenge – Week 22

When Ramana Maharshi published his path-breaking preaching seeking the answer for “Who Am I?”, he shared his thoughts in the introduction as:

“As all living beings desire to be happy always, without misery, as in the case of everyone there is observed supreme love for one’s self and as happiness alone is the cause for love, in order to gain that happiness which is one’s nature and which is experienced in the state of deep sleep where there is no mind, one should know one’s self.”

Even though his words are implied for spiritual self-inquiry; for many years’ scientists/biologists/revolutionaries/political leaders joined the league for their own specific interests – which might have or have not contributed to the greater good of human existence.


Book #22

Title: The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Pages: 608

This perfectly sets the backdrop for Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Gene: An Intimate History” where he explores the evolution of study towards understanding the basic element of humans – Gene. He draws parallels of Gene with the most fundamental elements of components that influenced our lives forever – in the league of atoms and bytes.

The writing is unforgivingly personal as he explains the situation that his family had to experience, specific to mental illness and the contribution of heredity (later addressed in terms of genes) towards it. He takes you back in time from the era of Aristotle’s “information transmission” to Mendel’s “peas” to Darwin’s “Survival of fittest” to the modern era of “Nazi clan” followed by the present or future generation’s “The Human Genome Project”

As a scientist, the approach appears to be largely simple – Build a hypothesis, test it in experiment zone, log the readings and make the conclusions. This is the approach used by Siddhartha Mukherjee – a biologist/scientist himself. It is this inquisitive behavior and more research-based writing makes this book brilliant.

He spends quite some pages on explaining the evolution of Jewish killings during the barbaric times of Hitler. Started off as a mission to sterilize humans with ‘incorrect’ genes so as to prevent the future generation to not be ‘unfit/ useless’ to the society, ended up being a pursuit for race extinction.

This is how he describes the transition:

“In the end, the Nazi program to cleanse the “genetically sick” was just a prelude to a much larger devastation to come. Horrific as it was, the extermination of the deaf, blind, mute, lame, disabled, and feebleminded would be numerically eclipsed by the epic horrors ahead— the extermination of 6 million Jews in camps and gas chambers during the Holocaust; of two hundred thousand Gypsies; of several million Soviet and Polish citizens; and unknown numbers of homosexuals, intellectuals, writers, artists, and political dissidents.”

Scientists have a great responsibility to the society in which they operate – they are around with immense hopes vested on them to solve the real world problems but not for the greed of certain sections of society – wealthy, political and so on. Sid Mukherjee makes his stance clear, right at the top, and doesn’t take a step back to bash those scientists who were involved in attempts such as the ones mentioned above.

As the scientists started to break the human existence and held “Genes” being the ones contributing to the dominant behavior, he poses a question in front of everyone:

“Maternal Twins have exactly same gene structure corresponding to them but why the difference in behavior?”

He brings in the fundamentals of Nature versus Nurture coined by Galton- this discriminates the effect of these two individual factors (hereditary and environmental) that shapes the behavior of individuals.

But, in order to be separate the impact by two different factors, the human body needs to be broken down to the level of DNA and genes. It might bring you the answers but at the cost of “never going back”

Here is how he describes the complexity of role of the scientist:

“You can only decipher the meaning of a sentence by deciphering every individual word- yet a sentence carries more meaning than any of the individual words” he begins and draws parallels with what eagerness of scientist can do: “Scientists divide. We discriminate. It is the inevitable occupational hazard of our profession that we must break the world into its constituent parts— genes, atoms, bytes— before making it whole again. We know of no other mechanism to understand the world: to create the sum of the parts, we must begin by dividing it into the parts of the sum.”

Now, we know how why we need to read Genes- then what next – sum it up to make a meaningful sentence. The sentences are formed based on brilliant phrases that constituted by words. In this particular case, “DNA” are those phrases that made the sentence beautiful

“In DNA, the four “leaves” (or bases) were adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine— abbreviated A, G, C, and T. In RNA, the thymine was switched into uracil— hence A, C, G, and U. 1 Beyond these rudimentary details, nothing was known about the structure or function of DNA and RNA.”

Humans are nothing but the combination and sequencing of these AGCTs in our DNA.

Now we know how to read and interpret the gene, where do we go next? – These genes can be tied back/divided with the millions of genes in a human body- either to cut off bad genes that cause illness or join with those that makes you more desirable or athletic or intelligent. But, there is an opportunity that stares right down at this with a lot intimidation when we cannot control who manipulates it?

The implications- reduced control on how manipulates them would make it extremely difficult. Too tight and you make no progress. Here is where this whole project ends – with the stage of gene manipulation. We are not there but getting close and when that day comes everyone needs to be prepared to fight for those rights to protect the purity of these genes.

Overall, THE GENE by Siddhartha Mukherjee is a masterpiece, at least in the genre of “medical research”. It invokes a reason for dialogue that demands maintenance of control in the areas of research. – from both the hands of policy makers and scientists simultaneously.

For me personally, this is one book that is going to stay in my library for many long years to come. I would track the technological advancements in gene manipulation (either for illness eradication or hubris of individuals) in the next few years.


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