The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

27276428

“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

  1. 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.

Photograph 51: Franklin’s “stolen” photo

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.

 

 

 

 

Booknado 2016: June

Theme: A book from the the list Non-fiction Tour of America: 50 Books for 50 States. Dallas’ turn this month, and since she was born in Missouri, our book for June:

“I had a dream and that dream begot other dreams until now I am surrounded by all my dreams come true.” Madam C.J. Walker

It is difficult to conceive the tremendous obstacles Madam C.J. Walker faced in her rise to become America’s premier businesswoman in the early 20th century. Born on a plantation to former slaves, deprived of formal education, and simply being a black woman in an era where thousands of lynchings went unpunished and the civil rights movement that would finally turn the tide of “separate but equal” and institutionalized racism was still half a century away. Madam Walker would die a year before women were even granted the right to vote.

Fierce, determined, a brilliant marketer and business mogul, Madam Walker was an all-around badass; she created an empire that boosted thousands of women out of domestic work and into independence with her hair-growing product that generated enormous revenue and improved the health and self-esteem of thousands of consumers. She defiantly defended her products against those who accused her of attempting to emulate white culture with hair-straightening techniques:

“’Right here let me correct the erroneous impression that I claim to straighten hair…I deplore such impression because I have always held myself out as a hair culturist.”

And when Madam C.J. Walker was denied a seat at the table, as demonstrated in initially frosty interactions with Booker T. Washington, she brought her own chair and invited herself anyway.

On Her Own Ground is a fantastic biography written by A’Lelia Bundles, Madam Walker’s great-great granddaughter. A feat of journalistic rigor about a subject whose life is shrouded by obscure and incomplete source materials, Bundles manages to paint a beautiful portrait, made all the more evocative by her personal connection to the subject. The only frustrating part of the book is that we are presented with the captivating public life of Madam Walker, but her personal life, her thoughts, feelings, internal struggles, remains painfully obfuscated due to lack of information. Her biography often generates more questions than answers, and all we have from her comes in the form of letters and interviews.

We do, however, know about her public works, and they were manifold. In addition to being hugely successful, she was a generous philanthropist and fierce supporter of civil rights in a time when she was still referred to in newspapers as a “negress.”

Madam Walker traveled from one coast to another, leaving her mark wherever she went, from St. Louis to Indianapolis to Harlem. That she succeeded despite the odds brings with it a sobering reflection. For every Madam C.J. Walker, there were thousands upon thousands whose spirit and ingenuity could not break through the barrier of racism. How many bright lights were extinguished because of fear and ignorance? On Her Own Ground serves both as an inspiration and paean to an incredible woman’s spirit and strength and a stark reminder of how we must continue the struggle against returning to such dark times.

Which is why this scares the hell out of me.

Booknado 2016: May (Bonus: 50 Scariest Books)

“ Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;” – Gerard Manley Hopkins

Sometime last year I committed to reading all the books on Flavorwire’s list of 50 Scariest Books of All Time. More on that in other posts. For one of our categories this year, we chose to pick one book each from the list. Here’s my pick for May:

image

As you can see by the book cover, it’s Stephen King approved.

I first met Dan Simmons in the novel The Terror, a historical fiction slash supernatural horror that (minus a treacly epilogue) was a fantastic story, gory and fun, obsessed with minute historical details, and expertly wove together fact and fiction. Intrigued by the author, I set my sights on his famed sci-fi series published back in the late 80′s/early 90′s, Hyperion. I was awed by the incredible worlds he had created, his breadth of imagination, and the freaking Shrike.

image

*A shrike is a bird known for impaling its victims on thorns or barbs for later consumption, or also that nifty fellow on the cover art.*

Next, I read The Abominable, another excessively detailed historical fiction that would send my reading interests careening into the exploits of George Mallory, Robert Falcon Scott, and Jon Krakauer.

Dan Simmons would lead me to some excellent non-fiction such as Frozen in Time, The Man Who Ate His Boots, Into the Silence and In the Kingdom of Ice. These books in turn would kick off the terrible fascination I have with books about tragedies and disasters.

It seems I owe a lot to Dan Simmons.

But on the other side of the coin, I’ve also endured mediocre reads like A Winter Haunting and the interminable slogs that were Drood and The Fifth Heart. 

But on the other hand, Mr. Simmons hails from Brimfield, IL, not far from my old haunts, so I feel a certain Midwestern solidarity with him.

My ambivalence here is evident.

