“Gene” is one of the most loaded words in modern biology. Is it a selfish automaton that manipulates us for its own benefit? A preordained determinant of character and health? A fluid script liable to be rewritten by circumstance? Or does it perhaps not exist as a well-defined concept at all? If you’re confused, you’ve got good reason. And it’s unlikely that you’ll find a better guide through these thorny questions than physician and biologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, whose “biography of cancer” The Emperor of All Maladies won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011.
Much of Mukherjee’s story, from Darwin to eugenics, Mendel’s peas to Watson and Crick and the Human Genome Project, is well trodden, yet is rendered fresh and engaging by both his lucid prose and insightful analysis. When it comes to the modern era of genomics, Mukherjee dissects simplistic ideas about how genes affect complex traits such as intelligence.
The Gene transcends any crude narrative of the genome as a “blueprint” for an organism, showing just how subtle and complex it has proved to be: as Mukherjee says, “it is inscrutable, vulnerable, resilient, adaptive, repetitive and unique.” His book opens up the space for a new dialogue about the influence of our genes on our selves, and in doing so it becomes not just first-class science writing but an important intellectual contribution in its own right. All I missed was a discussion of whether genes are really “selfish.” Perhaps Mukherjee’s silence implies that he accepts we need a more sophisticated metaphor.