The gene : an intimate history

by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Hardcover, 2016




New York : Scribner, 2016.


The Pulitzer Prize-winning author draws on his scientific knowledge and research to describe the magisterial history of a scientific idea, the quest to decipher the master-code of instructions that makes and defines humans; that governs our form, function, and fate; and that determines the future of our children. The story of the gene begins in earnest in an obscure Augustinian abbey in Moravia in 1856 where Gregor Mendel, a monk working with pea plants, stumbles on the idea of a "unit of heredity." It intersects with Darwin's theory of evolution, and collides with the horrors of Nazi eugenics in the 1940s. The gene transforms postwar biology. It invades discourses concerning race and identity and provides startling answers to some of the most potent questions coursing through our political and cultural realms. It reorganizes our understanding of sexuality, gender identity, sexual orientation, temperament, choice, and free will, thus raising the most urgent questions affecting our personal realms. Above all, the story of the gene is driven by human ingenuity and obsessive minds--from Mendel and Darwin to Francis Crick, James Watson, and Rosalind Franklin to the thousands of scientists working today to understand the code of codes. Woven through the book is the story of Mukherjee's own family and its recurring pattern of schizophrenia, a haunting reminder that the science of genetics is not confined to the laboratory but is vitally relevant to everyday lives. The moral complexity of genetics reverberates even more urgently today as we learn to "read" and "write" the human genome--unleashing the potential to change the fates and identities of our children and our children's children.--Adapted from dust jacket.… (more)

Media reviews

The story of this invention and this discovery has been told, piecemeal, in different ways, but never before with the scope and grandeur that Siddhartha Mukherjee brings to his new history, “The Gene.” ... 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.
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... By the time “The Gene” is over, Dr. Mukherjee has covered Mendel and his peas, Darwin and his finches. He’s taken us on the quest of Watson, Crick and their many unsung compatriots to determine the stuff and structure of DNA. We learn about how genes were sequenced, cloned and variously altered, and about the race to map our complete set of DNA, or genome, which turns out to contain a stunning amount of filler material with no determined function. ...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.... ... “The Gene” is more pedagogical than dramatic; as often as not, the stars of this story are molecules, not humans. Dr. Mukherjee still has a poignant personal connection to the material — mental illness has wrapped itself around his family tree like a stubborn vine, claiming two uncles and a cousin on his father’s side — but this book does not aim for the gut. It aims for the mind...

User reviews

LibraryThing member jnwelch
The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee (the author of The Emperor of All Maladies) is well-written and very informative - apparently it is also used in some schools as a textbook. I can see why. He wraps his personal story (schizophrenia among his family members) around a tour de force history of our understanding of genetics. He goes from the ancient Greeks through Mendel and Darwin and the scary eugenics period in this country and Hitler's Germany, to the present day and what may lie ahead. I loved his description of the work of Crick and Watson and others to discover the elegant double helix of DNA, with Crick and Watson's first metal sculpture of it still available to be seen in London.

There are some sections where he gives more than this reader needed - particularly in the latter part of the book where he explains missteps in detail before success is obtained. No doubt those sections would be of particular interest to a student, but briefer would've been fine with me.

Mukherjee is thoughtful about bigger issues, as well as being a skilled author. Here's a couple of quotes that stood out for me. The first quote is from artist Edward Munch, and comes in the author's discussion of how schizophrenia and other mental diseases sometimes are linked to exceptional creativity:

{My troubles} are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and treatment would destroy my art. I want to keep those sufferings.

In a eugenics discussion, Mukherjee points out this sorry story:

"Readers from India and China might note, with some shame and sobriety, that the largest 'negative eugenics' program in human history was not the systematic extermination of the Jews in Nazi Germany or Austria in the 1930s. That ghastly distinction falls on India and China, where more than 10 million female children are missing from adulthood because of infanticide, abortion and neglect."

