Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Siddhartha Mukherjee: The Gene: An Intimate History [2016]

This is a large (500 pages) history of genetics that our group, overall, found quite interesting and valuable. All the ratings were high (with one exception). On our scale of 0 to 10, our average rating was 8.0.

Rich noted that (despite its length) it is easy to read and he very much liked it as a history. He rated it a “10”. He found the discussion of the eugenics movement in the United States during the early years of the 20th century quite disturbing. He remarked that the book confirms his prior negative opinion of James Watson who never seemed like an honest scientist to him. Rich also found the later parts of the book on the human genome quite interesting. He really enjoyed the book.

Ron missed the meeting but sent us the following short review of the book:

“Overall I thought the book was pretty well done. There were a few histories that I could have done without: The early history, about genetics from the Greeks, notably could have been skipped; but there were some that really put an exclamation point on what he was trying to get across. Personally, I did not know that the U.S. in the 20’s and 30’s was so eugenics oriented. After a little research, I found that the Nazis actually got a lot of their ideas about eugenics from the U.S.

“Otherwise, the author did a good job of giving some background information, so that I had a sense of what the scientists were facing and so that I could understand why they did what they did and how they did it. And he did a good job of tying what happened next in discoveries to what discoveries happened before. He did not leave any holes—I never wondered how a certain discovery was made. It was plainly laid out. Although, he could have gotten to the point a little faster at times.

“I must say I was most impressed that a person’s sex is determined by one gene switching on, and how the default seems to be female. I knew men had the XY [chromosomes], but I did not know that some women have the XY [chromosomes] as well, just with the Y part turned off.

“I now have a really good understanding of genes, heredity, and DNA.

“I give the book an 8, [that low] only because it was a bit wordy.”

Barbara said she read the book with real excitement, and found the details fascinating. She was interested in the important role that fruit fly investigations played in the development of genetics. She learned a whole lot. She commented that while what Hitler did was of course wrong, there are some parts of genetic engineering which are quite good. She enjoyed reading it and gave it a “10”.

Rosie said that she really enjoyed the first two-thirds or three-fourths of the book but then got somewhat lost. She said the book was too detailed for her. “Although I really enjoyed the beginning, he tried to force things too much.” Still, she rated the book as a “7”.

John hadn’t yet quite finished the book, but said he is enjoying it a lot. Although all the extensive detail in the book is hard to remember later, he likes to see it as he reads the book. He was also surprised by the extent of the eugenics movement in the U.S. in the early 20th century. John says he is definitely going to finish the book, and gives it a tentative rating of “9”.

Kirby said he liked this book for a lot of different reasons. As a history it is very complete, and left little or nothing out. He added that the book ties into many other things he’s read before. He gave it an “8”.

*       *       *

And now we come to our “nay-sayer”, Scott, who since he writes up these notes usually gets a longer say! (Other book club members are welcome to write up their own further comments or rebuttals.) Actually Scott also thought the book was well written and learned a lot from it. But at the same time he found a lot to criticize in it. He pointed out that the book is itself not a science book that contributes to the science of genetics, but rather just a report on how contemporary geneticists in general view the history of the development of their science. And since it is from their dominant collective point of view it also reflects their dominant biases and errors, and specifically their virtually inevitable tendencies toward genetic determinism.

According to Scott, this book is “all over the place” when it comes to talking about this central issue of genetic determinism. At times it seems to more correctly argue that the environment and “chance” are also important in the makeup and behavior of human beings, but then—sometimes on the same page—it turns around and argues in effect that “genes are everything”. For example, on p. 485 he quotes geneticist Paul Berg as saying “No sane biologist believes that we are entirely the product of their [our] genes.” But two pages later he favorably quotes psychologist Eric Turkheimer as saying: “A century of familial studies of twins, siblings, parents and children, adoptees, and whole pedigrees has established, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that genes play a crucial role in the explanation of all human differences, from the medical to the normal, the biological to the behavioral.” Really?! All human differences, such as that I’m a Marxist and spend time raising hell about capitalism while many others don’t? That I have a scar on my chin from a fall when I was a kid? That I like old jazz and you can’t stand it? Get real!

On balance, Mukherjee follows the dominant current view of most geneticists, which we might call “genetic determinism lite”. Yes, they do reluctantly admit that chance and environment play some role in who and what we are, while at the same time putting their overwhelming emphasis on the role of genes. Moreover, even the part which they admit can be explained by environment they often try to twist into being actually due to genes in some “deeper” sense. Scott ridiculed this tendency by asking: “Is drowning actually due to having the wrong genes?” After all, if your genes were different and your hands and feet were webbed, or you had gills and an air bladder like fish do, then you couldn’t drown, could you?! Although nobody would agree with the ridiculous conclusion that drowning is caused by genetics or a genetic defect, those who claim that “all diseases” are ultimately genetic (as one of the geneticists who Mukherjee quotes says) are in effect using analogous “logic”.

Perhaps one of the very best statements in the entire book comes near the end [p. 482] where Mukherjee says: “It is a peculiar modern fallacy to imagine that the definitive solution to illness is to change nature—i.e., genes—when the environment is often more malleable.” A truly good book on genetics would have expressed this idea even more strongly and made it one of the main themes, not a one sentence afterthought!

