In the Darwinian struggle of scientific ideas, the gene is surely among the select. It has become the foundation of medicine and the basis of vigorous biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Media coverage of recent studies touts genes for crime, obesity, intelligence—even the love of bacon. We treat our genes as our identity. Order a home genetic-testing kit from the company 23andMe, and the box arrives proclaiming, “Welcome to you.” Cheerleaders for crispr, the new, revolutionarily simple method of editing genes, foretell designer babies, the end of disease, and perhaps even the transformation of humanity into a new and better species. When we control the gene, its champions promise, we will be the masters of our own destiny.
The gene has now found a fittingly high-profile chronicler in Siddhartha Mukherjee, the oncologist-author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Emperor of All Maladies, a history of cancer. The Gene’s dominant traits are historical breadth, clinical compassion, and Mukherjee’s characteristic graceful style. He calls it “an intimate history” because he shares with us his own dawning awareness of heredity and his quest to make meaning of it. The curtain rises on Kolkata, where he has gone to visit Moni, his paternal cousin, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. In addition to Moni, two of the author’s uncles were afflicted with “various unravelings of the mind.” Asked for a Bengali term for such inherited illness, Mukherjee’s father replies, “Abheder dosh”—a flaw in identity. Schizophrenia becomes a troubling touchstone throughout the book. But the Indian interludes are tacked onto an otherwise conventional triumphalist account of European-American genetics, written from the winners’ point of view: a history of the emperor of all molecules.
In 1931, the English historian Herbert Butterfield called this approach “the whig interpretation of history.” Most historians, he wrote, were the epitome of the 19th-century English gentleman: “Protestant, progressive, and whig.” The Whig historian “very quickly busies himself with dividing the world into the friends and enemies of progress.” The danger of Whig history is that it justifies the dominance of the ruling class as the outcome of inexorable natural forces. It is especially seductive when writing about science, for scientific knowledge does indeed progress. When Butterfield wrote The Origins of Modern Science (1949), even he produced an inadvertent model of the form.