Anyone who has made a living sitting in a cubicle has at one time or another wondered if there is more to life than pushing the proverbial pencils. These second thoughts are central to our existence as working folk. Often, when that meeting has dragged on an hour to long or when the boss is peppering you with inane suggestions, you wonder what it would be like to do something that really matters. Absolutely American by David Lipsky is about a group of people, West Point cadets, who have decided to or been thrust into a profession that, in the eyes of the government and much of the population, really matters. Their concerns are not the cubicle but of hewing to countless regulations, eight-mile road marches in full gear, and ultimately sending people into battle one day. According to Lipsky’s introduction, he went to West Point, the military academy that trains army officers, to write an article for Rolling Stone, and he eventually found himself fascinated by the enthusiasm he found there. Lipsky ended up spending four years following the cadets. The book reads like a magazine article, and Lipsky’s writing rarely falters. He presents a West Point that is infinitely more complicated than the typical stereotype of the army. It is an Army that is at war with itself internally, as it tries to become more diverse and progressive. The book covers the years 1998 to 2002, so we get to see the transformation that September 11 causes in both the cadets and the army itself. Lipsky’s greatest feat is to make the reader realize that behind the “high and tight” haircuts, the uniform, and the stern demeanor, those who are called to the military are as complicated and conflicted as the rest of us.
“Six things you can’t live without,” the online dating site commanded to me to include in my new profile. The blank spot below the prompt begged for something more than a tepid, “addicted to my iPhone/I love my mother” answer, but I felt stumped. What to say? After a moment’s hesitation, I went full geek. I can’t live without cytosine, adenine, guanine, thymine, and uracil, I wrote. I also like cappuccino.
It’s true: like all living things, I’d be nothing without the components of my DNA. (I could not exist at all, in fact.) But the nitrogenous base pairs I’d listed were clearly unfamiliar to plenty of prospective online suitors — which is also true for a large percentage of the American public. For them — for all of us — a trip through Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History offers startling clarity.
The Gene is a follow-up to Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning medical history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. “The archetypal genomic disease is cancer,” Mukherjee explains in The Gene, connecting that book to this one (he later calls The Gene a “prequel” to The Emperor). While it’s fair enough to say that genes influence the development of cancer — and while Mukherjee spends a fair number of words to describe how that can happen — The Gene extends far beyond that relatively niche topic. Rather, Mukherjee tackles the entire history of genetics, from its origins as a passion project of a Czech monk named Gregor Mendel to Charles Darwin’s journeys to Galapagos to the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson, Francis Crick, and their colleagues. After rehashing that relatively well-known history, he traverses more recent, obscure, and often contentious topics, including eugenics, gene therapy, and the daunting ethical challenges of the future. In short, the work serves as a kind of primer on the whole of the topic, an unsurprising repackaging of a few major sections of an undergrad biology degree.
That said, it’s more appealing than any other molecular biology text I can recall. “Excuse my big yawn, but I just came from my own lecture,” a genetics professor tells a student halfway through the book. The comment is as an apt reminder of the Spockian science-nerd stereotype (perhaps the reason I’m still single?) and it almost comes across as Mukherjee’s admonishment to himself. He needn’t have worried. The book is defined best not by a crack about boredom but rather by a remark Mukherjee co-opts from the French impressionist Paul Cézanne, who once said about his friend Claude Monet: “Monet is but an eye, but, God, what an eye.”
“DNA, by that same logic, is but a chemical,” Mukherjee writes. “But, God, what a chemical.”
Humans depend on DNA, but not only. All life makes use of the exact same unique double helix of base pairs, sugar, phosphate, and water molecules. “A gene from a blue whale can be inserted into a microscopic bacterium and it will be deciphered accurately and with near perfect fidelity,” Mukherjee notes. Elsewhere, he constructs a list of DNA’s features in evocative, quasi-anthropomorphic language: “it is fiercely inventive…encrusted with history…[and] poised to evolve.”
Of course, our genes are also tightly tied to our daily existence — although that, too, Mukherjee describes as “surprisingly beautiful:” “On a vast stretch of [human] chromosome eleven, for instance, there is a causeway dedicated entirely to the sensation of smell. Here, a cluster of 155 closely related genes,” encodes “professional smell sensors…[for] spearmint, lemon, caraway, jasmine, vanilla, ginger, pepper.” The author’s enthusiasm for his simultaneously transcendent and mundane subject can make the dense text feel light.
