Tuesday, Aug 16, 2022
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In The Double Helix’s Tight Embrace

Genes define the individual. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s poetic exegesis charts its thrilling discovery and its current significance in ethical medicine.

The Who Photograph by Alamy

I had gleefully agreed to review this book, but when I got the copy I scowled. My aging elbows protested that after six medical college years of coping with Gray’s Anatomy and its muscular cousins, they were in no mood for weight-lifting. But it was so well worth the effort. Sure of my knowledge of some sections of medical history, I thought of skipping chunks of the book to read later. Better sense prevailed—and it was as if the dull pages of botany and zoology had been rewritten by magic fingers. Writerly sophistication comes naturally to this doctor-writer, winner of the Pulitzer for The Emperor of All Maladies. The history of the gene is skilfully interlaced with evolution, heredity and eugenics, its future possibilities are made clear, with never a paragraph that could divert or dull the engrossed mind.

The gene’s history beg­INS with Mendel (that end­earing monk of posthumous fame), who rep­eatedly failed the school teachers’ examination and then immersed himself in his passion for gardening, grew 28,000 pea plants and from their breeding habits gained the basic body of knowledge that was to become the foundation of gen­etics. Mendel lived around the same time as Charles Darwin and his cousin Galton, who pioneered eugenics. The book reveals absorbing sto­­ries of scientists wrestling with their ambitions, egos, and often obstinate zeal for discovery, with the tantalising secrets of nature waiting to be revealed. Mukherjee, who is so obviously in love with his subject, writes with restrained pas­­sion. About Darwin’s theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest, he has one limpid sentence: “The crucial driver of evolution, Darwin realised, was not nature’s sense of purpose but its sense of humour.” It would have pleased Darwin to see it put so eloquently.

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