It's not a book like I Contain Multitudes, which is so attractively written that I'm sure it's read by many with only a marginal interest in microbes. My guess is that mainly fans of the subject matter or the author, or both, will read this one. They'll get plenty to enjoy and think about, including the ethical issues raised by our increasing ability to modify genes and potentially select for desirable traits.
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LibraryThing member labdaddy4
Very thorough very detailed, very well researched and a "bear" to plow through. The author takes the reader on a step by step journey through the long history of genetics and how it relates to and had become an integral part of medical science.
The final 25-30% of this book is more philosophical regarding ethics and the future application of genetics.
All-in-all an excellent - but not an easy - read.
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LibraryThing member sriram_shankar
I have been a fan of Siddhartha Mukherjee's writing ever since I read "Emperor of All Maladies". True to form, this book too offers the reader a sweeping account of the most significant progress made in genetic technology since Mendel's experiments.

For the interested reader, this book offers a very good introduction to Genes, Chromosomes and biological building blocks. The debates between the what-can-be-done versus should-it-be-done are also brought out very nicely.

Though it can a little technical and dense, these occasions are few and far in between.

On the whole, very essential read.
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LibraryThing member bell7
*Free e-book ARC provided by the publisher through Edelweiss/Above the Treeline in exchange for an honest review. No money or other goods were exchanged, and all views are my own.*

Starting with Charles Darwin and Gregor Mandel and working his way through history to the present and future of genetic technologies, Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the award-winning Emperor of Maladies turns his attention to genetics.

The author, himself a practicing physician, gives us the broad history and a personal view, as his family has had a genetic tendency towards schizophrenia and bipolar disease. He addresses the darker side of genetics history with a chapter on eugenics, mentions controversies such as the work either inadvertently borrowed or purposely stolen from Rosalind Franklin when Watson and Crick were modeling DNA, and treads lightly - sometimes with really insightful comments - on ethical questions about our scientific abilities to mess with the human genome. It's a thorough yet accessible history that I recommend to anyone interested in genetics.
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LibraryThing member shazjhb
Excellent book. Not sure I understood everything but it was very interesting and a good read.
LibraryThing member ifisher
For a layman this book is sometimes difficult to read; however the discoveries that he documents are absolutely exhilarating. His experience as a doctor and as an author make him the perfect person to tell this difficult story.
LibraryThing member dickmanikowski
Every bit as monumental as Mukherjee's Pulitzer Prize winning THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES, this one traces the history of man's exploration of the mechanisms that underlie inheritance. The author has a gift for vividly depicting the many men and woman who gradually unraveled (and continue to unravel) the complex mechanisms by which the phenomenon of life proceeds.
Once again, time constraints prohibited me from finishing this book before I had to return it to the library from which I had borrowed it. I hope to return to it in the future.
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LibraryThing member annbury
The history sections read well and are worth reading. The rest of the book is a turgid mess; this guy cannot write and I have no intention of reading his other books.
LibraryThing member neurodrew
The Gene: An Intimate History
Siddhartha Mukherjee
May 17, 2017

I finished this book about 4 days ago, it took about 2 weeks to read, held my interest throughout. Mukherjee writes very well, and includes his family's genetic history of schizophrenia as a way of personalizing the book. The mechanism of heredity was a central problem for the theory of evolution, and was not recognized as solve, until Hugo de Vries and William Bateson, in the first decade of the 20th century realized the importance of Gregor Mendel's experiments on peas, which had been published in 1865. The particle of heredity was further defined by Thomas Morgan's work on fruit fly genetics, and he found the phenomenon of linkage. Oswald Avery showed that hereditable characteristics could be transferred between organisms by DNA in the 1940's, and Rosalind Franklin, James Watson and Francis Crick unraveled the structure of DNA in 1953. Since then, many names familiar from my course in biochemistry contributed the ability to manipulate genes, the most recent of which, CRISPR-Cas 9, is extremely simple to use, and will allow precise editing of genetic material. There is a current moratorium on inserting manipulated genetic material into germ line cells, but that will likely not last.
I have studied much of this material, and therefore flew through many of the explanations aimed at those unfamiliar with biochemistry. That helped me keep up the reading pace, and I was always entertained
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LibraryThing member slsmith101
While I've always been interested in the science of genetics, I knew little about the details until I read "The Gene: An Intimate History". Mr. Mukherjee did an amazing job keeping the reader interested and entertained while conveying some very complicated technical information about how genes work. I was thoroughly engrossed from beginning to end. One thing I appreciated was how he would come back to details he had already discussed - sometimes in a different way and other times as a reminder. For me this helped to allow the sometimes difficult concepts to sink in. I also enjoyed learning the history of the various discoveries.