On to Carrion Comfort, a classic of the horror genre and winner of many awards. The novel concerns a group of mind vampires with varying abilities to control the minds and movement of others; this power has evidently corrupted the lot of them, and they are variously entrenched in numerous influential positions in politics, federal bureaus, and Hollywood. A few of them, including a sadistic former Nazi and a racist as hell southern belle, float along independently, meeting occasionally to compare points amassed from various high-profile murders and creative kills. As their brutality and nefarious plans escalate to threats of genocidal proportions, only a ragtag group of mere humans, including a Jewish psychologist and holocaust survivor, a young black woman who lost her father in the vampire’s collateral damage, and a philosophic southern sherriff, can stop them.

It’s a story where the bad guys are uniformly villainous (think: a secret society of Ramsey Boltons), and the good guys are underdogs to the extreme with only one good brain shared between them. I’m certainly willing to believe human beings with the extraordinary ability to read and control the will of others, but when a power like that is set up, I find it difficult to believe that a group of feeble puppets, as well-intentioned as they are, can prevail.

The novel is imbued with Dan Simmons’ characteristic attention to detail and his characters, while perhaps, like the game of chess so prominent in the story, are a little too defined in moral strictures (e.g. I can control other humans, therefore I am MEGA-EVIL NAZI RACIST BAD PERSON), are clearly defined. Even a month later, I still remember all of their names.

At the end of the day, I have to pronounce this novel NOT scary. Simmons does manage to work in his signature gore, which I appreciate, and there is an ingenuity to some of the sadistic maneuvers of the villains. But I don’t know if I’m turning into one of the cantankerous olds who shake their fists and yell at authors to “get off my suspension of disbelief!” because I can only stretch so far.

Booknado 2016: February

Theme: Book by an author with my initials

image

This book provided me with the ability to casually drop this gem in conversation:

Random person: That forest in Japan where people go to kill themselves.

Me: It’s called Aokigahara *smug*

*SPOILERS*

If you’ve ever spent a night in the forest, far enough away from civilization that there’s no people sounds or lights, you know it’s a pretty heavy feeling. If you happen to be in a forest that functions as a mecca for suicides and repository for their ghosts, I’d imagine that might exacerbate things quite a bit. If you also happen to be lost and stupidly unprepared to spend even a night in said forest, well then, you deserve what’s coming to you.

The novel follows all the conventions of your typical slasher film set-up:

– Dumb , unlikeable twenty-something Americans? Check.
– Reputedly haunted locale? Check.
– Repeated warnings from locals not to go? Check.
– Ignore signs not to leave trail and immediately become impossibly lost? Check.
– Lack of proper footwear? Check.
– Split up? THAT MAKES SENSE!

Let me tell you something that makes Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (and the first movie adaptation) one of the most effective horror novels ever written: she trusted in location and characters. Haunting has like, no plot. Simply following the inner monologue of possibly mentally disturbed Eleanor through a possibly haunted house is enough.

“But I’m an American!” you say. “I need convoluted plots and mayhem and blood and gore!  Now bring me my baconator!”

The characters in Suicide Forest would certainly kill for a baconator after all is said and done.

Point being, a place like Suicide Forest with its reputation and aura of permanent twilight carries the distance. With a little psychological suspense thrown in, and characters who act like people, and not caricatures, it should be a slam dunk.

Unfortunately, while the author does a fair job of creating a solidly spooky atmosphere within the forest, it is quickly wasted on insipid characters and repeated SMH moments. The technique used to manufacture thrills here isn’t psychological or supernatural. It’s stupid-natural and it siphons any remaining suspense and credulity out of the story.

The release of this book was oddly timed to precede a movie about Aokigahara called “The Forest,” which is not based on the book in any way, and follows a template akin to “The Grudge 2” and other J-horror remakes involving Americans traveling to Japan and ignoring curses.

I won’t go into detail on the movie, but it’s pretty bad. In trying to fictionalize a real-life horror, the author and filmmaker alike think that the proper treatment is to add more horror until there’s just a pile of horror tropes crammed into a room a la Cabin in the Woods, but way less fun.

Fun fact, both the movie and the book feature cabins in the woods.

A couple of different suggestions if the premise of this book interests you.

For “idiots lost in the woods and it’s really scary” try:

image

And for “idiots lost in the jungle and they’re so stupid it’s entertaining” try:

image

And for god’s sakes, pack the Ten Essentials!

Booknado 2016: April (Bonus: Disaster!)

I have a terrible obsession with disaster books. Whether they are natural or man-made, I read them. Train wrecks, plane crashes, fires, floods: as long as they lead to death, suffering, and sometimes cannibalism, I’m on board. I’m not going to parse the reasoning behind this particular obsession *mumbles lame excuse about survival preparation* but since I read so many books about disasters, I thought it would be fitting to include that category in Booknado.

Theme: A book about a disaster.

image

Our original intent with this category was to pick a disaster that happened in each of our birth years. As luck would have it, this book covers two separate volcanic eruptions in Colombia that just happened to cover the relevant years.

