Every chapter begins with short literature extracts, my favourite being:
They f*** you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
- Philip Larkin, “This Be The Verse”
Read enough textbooks recently?
This book takes you on a journey through time with a real person who adapts their own relatable accounts of personal life to put genetics into context. I enjoyed how although the history is heavy with its own twists and turns, Mukherjee takes you right into the minds of Aristotle, Darwin and Mendel to Jesse Gelsinger the ‘Bubble Boy’ essentially steering the journey through one pair of eyes at a time.
You travel through 150 years but always feel present. Then you hit your own time of birth and the concept of time changes so you almost feel like you’re moving with the research through your own array of memories. Until you really hit ‘now’ and get to make up your own mind if you think we are capable of responsibly using all of this information.
Here’s what I concluded with:
We can now pre-screen embryos for their genome and be aware of the pre dispositions. But what do we do with that information? Will it affect how you choose to live life?
I think, individuals are entitled to both knowing and living in bliss. Knowing could prove to help the medical field prepare better for dealing with patients in the future. However, those who choose not to be tested may steer away from “unnecessary” preventative procedures such as mastectomy done by some BRCA-1 mutation holders. Therefore, genetics has given us a new option which, held in good balance, could lead us to a more personalised approach to medicine. Isn’t this what we always wanted?
“The genome is only a mirror for the breadth or narrowness of human imagination. It is Narcissus, reflected.”
Compared to previous reads, this was definitely a heavy book, taking longer to read. Although those with a scientific background may relate to this book more easily, someone without prior knowledge on the topic could follow this quite easily with the friendly approach Mukherjee takes with vocabulary and informative footnotes.
I found myself underlining and making notes along the way, marking the sheer genius Mukherjee releases with words.
First Published – 2016
Rating – 4.5/5
- Eugenics and World War II
- Asilomar conference on regulating clinical trials
- ‘The Bubble Boy’ research gone wrong?
- 1970 Jane Roe vs Wade case on abortion
- Sexuality – the SRY gene
Structure: The book is chronologically split into 6 Parts of the gene discovery – the first few cover larger spans of time, ~35 years, as development was slower.
The Parts become shorter and shorter to ~15 years, leading us to the present as technology picks up speed, spinning deeper ethical issues into the mix. This almost feels like sliding down a spiralling slippery slope with new authorities popping up one by one to help guard the information from misuse.
Recent research cases harboured by legal authorities show how the eugenics downfall counteracted by the Asilomar conference has made a lasting difference; restoring faith in humanity.
The personal experiences of schizophrenia in Mukherjee’s family are delicately placed, easing the heaviness of the more scientific concepts.
Settings: India/Bangladesh, Europe and the USA with a few references to Africa and the Middle East.
Siddharta Mukherjee is a first generation Indian-American Oncologist, Researcher, Biologist and Geneticist.
Born in India, experiencing the South Asian Partition era, to graduating from Stanford University, University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School, he incorporates the raw memories of life with academic content in this contemporary masterpiece.