Sunday, November 20, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Gene. An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the amazing popular science book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, has a new book out: The Gene: An Intimate History.

As in his first work, Mukherjee mixes the human element (the strivings, successes and disappointments of real people, this time mostly scientists) with a heavy dose of scientific explanation, in order to introduce the reader to a vast topic. The history of man’s understanding of the gene is complex and fascinating. This lengthy book takes us back to Darwin and to Mendel and his peas, and follows the unfolding drama of genetic discovery right up to the present, to the Human Genome Project and the beginnings of gene therapy, with all the ethical and moral dilemmas this knowledge presents.

Mukherjee has a gift for synthesizing large amounts of information and presenting it in a readable, clear way. The most engaging parts of the story follow the important people in the history of genetic discovery. The book gets more bogged down when discussing the science. Although the author’s ability to illustrate complicated ideas in a comprehensible fashion is impressive, the line between going too far into the weeds to explain crucial experiments and skimming over the details to present a summary of the significance of results is a very difficult line to walk. At times, the balance is a bit off. I found myself wanting a more in-depth description of some of the experimental processes. At the same time, I felt that the author’s emphasis on some of the more crucial concepts grew repetitive.

Given the scope of this remarkable book, readers shouldn’t be put off by a little unevenness. To grasp the enormous strides made in understanding life itself that have been driven by an increasing understanding of genes, this book is a must-read. It may not be as compulsively readable as The Emperor of All Maladies, but The Gene demonstrates once again that Siddartha Mukherjee is a brilliant communicator.

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