The Question of Identity

Siddhartha Mukherjee looks at the story of the gene not merely through the lens of biology but also in terms of human politics

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published:June 11, 2016 12:52 am
The Gene: An Intimate History, Book review, The Question of Identity, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Siddhartha Mukherjee book, history of genetics , genetics, Nazi, Pythagoras, galileo, indian express book review Hominid remains from a human feast in Muladong cave in China suggests that sapiens was interbreeding with, and also eating, an early hominid with which it coexisted.

Book Name – The Gene: An Intimate History

Author – Siddhartha Mukherjee

Publisher – Penguin

Pages – 591

Price – Rs 699

Siddhartha Mukherjee has a talent for writing on cue. Following on from his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies, he brings us a page-turner of a crash course in the history of genetics when the human race is confronted, yet again, by the fundamental question: Who am I? The species Homo sapiens is the conventional answer. But two archaeological finds thousands of miles apart have thrown up evidence that brings the very concept of species into question.

Hominid remains from a human feast in Muladong cave in China suggests that sapiens was interbreeding with, and also eating, an early hominid with which it coexisted. And the finding of Neanderthal art and architecture in the Bruniquel cave in France, combined with the finding of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans, suggests that we are variants on a genetic theme, rather than a species. Pending confirmation by lab analysis, that kind of puts paid to the anthropocentric universe, in which sapiens are solely, uniquely human.

Mukherjee’s book is an act of madness, in a manner of speaking. It was inspired by his memories of relations left behind in Kolkata, who suffered from various psychiatric disorders. Was he a carrier of the genes which destroyed the lives of his relations, he wondered? Would he transmit them to future generations?

All of us are assigned roles in the never-ending story scripted by our genes, and some of us are designated victims. And so, Mukherjee looks at the story of the gene not merely through the lens of biology, but also in terms of human politics. By responding to the primal question of identity, the gene has made itself inherently political.

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The Gene is a gripping read because it joins the dots in a way that a formal, technical text would not. Some of the connections are interesting asides: Gregor Mendel, who organised farmers’ traditional knowledge and founded formal genetics, was a student of Christian Doppler, whose work, radical in its time, gives insight to radars and ultrasound machines. Some are causal: Darwin’s reading of his contemporary Malthus’s dystopia urged him to posit the struggle for survival as the engine of Darwinian evolution. Some are politically potent: the ticking bomb of haemophilia brought the public irritant Rasputin into the Russian royal family, and helped to spark off the revolution.

Some links are paradoxically familial: Francis Galton, promoter of eugenics, was Darwin’s cousin and published the year after his death. A scientific failure but a political success, he had coined the phrase “nature versus nurture”. Galton saw only difference in Africa, while Darwin had seen the unity of nature. Travel does not necessarily broaden the mind. It can make you peevish, too.

But some connections seem tenuous. Sir William Herschel, writing in 1830, wonders how new species are born from old. Mukherjee draws a parallel with “anthrolopologists” who had noted that “Sanskrit and Latin words could be traced back to mutations and variations in an ancient Indo-European language.” Indeed, the art of philology, which makes such relations patent, dates back to the world’s first libraries and the relation between European tongues and Sanskrit is discussed in 16th century writings. But there was no canon until the work of Max Muller, and he was only seven years old when Herschel published.

Genetics is to our era what astronomy was to Galileo’s. These disciplines challenge convictions about our identity, origin and place in the universe. Their stories are deeply political and controversial. Galileo faced the Roman Inquisition, charged with the heresy of heliocentrism and committed to house arrest for life, the most revered martyr to science. Some of the most enthusiastic students of genetic theories launched inquisitions of their own, committing the weak and the unfortunate to death, or a living hell.

Mukherjee reminds readers that the Nazi architects of the Final Solution had looked to eugenicists in the UK and US for direction. He writes of a eugenics conference at the London School of Economics, and of the ease with which American proponents of selective breeding created a ghetto for the mentally disturbed, where forced sterilisation was practiced, mandated by the courts.

National Socialism took the next tiny step down a slippery slope, legally murdering citizens who deviated from the norm, starting with retarded children and graduating to wealthy Jews and born disturbers of the peace like journalists and writers.

Eugenics is fake science. It strives for perfection, forgetting that evolution is about an infinite process, not finite products. But the political dream of racial cleansing will never become extinct. It can flourish as a thread in mainstream politics, as Indians know too well. Humanity’s fear of the rise of the machines is founded on eugenics, too — it seems to be natural for a superior, anthropomorphic mechanical race to either enslave or erase an imperfect human population.

The Gene recapitulates the history of genetics from Pythagoras to Genentech, from germ plasm to plasmids. It would be delightfully new to science-agnostic reader, but those who read even basic genetics in school have picked up too many spoilers already. And yet, they would find something illuminating here. For instance, there’s the story of early fruit fly experimenter Hermann Muller, Nobel laureate and cautionary voice against the mutagenic effect of nuclear radiation. A vocal socialist, he was hounded out of the US and exiled himself in 1932 to Berlin, Europe’s new creative hub — the city of Isherwood’s Mr Norris. Ironically, he joined the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics where, alongside legitimate science, Nazi race theory was being formalised for the Holocaust to come.

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These intriguing connections and ironies, which are not taught in formal courses, enliven Mukherjee’s history of genetics. It urges re-examination of defining moments in that history, to seek connections with external influences. For instance, I have often wondered if the rise of the punctuational model of evolution in the 1970s, led by Stephen Jay Gould, was helped by the interest in catastrophe theory generated by the mathematician Christopher Zeeman. Today, the borders between genetics, chemistry, physics and mathematics are blurred, and most insights come from interdisciplinary work. But politics will remain a serious force so long as science continues to ask the most fundamental question: “Who am I?”

 

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