Thursday 23 March 2017

Life, the universe ... and genetics

Science: The Gene, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Bodley Head, hdbk, 608 pages, €23.70

Physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

The gene, as Siddhartha Mukherjee puts it in this rather wonderful book, is "inscrutable, vulnerable, resilient, adaptable, repetitive, unique… designed to survive… it resembles us".

And of course, on the deepest level of meaning, it's more than that: to a large extent, the gene is us. Without genes, we wouldn't exist; our history and the gene's history are inextricably entwined, like the iconic double-helix twists of DNA.

Genetics make possible life itself (or, at least, its continuance; without inheritable information being passed down from one generation to the next, the first living thing that sprung out of the primordial soup couldn't have replicated itself and, eventually, evolved into everything we see around us today - including us doing the looking).

On a personal level, genes make up a huge part of the individual. Not just our physical make-up - that's almost all genetic - but our minds, temperaments, proclivities, impulses, tendencies, likes and dislikes. The venerable old philosophical question of "nature versus nurture" has not, I think, been definitively answered by science: but nature definitely seems to carry more weight.

The book is subtitled An Intimate History, and is peppered with familial examples of how genetics affect everything. Two of Mukherjee's uncles inherited serious mental illnesses (bipolar disorder and schizophrenia), and his dad suffered a psychotic fugue more than once; on a lighter note, his mother and her sister shared many of the same essential characteristics due to the fact that, as identical twins, they had the same genome.

He skilfully blends this with an all-encompassing history of the field, and I mean all-encompassing. The Gene could be alternatively subtitled Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Genetics, Plus Everything You Didn't Know Beforehand That You Wanted To Know, Plus Everything You Didn't Even Know Enough About Genetics To Know Whether You Wanted To Know It.

It's all-encompassing and eye-opening and moving and amusing, at times, and endlessly fascinating and truly brilliant; a bit like its subject, I guess. Genetics is not an easy thing for the layman to get his/her head around - although that may be genetic, he wryly added - but Mukherjee makes this strange, incredibly complex world mostly comprehensible.

(That "mostly" is more of a dig at my own waning powers of understanding than a fault in this book, by the way. A smarter, or younger, reader will probably grasp it all.)

An Indian-born, US-based "physician, stem cell biologist and cancer geneticist", Mukherjee previously won the Pulitzer Prize for The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. This follow-up is quite possibly the best, most lucid science book I've ever read, tailored precisely for a general audience without sacrificing intellectual rigour.

We begin with Gregor Mendel, a mousy Czech friar who established several rules of inheritance and basically founded genetic science. Next, we meet Charles Darwin, and his seismic observations on natural selection.

And we're off on a thrilling tour of genetics, learning about Nazi eugenics and the discovery of that double helix, epigenetics, gene-splicing and gene-recombination, RNA and DNA, full penetrance inherited conditions, identity and consciousness, genotypes and phenotypes, mitochondrial DNA, organelles, alleles, ribosomes and chromosomes, encoded proteins, reverse transcription. And yes, I now know what those terms mean. (...mostly.)

Genetics as a field is relatively new but, as Mukherjee points out, it has the potential to change humanity more profoundly than any other. Literally so: the first transhumans - people with modifications encoded into their genome -are theoretically possible and, as we know, when something can be done by science, it almost always is done.

Mukherjee sounds a note of warning about this "brave new world", and it is right to be cautious about tampering with the very essence of our physical selves. But as long as intelligent, empathetic, thoughtful people like himself are to the forefront, it should turn out alright.

Darragh McManus's ­novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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