I had seen the PBS documentary "Cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies" which was based on the author's first book (although I had not read the book). The format of The Gene is very similar. The book will go to my all time favorites list, and I hope to see a PBS documentary based on it soon.
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LibraryThing member mcdenis
This book is a valuable resource for the study and history of the gene and tells us about the researchers and their tenacious pursuit in readable language. As a parent who has a child with a chromosomal abnormality I strongly recommend Dr. Mukherhee's exhaustive narrative. It provides tremendous background and a hope that perhaps chromosomes will be manipulable.

I was provided with an electronic copy in return for an honest review.
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LibraryThing member annbury
This beautifully written book makes an abstruse scientific subject with enormous implications for humanity's future -- human genetics/genomics -- understandable to the lay reader. And not just understandable, but gripping and compulsively readable. The scale of that achievement is hard to overstate. For me, this is a topic that I wanted and needed to understand, but had not yet grasped despite reading several books on the topic. I blamed that on a humanities/social science background, or on an advanced age, but fortunately did not give up the effort. Having already read "The Emperor of All Maladies", I knew what Mukherjee could do with a complex scientific topic. "The Gene" did not disappoint. Structured as a history of the development of genetic science, starting with Mendel and Darwin, the narrative leads the reader step by step up the ladder of knowledge of genetics/genomics, to end with a look at what it may mean for our future. Thank you, Siddhartha Mukherjee.… (more)
LibraryThing member bness2
Like his book "The Emperor of all Maladies," this is a must read for anyone with even a mild interest in genetics. Mukherjee has produced a comprehensive and readable book that I wish all my students would read. I teach a college level genetics class, in which nearly all the things he mentions in this book are covered, albeit in a simpler fashion. Of course, that is the elegance of this book, it makes genetics something that anyone can learn about.… (more)
LibraryThing member nbmars
Mukherjee takes the reader through the history of the science of genetics, beginning with Aristotle’s observation that progeny resembled their progenitors more than strangers, jumping to Gregor Mendel’s experiments with peas, and taking us up to the present, where science has not only identified DNA and RNA, but has developed exotic techniques like gene splicing and introducing genes across species.

Mukherjee personalizes the presentation by interposing a discussion of how heredity affects his own family, which has a history of mental illness.

Mukherjee also tackles the important subject of the sociological uses of gene science, from eugenics to race theory. He does an excellent job of discussing the thorny moral and legal issues presented by the power to alter real human beings by manipulating their genotypes. He recounts the horrific repercussions of such applications, including forced sterilization and genocide, and debunks theories that there are significant differences between groups that humans classify as “races.”

One really has to pay attention while reading this book or the ideas presented will just whoosh by without being understood. Along with “dense,” I would add the adjectives learned, literate, comprehensive, historical, personal, and intimate. It’s really quite good, and well worth the effort to understand it.

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LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
I loved Emperor of All Maladies, and Mukherjee's new book is as well-written and fascinating. He makes the science understandable to this non-scientist, although I did find The Gene to be denser and more requiring of close reading and concentration than The Emperor of All Maladies. I sometimes found I had to reread certain passages to clarify questions in my mind, and also found that I could not read more than a chapter or so a day (my brain got too full), so it took me almost a month to read this book.

Mukherjee organizes the book primarily chronologically, and describes centuries of history and research to identify and analyze the basic building blocks of life, from the ancient Greeks, through Mendel's pea experiments, to the mapping of the human genome and beyond. As our knowledge of the role of genes, and the possibilities of genetic modification grow, the science, and the ethical and philosophical issues raised become more complicated and difficult.

I have to say that before reading this book I was completely illiterate about microbiology, biochemistry and genetics. I didn't know the difference between DNA and RNA, between a gene and a chromosome. Now I can hold a basic conversation on some of these scientific issues with my daughter who will be receiving her Ph.D. in genetics this fall. She was very impressed that I knew what "epigenetics" was, and that I had heard of CRISPR, a technology she uses in her research.