Scott also thinks the discussion of Lysenkoism is biased and distorted, though it is of course true that Lysenko pushed a deeply erroneous and dogmatic version of Lamarckism. First, Mukherjee doesn’t even mention the Russian horticulturalist Ivan Michurin, whose work is the primary source of Lysenko’s doctrine, and who did in fact develop some techniques to promote the hardiness of plant seedlings. Second, while Mukherjee does later talk about epigenetics and how the more sophisticated genetic theory of our era does now recoqnize that there are actually ways in which acquired characteristics can sometimes be inherited, he consciously refuses to connect this up with Lysenko. It is in fact quite possible that some of Michurin’s work actually involved epigenetic modifications to plants—even if he could not understand this mechanism himself. (Scott doesn’t know for sure about this.) If so, Michurin and even Lysenko may have been early pioneers in epigenetic work, even if their overall theory was incorrect!

More importantly, while Mukherjee blames the Lysenko affair on Soviet and Marxist dogmatism he fails to acknowledge that some Marxists strongly opposed Lysenkoism. He mentions that Nobel Prize winner Hermann Muller was a socialist, but not that he was a life-long Marxist and a fervent opponent of Lysenkoism. That may have been too much of an inconvenient fact for him to mention, given his own bourgeois biases.

Moreover, the first proponent of epigenetics, Conrad Waddington, was also a Marxist as Mukherjee notes [p. 396]. Thus it certainly appears that this Marxist ideology may also promote scientific advances—something which Mukherjee is loath to admit. (Scott doesn’t in any way dispute the ignorant dogmatism and harmful effects of Lysenkoism in general, however.)

Mukherjee is surprisingly conflicted about abortion. Like the most ferocious opponents of abortion (which he himself, to his credit, is not one of), he has a hard time distinguishing the difference between aborting a fetus and what it would mean for a presently living person to no longer exist! On page 452 he talks about a woman, Erika, with severe medical problems but who—as a living person still has a life she no doubt values. Of course any decent human being will sympathize with Erika’s plight and a decent society will work to allieviate her problems and situation as best we can. But this does not in any way mean that a woman having an abortion of a fetus is wrong, whether or not that fetus has been tested and shown to have major medical problems (some possibly incurable)—though that is definitely one of many good reasons to have an abortion. Living, actual human beings are one thing; merely potential human beings are quite another! If we start thinking along Mukherjee’s lines, then even birth control is quite immoral! (And we become as stupid as the Pope.) Some might argue: Think of all the wonderful people who will never be born and how they are being “cheated” out of even having a life at all! (Please folks! Never-existing human beings cannot be “cheated” or mistreated in any way whatsoever! Show some common sense here!)

Mukherjee gets a little philosophically nutty in similar ways on a few other topics too, such as the issue of normality/abnormality, but Scott’s review is getting too long so we’ll block his inclination to get into those additional topics.

Scott also mentioned that there are quite a number of small errors, misrepresentations and sloppiness throughout the book. Here are a few examples:

•   Mukherjee says that “The bloody revolution of 1917 that had swept through Russia attempted to erase all individual distinctions to priortize a collective good.” [p. 109] First, neither the February nor October Revolutions in 1917 were very bloody at all; indeed they were amazingly peaceful events. (It was the Civil War launched by the Tsarist generals and the invasions by imperialist countries including Britain, France and U.S. after the October Revolution which led to so much bloodshed.) Second, no Marxist to Scott’s knowledge (with the possible exception of Pol Pot in Cambodia, who was not really a Marxist at all) has ever argued that “all individual distinctions” among humans should be “erased”, nor has ever attempted to do so. That is mere bourgeois political libel which either shows gross ignorance or else is consciously defamatory. It is true, however, that Marxists do try to prioritize “the collective good”; is that something that Mukherjee thinks is a crime?

•   On page 125 he distorts and misquotes the famous statement by Martin Niemöller, the German theologian, which in German begins “Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Kommunist.” [Roughly: “When the Nazis came for the Communists I remained silent, because I was not a Communist.”] But since Mukherjee is loath to say anything at all positive about Communists, he chopped that part out entirely, and instead began with “First they came for the Socialists...”. (In point of fact, the Communists were indeed attacked first because they were the most determined opponents of fascism. The Communists were without question the first line of opposition to the Nazis in Germany, and once they were defeated there was not much resistance left.)

•   With regard to the famous letter from Einstein and Leo Szilard to alert President Roosevelt about the possibility of building atomic bombs, Mukherjee says that “Einstein wrote...” a certain quoted passage from it. [p. 232] Actually Szilard wrote the whole letter and Einstein just signed it.

•   On page 313 he refers to “the fierce starburst of evolutionary innovation that had forged multicellular creatures out of single-celled ancestors several million years ago.” Perhaps he meant several billion years ago, although the actual origin of multicellular life on earth was about 600 million years ago according to current estimates.

Recognizing both the virtues of this book as a history of genetics, as well as its serious shortcomings in the summation of the science of genetics itself and even more so in the realms of its applications to society, and with regard to politics in general, Scott gives the book a rating of just “4”. And even that is probably being too generous.

Return to our complete list of books.

Return to our Science Group home page.