The Gene: An Intimate History
by Siddhartha Mukherjee
As a scientist, it’s hard for me to back up and realize that the general public’s understanding of DNA and genes in general is incomplete and vague. Lucky for us we have people like Siddhartha Mukherjee and his book The Gene which is truly one of the great science books aimed at the general public.
An old mentor of mine once said that even as we advance in our career as scientists it’s the basic stuff that we keep having trouble with. That involves understanding the basic experiments that lead us to where we are. What Mukherjee does in this book is to expertly tell the story of the discovery of the gene and our understanding of it for more than a century. From its humble beginnings as a unit of inheritance in Mendell’s peas to its potential as the key to improving human life, The Gene does an excellent job of taking us through its history. All the important experiments are covered here, many of which I myself simply never cared to explore. But as with any great story-teller Mukherjee knows how to focus on the important aspects of any story and focus on the key players (and boy there’s a lot of James Watson here), what the stakes were, what the implications were of their findings, and makes it all sound exciting. That’s something academics themselves have a hard time with.
The history of the gene is the history of science as we know it, and throughout this book, the reader is exposed to so many of the models that helped drive our understanding of genes forward– we go from plants, to finches, to flies, to worms, to mice, and finally humans. All fields of biology that are active and relevant today. And the lesson that we learn? Watson might have said it best: by understanding our DNA we might be able to make ourselves just a little bit better.
The Gene is a wonderful book that should be read by both experts and the general public. It’s beautiful and full of lessons.