Book Reco! The Gene

BOTTOM LINE: Super glad I read it; learned so much; super dense, so at times a careful read; fascinating. A+


I was a terrible student. With that disclosure: I can confidently say that I learned more about science from this book then I did from how ever many years Bio, Chem, Physics, and whatever else I was forced to sit through.

I clearly have a type. South Asian American doctors are apparently some of my favorite authors. Gawande, Kalanithi, and Mukherjee. Interspersing snippets of family history between an expansive journey through the history of genes, Mukherjee kills it. I’m not being self-deprecating when I claim almost total ignorance of the foundations of science. Yet, even with that deficit, The Gene never lost me.

Three profoundly destabilizing scientific ideas ricochet through the twentieth century, trisecting it into three unequal parts: the atom, the byte, the gene…each represents the irreducible unit– the building block, the basic organizational unit– of a larger whole: the atom, of matter; the byte, of digitized information; the gene, of heredity and biological information.

That’s page 9. Wow. It never slows from there. Mukherjee elegantly integrates the whole in a constellation that is easy to follow, but breaks down the individual elements so I could still fundamentally grasp the thread. The book sparked all kinds of analogues and thoughts in the various circles my brain spends lots of time: software technology, investments, culture, politics.

I could easily (and might still in a future writing) highlight the 50-odd passages I scribbled around the margins in, but for now just one(ish) more:

In 1798, writing under a pseudonym, Malthus had published an incendiary paper — An Essay on the Principle of Population — in which he had argued that the human population was in constant struggle with its limited resource pool. As the population expanded, Malthus reasoned, its resource pool would be depleted, and competition between individuals would grow severe. A population’s inherent inclination to expand would be severely counterbalanced by the limitations of resources; its natural wont met by¬† natural want. And then potent apocalyptic forces– “sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence and plague (would) advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands” — leveling the “population with the food of the world.” Those that survived this “natural selection” would restart the grim cycle again — Sisyphus moving from one famine to the next.

& then through-line straight to Darwin:

Flocks of finches fed on fruit until their population exploded. A bleak season came upon the island– a rotting monsoon or a parched summer– and fruit supplies dwindled drastically. Somewhere in the vast flock, a variant was born with a grotesque beak capable of cracking seeds. As famine raged through the finch world, this gross-beaked variant survived by feeding on hard seeds. It reproduced, and a new species of finch began to appear. The freak became the norm. As new Malthusian limits were imposed — diseases, famines, parasites — neew breeds gained a stronghold, and the population shifted again. **Freaks became norms, and norms became extinct. Monster by monster, evolution advanced.**

Those are macro passages from the opening where Mukherjee sets the table for the minutiae to come. He is just as strong delving into the micro of DNA-RNA-Amino Acids-Proteins-etc. What a book.

Few other stray thoughts:

  1. YMMV. I’ve been on quite the kick of thinking about genetics and why/how we’re different from each other. This probably comes from growing up with such an acute feeling of being an “other.” But today it’s definitely fueled by trying to make sense of our current world’s resurgence of “blood and soil” and what that truly means. I’ve also been reading scraps on population migrations, assimilation, acculturation, and so on. It’s all fascinating to me. I did 23andme almost a decade ago and am now looking forward to reading more into all that w/additional context.
  2. So many implications of all this for a world of massive computing power and well developed machine learning. I now understand a little better some of the A16Z bets and other things I’ve seen in the news. So much to think about.
  3. Would I have appreciated this book when I was in high school? Putting aside that it was written twenty years later, I can’t help but wonder if I had read this before my freshman year, if I would have then been interested enough to actually learn something in Bio + Chem. I’d like to think so, but who knows. The context was missing. The context here is so rich, it makes the learning feel necessary.
  4. 500 pages of text (another 100 of references), but totes worth it.