Darwin came tantalisingly close to understanding them, 20th-century eugenicists obsessed over them, and with modern science, we are poised to control them as never before. Genes are a constant source of fascination, yet ignorance and misunderstanding plague almost every public discussion of their effects on our health and behaviour. How useful it would be, then, if there was a clear, accurate, and up-to-date pop science book on genetics, a book that recounted the history of genetic science and reflected on its implications for the future of medicine and society. This is the goal of the new book by oncologist-biologist Siddhartha Mukherjee.
It is a lofty goal, and Mukherjee attempts it with lofty language. Except where he throws in some jarring puns, his prose is impossibly grand, bordering on the grandiose. Occasional tinges of purple (‘ancient myth — of the child consuming its father, of Cronus overthrown by Zeus — is etched into the history of our genomes’) may set eyes rolling.
Thankfully, for most of the book, the flowery style doesn’t obscure Mukherjee’s compelling stories of scientific progress. Whether it’s Oswald Avery’s brilliantly straightforward 1944 pinpointing of DNA as the carrier of genetic information, Watson and Crick’s building and rebuilding of their man-sized model of its structure in the 1950s, or the quest to isolate the gene for Huntington’s disease in the 1980s and 1990s, what shines through is the sheer ingenuity of the scientists who have demystified the genome, searching for ‘laws’ that might undergird biology as they do physics.
But although Mukherjee is awed by the intelligence of geneticists, he doesn’t think much of scientific attempts to measure intelligence. Indeed, in one chapter he launches an all-out attack on IQ tests. Why study the genetics of general intelligence, Mukherjee asks, when new evidence from the psychologist Howard Gardner shows that there are actually multiple intelligences? This will come as a surprise to Gardner, who has never provided any data for his now-debunked ‘multiple intelligences’ theory. In fact, general intelligence is probably the most well-replicated phenomenon in all of psychological science. But how would Mukherjee know this? His reading of the research on intelligence is cursory and out of date; he fails to cite a single scientific paper on the genetics of intelligence more recent than 2003, with most sources coming from the 1970s or earlier.
This lapse in scholarship is made all the more frustrating in the next two chapters, where Mukherjee discusses gender, sexuality and personality, happily concluding that they are all strongly genetically influenced. Perhaps he thinks IQ is one controversy too far. But a glance at the scientific literature shows that the research on the genetics of intelligence is vastly more developed than on, say, sexuality. No attempt is made to cover intriguing (and solid) findings such as the increasing genetic effect on IQ with age, or the first glimmers in large gene-hunting studies of DNA variants linked to more efficient brains.
Another underdeveloped topic examined in The Gene is ‘epigenetics’, the notion that the environment leaves marks on the genome that switch genes on and off, with concomitant health effects. Might these marks be passed on to our children, and even grandchildren? Mukherjee’s recent New Yorker essay on this topic angered scientists because it signally failed to acknowledge other genetic ‘switches’ that are far better known. That essay’s magpie-like focus on the shiny new ideas of epigenetics is not found in the book, but Mukherjee still leans too heavily on studies of the effects of the Dutch famine of 1944 — which do not rule out non-epigenetic explanations — and dismissively relegates alternative views (which are far more in line with the limited evidence on epigenetics) to a footnote.
What of the future? In The Gene’s final section, we get a little on embryo selection, a little on gene editing and a little on stem cells, all of which may soon be used to ‘engineer’ healthier, smarter or otherwise altered humans. The book’s coverage of these techniques — on which the importance of a full, frank debate cannot be overstated — is accompanied by a vague ‘manifesto’ on some of their pitfalls and caveats, but the whole treatment feels rushed, as if Mukherjee didn’t wish to scare the horses by getting too far into the ‘newgenic’ implications.
This disappointing failure to grasp the genetic nettle can be illustrated by a quotation from Mukherjee’s section on IQ tests. ‘Is g [general intelligence] heritable? In a certain sense, yes.’ Alas, the ‘certain sense’ here really means ‘after much qualification’; in fact, after so much qualification that you’ll go away thinking the answer is actually ‘no’, and not worrying too much about it. So, in the same spirit: is The Gene worth reading? In a certain sense, yes.
Stuart Ritchie is a postdoctoral research fellow in cognitive ageing at the University of Edinburgh.
Bharati Mukherjee 1940–
Indian-born American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer and journalist.
The following entry presents an overview of Mukherjee's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 53.