This book is of particular interest to me since I live with an active volcano in my backyard. Mt. Rainier sure is pretty, but when the lahar comes a calling, you’d better get the hell out of South Hill.

The eruption at Nevado Del Ruiz in 1985 cost 23,000 people their lives. An eruption at Volcan Galeras claimed the lives of scientists hanging out in an active crater.

What surprised me is how the science of volcanology is so recent (so recent, in fact, that spell check tells me “volcanology” is not a real word). Virtually nothing was known in the way of predicting volcanoes back in 1985, and despite a few advances, there’s not a whole lot more known today. The best it seems we can do is make predictions based on what we know about the past, e.g. Mt. Rainier hasn’t erupted for a while, so yeah, it’ll probably do that again. When? In the future most definitely. 

No Apparent Danger also taught me about tornillos, screw-like waves on a seismograph that precede an earthquake that precedes an eruption which precedes death and mayhem. The account of the two volcanoes, dry and truncated as it is, gives an overall picture of the deadly influences that politics, pride, money, and scientific egotism cast over natural disasters. An eye-opening, informative, but not particularly compelling narration tells the story of what happened before, and will happen again. Though probably not like this:

image

I lava this movie. Hehe.

Booknado 2016: March

Theme: A book you read as a youth but don’t remember

image

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” – Atticus Finch

The idea behind this month’s theme was to go back and re-read a classic, something that was read most likely out of obligation, but that one has no memory of.

This is something I like to do now and again, to read a book I read a long time ago and see if my opinion has changed. In this manner, I discovered that The Great Gatsby was really great, and how The Haunting of Hill House, which I had a mediocre opinion of the first time around, evolved into my favorite novel of all time.

I had first encountered To Kill a Mockingbird in the same dreaded environment where most of us had: the 9th grade reading list. I couldn’t tell you how I felt about it the first time around, because I don’t remember. I was fourteen years old and more preoccupied with the social milieu than great literature. If I had been a more thoughtful youth, certainly the novel might have provoked some reflection on the implications of attending a high school with exactly two black students.

There are some criticisms to be lobbed at the novel for sure, oversimplifications and caricatures, morality painted in broad strokes, but the narrator is so compelling, so vivid in voice and observation, that it shames me to think how relevant the novel is to this day, how entrenched our implicit racism remains in white America, whether the boogeyman du jour is illegal immigrants or Muslims or lady presidents. The recent uproars over the #Blacklivesmatter movement and transgender bathroom rights are enough to implicate the insidious tenacity of ignorance and hatred.

The re-reading of this book was timed to roughly coincide with the release of Go Set a Watchman, but I’m ambivalent to read a book published under the cloud of the lingering question of if Harper Lee ever meant for the novel to be read. Curiosity will certainly kill that cat sooner or later.

Booknado 2016: January

So, for three years my sister Dallas and I have been creating an annual list of 12 books with different themes to read on a monthly basis. There was Bookpocalypse 2013, Bookmageddon 2014, Pluto is Too a Planet 2015, and this year’s iteration, Booknado 2016. I’ll post a review of each book and obviously since it’s now June, I have some catching up to do. So I’m going to knock out the first half of the year pretty succinctly. Here goes January!

January: A book that I want to torture my sister with

This theme is a little different, since we read different books. The book Dallas selected for me to read was:

image

SPOILERS. As I try not to read too much about books beforehand, even avoiding the blurbs, this book turned out to veer almost immediately in an unexpected direction, best described with the alternate title: Honey, I Shrunk the Grad Students.

Characterization suffers in service to plot, which suffers in service to an enthrallment with theconcept of the plot, which is oh so clever and requires so much suspension of disbelief I could build a bridge with it. Characters are: the evil one, the smart one, the hero, the bitchy one, the insufferable one. There are tiny planes, mad scientists, Hawaii, and most intriguingly, nanobots that give a literal meaning to the expression “death by a thousand cuts.”

The novel has the distinction of being Crichton’s last; he passed while he was still writing it, and Richard Preston, of The Hot Zone fame, finished it up. While I encountered some reviews that complained about the marked drop of quality once Preston took the reins, I confess I could find no clear delineation between one author and the other as I found the entire novel mediocre from promising start to perfunctory finish.

To be sure, there is fun to be had with tiny humans in Hawaiian jungle who can jump super-high and fall from great distances due to their size, but the fun is overshadowed by a hilariously one-note villain, unsympathetic idiots, erm, protagonists, and plot mechanics that perform Rube Goldberg contortions to fit together.

Needless to say, Dallas knew what she was doing when she made me read it (the previous year we had the same theme for January and I had to read The Maze Runner). I could only find solace in the knowledge that I had chosen a special gem for her. As they say: revenge is best served in a book famous more for its gimmicky layout than its story:

image

Ta-Da!