“In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts.”
Wallace Stevens, On the Road Home
A fascinating and and accessible read, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate Portrait takes the reader on a journey from the often outrageous early theories of heredity (See: Pythagoras and the Adventures of the Traveling Sperm) to speculations on the future of genetics via epigenetics and gene therapy. The arc of the book is so sweeping that I could spend thousands of words writing about it, so I’m going to focus on just three resonant things I learned from it.
3 Things I learned from The Gene: An Intimate History
- Eugenics at Home
The word “Eugenics” is freighted with a long, nasty history, associated with the racial hygiene programs of Nazi Germany that would culminate in horrific atrocities and the extermination of millions under the guise of junk science. Even the phrase “positive eugenics,” which focuses on promoting positive traits and healthy genes cannot be uttered without a shiver, because who decides which traits are good? Is whiteness “good”? Blue eyes? Blonde hair?
There is no way to talk about eugenics without recalling the history. But eugenics existed long before the Nazi party, and German scientists were, in part, inspired by the American Eugenics movement. While Americans didn’t take eugenics to murderous extremes, a surprising number of prominent Americans promoted the idea of weeding out the idiots, imbeciles, and morons via forced sterilization. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed compulsory sterilization in Buck vs. Bell. According to Wikipedia, more than 62,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized over the course of the 20th century, the majority of them women.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t aware of this shameful piece of our history, an important reminder of the dangers of letting the law dictate human choice.
2. Rosalind Franklin (Women can science too)
The names Watson and Crick are as synonymous with the DNA structure as Darwin is with Evolution and Cleveland is with losing sports teams (but wait…I can’t make that joke anymore.) But there’s more to the story than two inimitable scientists who dreamed of modeling something that for so long was unknowable and unseen.
Two other scientists were also working on the project, in contact with Watson and Crick: Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. There is a fascinating story in The Gene about the Franklin’s work with DNA photography and a controversial sharing of her work, unbeknownst to her, that would contribute to the discovery of DNA structure. There is also Franklin’s legendary personality, which in a word could be described as “strong.” Doubtless being a woman in an almost exclusively male field in the 1940’s and 50’s contributed to her contentious working relations with Wilkins.
Unfortunately, Franklin would die before the Nobel prize was awarded, thus her name is left off the list and out of the limelight. To be fair, I didn’t even know Wilkins existed either and he was one of the prizewinners. There is more to the story than the standard textbook synopses let on, and Franklin rightly deserves to be a part of that story.
Non-Beyonce members of Destiny’s Child can sympathize.
3. Speaking of Destiny
“By the end of this decade, permutations and combinations of genetic variations will be used to predict variations in human phenotype, illness, and destiny.” Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene, 17:46:26
When Mukherjee muses on the possibility of the future of genetics, whereby the possibility of eliminating undesirable genes and inserting desirable ones is fraught with ethical concerns and that ever looming cloud of history, he is careful to emphasize the complicated interactions of genes, environment, and experience.
Twin studies have given us a lot of insight into the interaction of genes and environment. Identical twins have identical genomes. When researchers brought together twins that had been separated at birth, they found both startling similarities and differences. “Nature vs. Nurture” is an old question that presents a false dichotomy. It isn’t one or the other, it’s not 40% “genes” and 60% “your parents left you in an airport once” that contributes to your current inability to maintain a committed relationship, but something more ethereal, harder to quantify.
The most interesting questions the researchers asked was in evaluating twins that had grown up together. It’s understandable that identical twins raised in different households are going to have differences, but why should identical twins reared together, with the same parents, in the same house, subject to the same rules and TV shows be different at all? Mukherjee explains that differences are attributed to “idiosyncratic events.” At some point, even identical twins have different things happen to them. One gets in a car accident. One wins a radio contest and is forever changed by a Celine Dion concert.
Mukherjee puts this eloquently when he writes:
“It is a testament to the unsetting beauty of the genome that it can make the real world stick. Our genes do not keep spinning out stereotypical responses to idiosyncratic environments. If they did, we too would devolve into wind-up automatons…We call this intersection fate. We call our responses to it choice. An upright organism with opposable thumbs is thus built from a script, but built to go off script. We call one such unique variant of one such organism a ‘self.’” 15:16:22
Some genes will always win. Genes for cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease are lethal bullets their carriers cannot dodge. But for the majority of us, genes are just one ingredient in the composition of a human. They are “only the parts,” and it’s up to each individual to decide upon the sum.