Some readers have found the book a little too light. This month an excerpt printed in The New Yorker prompted controversy: a group of epigenetics researchers took issue with Mukherjee’s approach, alleging it misrepresents epigenetics (the process by which environmental factors can modify the structure and function of genes). “Their main criticism was that Mukherjee’s article put too much emphasis on histone modification and DNA methylation, which they say are relatively minor contributors to gene regulation,” an article in the science magazine Nature summarized. “They and other critics argued that Mukherjee ignored [other] well-established mechanisms of gene regulation.” In a statement published on a website (but since removed), Mukherjee prefaced a point-by-point rebuttal with a frank statement that he thought he had described epigenetics accurately. He also acknowledged errors.
But to argue too much about the fine points of The Gene seems to misunderstand its purpose. The book doesn’t serve only to attempt a summary of the technical points of a field that — as Mukherjee accurately reports — often advances through contentious debates. Rather, it serves to make the generalities of the topic accessible to the 90-odd percent of Americans who do not hold degrees in genetics or molecular biology. And here — amid odes to smells, plus lyrics to a Sanskrit folk tune and a stray quote from Snoop Dogg — Mukherjee delivers.
The debate also obscures this book’s other compelling accomplishments. First, Mukherjee takes on the ethically heavy topic of willful modifications to the human genome. “The most remarkable fact about human genomic engineering today is not how far out of reach it is, but how perilously, tantalizingly near,” he writes. These alterations have been proposed as ways to cure or prevent genetic illnesses. But because the genome (the sum total of genes in a given living being) is highly complex, willfully altering it carries the potential for unintended, potentially disastrous consequences. His solution? “We need a manifesto — or at least a hitchhiker’s guide — for a post-genomic world,” he writes. He doesn’t offer it himself, acknowledging in several places that geneticists are collectively grappling with their field’s ethical issues. Instead, he adds what he calls “an opening salvo,” which functions to distill the issue for readers. He ends with an appeal to skepticism at the value of genomic engineering, and adds, “Perhaps the compassion that such skepticism enables is also encoded indelibly in the human genome.”
The author is a good example of this compassion. Mukherjee interweaves the text with the story of his own family, particularly two uncles and a cousin with serious mental illnesses. (This, too, has been partially excerpted in The New Yorker.) Another chapter, “The Miseries of My Father,” documents a genetic brain disease Mukherjee’s dad is currently experiencing.
To oversharing-prone Americans, these disclosures might seem small. But they are not. What Mukherjee calls “ethical vertigo” with genomic engineering was what prompted me to leave biology and go into public health. Partly on the strength of a recommendation from a genetics professor (who, like Mukherjee, is a Bengali raised in Delhi), I won a Fulbright in the Bengal region to conduct research on mental health.
The topic was so intensely neglected I could not find an appropriate mentor for my work. (What ad hoc assistance I got was unsafe and often plain loony: one university administrator told me to manage people in psychiatric crisis by phoning an anthropologist in Germany. “Don’t call me,” that anthropologist later said, and I agreed.) Mental health was taboo enough to prompt flat rejections — and occasionally open anger — from my colleagues in health research.
In that context, Mukherjee’s forthright discussion of his own Bengali family’s psychiatric health is rare and courageous. It’s also worthwhile. If ethical issues in genetics are to be solved (or even communicated effectively to the public), we’ll need not only skepticism and compassion, but also a clear understanding of the humans our choices affect.
If I were joining that dating site today, I might alter my answer a bit. I can’t live without cytosine, adenine, guanine, thymine, and uracil, I would write. I also enjoyed The Gene, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
I’ve crossed another classic off of my “to read” list, and boy am I happy I read this one. This was pure satisfaction from start to finish. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is an amazing book that embodies the intersection of literary weightiness and readability. There are plenty of epics out there that span generations: Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds or Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, for example. Those books are a joy to read and you can luxuriate in the authors’ virtuosity as characters are added to weaving storylines, but East of Eden seemed to have more weight to it. Unlike many epics, which seem to thrive on love, unrequited or forbidden, Steinbeck’s book focuses on the struggles of brothers seeking their father’s admirmation. From the title alone, it is obvious that this notion is Biblical, and the book’s Biblical quality becomes its center. For the first time in a very long time, I did not rush through the book’s last chapters, eager to get to my next conquest. I felt that pang that you sometimes get when you finish a truly magnificent book, the pang that is part sadness at the experience of reading the book being over and part a feeling of that book permanently lodging itself in your memory to be drawn from and remembered with reverence. There are, I think, very few books that can produce this sublime reading experience, but East of Eden is on that short list.