Highly Recommended.

4 1/2 stars
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
This is an excellent book covering the history of genes as a scientific concept and which goes up to the present day to hint at what the future may hold for genetic research and possibilities. I appreciated how accessible this book was for someone of a nonscientific background and the author does a good job of connecting abstract scientific research to human consequences. I'd highly recommend this book for anyone interested in understanding more about genes.… (more)
LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This is an excellent history of our understanding of genetics.

As a historian myself, I often find that the science of history is the best way for me to understand science. That is, if I can learn how our understanding of a scientific topic has changed, an dhow we discovered what we know, I usually understand it better than if I just dove directly into the science. That proved to be the case with this book. It also helps that Mukherjee is an excellent writer - he makes the science very interesting, and explains a complex subject very clearly.

Genetics is fascinating, but the history of our understanding is also fascinating. It is full of moral quandaries, breakthrough discoveries, interesting personalities, and landmark events.

It is also fascinating to see where we stand right now, how much we have to learn, and how much progress we are making right now. The possibilities are amazing and daunting.
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LibraryThing member SheilaDeeth
I like to know things. When someone tells me, scorning my love of science, “Oh, they know genes aren’t the answer now,” I want to know what on earth they’re talking about… so I might have an answer I guess. After reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History, I understand a lot more about genes, genetics, heritability and inheritability of traits and illnesses. And I sort of, partly, understand about those epigenetic things that mean the maker of that “genes aren’t the answer” statement clearly didn’t understand after all. This pleases me--like I said, I like to know things.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book—very readable prose, fascinating history, timely questions, and the overwhelming sense of “Wow!” What we can do, what we can’t, what mistakes we’ve made and how… The author offers a fascinating tale of discovery, filled with a sense of discovery (even for the reader who’s already looked for lots of answers). It's a tale of great people; great (and all too repeatable) errors of judgement; great stories; and a truly informative look at genes, genetics, science and humanity. I love this book!

Disclosure: I was given it as a Christmas present and was hooked as soon as I began reading.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
5521. The Gene An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (read 22 Dec 2017) This book, published in 2016, is a study of the history and research related to the gene (defined in the glossary as "a unit of inheritance, normally comprised of a stretch of DNA that codes for a protein or for an RNA chain (in special cases, genes might be carried in RNA form).". I read the author's Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies, on 22 Jan 2012 and some of that book, read because I try to read Pulitzer prize winning books, was of interest. This book, The Gene, is also of interest at times, especially when telling the history of the early work in regard to the gene, carried on by Father Gregor Mendel, O.S.A., and Charles Darwin. But after telling of their work and of the events connected to the case of Buck v. Bell (a U.S. Supreme Court case the opinion in which was authored by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and which I remembered from my constitutional law course and knew was a deeply flawed decision beloved by folk like Hitler), the book spent many boring pages relating to research not easily followed by a guy like me, and I thought of quitting reading the book--something I hardly ever do--but then it improved some as it finanly seemed to give some consideration to the ethical aspects of gene research and the tiering with genes in the unborn and the born person. This was of interest as the possibility of pre-birth testing was discussed, (and blithely suggesting such would give parents a chance to have their unborn child killoed if it seemed such child would not have the health the parents wanted). There was even discussion that soldiers could have appropriate genes modified so as to be braver--or more ruthless? I felt the author was not as concerned about he ethical implications as I would be. Anyway, the book did not always make me eager to read therein and finishing it was an end I looked forward to.… (more)
LibraryThing member jess_reads
I am in utter awe of this book. Truly. It's fascinating and troubling and I wanted to start reading it all over again once I finished.
LibraryThing member DramMan
Popular science account of the "quest to decipher the master-code that makes and defines humans". From Gregor Mendel to Darwin, Crick and Watson and onwards to the first sequencing of the human genome and beyond, it is a fascinating tale, well told. Some of the detail escapes my non scientific brain but the scale of future opportunity for medical applications fire my imagination.… (more)


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