Bharati Mukherjee has spent most of her career portraying the humiliation and pain often associated with Third World peoples adapting to North American culture. She has developed an understated prose style and tells her story from many different cultural perspectives. Her protagonists are usually sensitive, lack a stable sense of personal and cultural identity, and are victimized by racism, sexism, or other forms of social oppression. Several critics have compared her studies of cultural clashes to the works of V. S. Naipaul, while others have noted the influence of Bernard Malamud on her portrayal of minority individuals who have difficulty adapting to their new surroundings.
Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, India, in 1940 to an up-per-middle-class Bengali Brahmin family. Her father was the head of a pharmaceutical firm. Her early childhood was spent in the few years before India's independence in August of 1947. She attended schools in both Britain and Switzerland, and then returned to India to attend the Loretto School run by Irish nuns. She was taught to devalue the Bengali culture, and it was not until later that she reconnected with her Hindu heritage. Mukherjee received a B.A. in English at the University of Calcutta in 1959 and an M.A. in English and ancient Indian culture from the University of Calcutta in 1961. Also in 1961 Mukherjee came to the United States to study at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. There she met and married Canadian writer Clark Blaise, with whom she later collaborated on two nonfiction works. Mukherjee's marriage to someone outside her culture changed her life and writing dramatically. She moved with her husband to his native Canada and encountered racism and alienation. She quickly became a vocal civil rights activist and the nature of her fiction changed irrevocably. In 1980 she decided that she could not survive as an outsider in Canada and moved with her family to the United States. She became an American citizen in 1988. Mukherjee has been a professor of English and creative writing at various universities in both Canada and the United States, including Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley. In 1988 she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Middleman and Other Stories.
Mukherjee's fiction portrays the delicate place of Indian and other Third World immigrants in North American culture. The Tiger's Daughter (1972) provides a satiric look at Indian society from the point of view of a young expatriate, Tara Banerjee Cartwright. Cartwright is caught between an American culture to which she is not yet accustomed and the culture of her native land from whose morals and values she is estranged. Wife (1975) tells the story of, Dimple, who moves to the United States with her husband and becomes torn between Indian and American cultures. Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977), written with her husband Clark Blaise, is a journal of the couple's 1973 visit to India. Mukherjee also collaborated with Blaise on The Sorrow and the Terror (1987) which tells the story of the bombing of an Air India flight that killed over 300 people. Mukherjee's short story collection The Middleman and Other Stories (1988) traces the lives of Third World immigrants and their adjustment to becoming Americans. The protagonists struggle to survive economically while facing alienation and racism. The stories celebrate "differentness" and express the value of maintaining distinction in the face of becoming American. In the novel Jasmine (1989) based on Mukherjee's short story by the same name, the title character is widowed, which in her native Punjab means a life of sorrow and loneliness. She rejects this fate and leaves for America, where she undergoes a series of transformations. Her travels eventually lead her to a new identity as Jane with a common-law husband and child in the farm country of Iowa. The novel ends with the protagonist abandoning her life again for a new existence in California. The novel is a celebration of the American freedom to develop an individual identity, a freedom characterized by both pain and excitement. The Holder of the World (1993) traces the story of two women, in two different time periods. A diamond called the Tear Drop connects Beigh Masters to a 19th-century Puritan, Hannah Easton. Most of the novel takes up Beigh's narration of Hannah's story, which includes growing up in Massachusetts and eventually ending up in India as the lover of the Raja. When she returns to New England pregnant with the Raja's child, the reader learns that Hannah is actually Hester Prynne, the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Leave It to Me (1997) traces the search of Debbie DiMartino to find her origins and identity.
Some critics insist that Mukherjee is exploiting a fad of postcolonial literature, but many reviewers find her work valuable. Critics often point out the violence in Mukherjee's fiction arising from the clashing of old and new worlds. However, most reviewers do not find Mukherjee's vision as without hope. Victoria Carchidi says, "Mukherjee insists that when such multiple worlds meet, the result can be a glorious freeing of the leaves of the kaleidoscope, that completely intermix and produce a new pattern." Though Mukherjee has never been noted for the plausibility of her plots, some critics had the most trouble with Leave It to Me. Michiko Kakutani says, "Certainly, plausibility has never been Ms. Mukherjee's strong suit, but in earlier books, her crazy-quilt plots not only possessed a fable-like power but also remained grounded in meticulously observed descriptions and edgy, pointillist prose." Mukherjee has been recognized for developing her own style and message that has relevance in American literature. As Gary Boire states, "Mukherjee's is a revisionary, appropriative technique, one that 'channels' deeply … into an existent literary landscape in order to excavate her own highly deserved space."