When Siddhartha Mukherjee completed his medical residency and began his advanced training in cancer medicine (medical oncology) at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, he tells us that he thought of writing a book that would provide "a view from the trenches of cancer treatment." But as he went deeper into his work with patients, the project deepened into a quest that led to "not only science and medicine, but of culture, history, literature, and politics, into cancer's past and its future." (Mukherjee, 2010 p. xiii)
The resulting book, published in 2010, was The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. The book was, he said in the Author's Note "a military history--one in which there are victories and losses--campaigns upon campaigns, heroes and hubris, survival and resilience--and inevitably, the wounded, the condemned, the forgotten, the dead."
He tells us in 2016 that completing the massive project that became The Emperor "sapped all my stories, confiscated my passports, and placed a lien on my future as writer; I had nothing more to tell."
But he soon realized that there was much more to tell.
Cancer is a disease that has its origins as a "distorted version of our normal selves." One of our cells ceases to be normal. It becomes malignant in that it becomes immortal; it cannot die; and if it cannot be killed it will overwhelm us with its offspring.
But before the malignant can be explained we must know the origin of our "undistorted normal selves?" (Mukherjee, 2016, p. 497)
The answer to that question is the storyline of Mukherjee's 2016 book The Gene: An Intimate History, "the story of the birth, growth, and future of one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science: the 'gene,' the fundamental unit of heredity, and the basic unit of all biological information." (Mukherjee, 2016, p. 9)
In her New York Times review of The Gene: An Intimate History, Jennifer Senior writes that the new book successfully follows Mukherjee's "dazzling 2010 debut, [The Emperor of All Maladies] which won the Pulitzer and almost every other species of literary award; it became a three-part series on PBS; Time magazine deemed it one of the 100 most influential books written in the English language since 1923." (Senior, May 8, 2016, p. C1)
The book's scope is grand. It covers "Mendel and his peas, Darwin and his finches. He's taken us on the quest of Watson, Crick, and their many unsung compatriots to determine the stuff and structure of DNA. We learn about how genes were sequenced, cloned and variously altered, and about the race to map our complete set of DNA, or genome, which turns out to contain a stunning amount of filler material with no determined function."
The subtitle of The Gene is An Intimate History, because a set of rogue genes have played a role in Mukherjee's family. He has two uncles and a cousin who suffer from mental disorders with genetic links. The family lives under a shadow: which member of the family might be afflicted next?
"Throughout my childhood and adult life, [uncles] Moni and Jagu, and [cousin] Rajesh played an outsize role in my family's imagination. During a six-month flirtation with teenage angst, I stopped speaking to my parents, refused to turn in homework, and threw my old books in the trash. Anxious beyond words, my father dragged me glumly to see the doctor who had diagnosed Jagu." (Mukherjee, 2016, p. 7)
The "intimate" involved in his personal story represents a central feature of Mukherjee's writing: that there is a reciprocal relation between the activities of science and the surrounding culture, society, politics, and language, and that the interplay among these factors always plays a weighty part of the whole story.
To illustrate: In the middle of the nineteenth century, the physical sciences had made important connections about natural phenomena like the motion of objects as well as having laid a foundation for chemical science.
In contrast, the science of living organisms was reduced to little more than collecting, naming, and classifying. But even this activity made biology look more scientific than it was. The classifying and naming were based on physical resemblance. Plants with six stamens were different from those with either five or seven.
But why did some have six stamens and others five or seven?
There were no answers and not even investigations to pursue answers for these questions because collecting and classifying was acceptable because one was "in effect, celebrating the immense diversity of living beings created by an omnipotent God." However, there was a long tradition that taught it was dangerous to search for a mechanistic explanation of nature. As Alexander Pope expressed it in his 1734 Essay on Man: "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan..." because such scanning might lead to heresy.
So by the end of the eighteenth century "the discipline of natural history was dominated by the so-called parson-naturalists--vicars, parsons, abbots, deacons, and monks who cultivated their gardens and collected animal and plant specimens to the service of the wonders of divine Creation, but generally veered away from questioning its fundamental assumptions." (p. 30)
Ironically, the breakthrough was the result of the work of two clergymen: Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel.
Darwin's experience during the five-year long voyage around the world on H.M.S. Beagle (1831-1836) had showed him that nature was not simply fact but also process. On the Galapagos he had found thirteen species of finch, each descended from a single pair of finches blown to the islands. What drove the process that led to thirteen new species? (Mukherjee, 2016, p. 31)
He had spent the years since his return working on his "great argument" in which he would offer an explanation. The explanation was published in 1859 as Origin of Species.
Gregor Mendel had been sent off by his parents to become a monk. He was duly ordained but had little vocation for the religious life and was more interested in science. It began to appear that he had little aptitude for science either, since he was (twice) unable to pass the test required to teach high school science.
But Mendel's "voyage" came in the form of a two year course of study at the University of Vienna where his favorite teacher, as well as mentor and idol, was Christian Doppler, the discoverer of the Doppler Effect. "Sound and light...behaved according to universal and natural laws--even if these were counter-intuitive to ordinary viewers or listeners." These laws lurked hidden by the complex phenomena of our daily experience. These laws could be revealed by "profoundly artificial" experimentation such as "loading trumpeters on a speeding train."
The experience with Doppler led Mendel to designing and carrying out an extended experimental protocol that revealed the "discrete unit of heredity." Mendel's accomplishment is the more awesome given the fact that "nothing about the natural world, at first glance, suggests the existence of the gene; indeed, you would need to perform rather bizarre experimental contortions to uncover the idea of discrete particles of inheritance." (Mukherjee, 2016, p. 43)
Mendel would publish his findings in an obscure scientific journal in 1865. It would be forgotten until 1900 when a friend sent a copy to the Dutch biologist Hugo de Vries who was also trying to make sense of what happened when peas with different traits were cross-bred.
Biology was transformed a science by the influence of Darwin and Mendel.
"Both clergymen, both gardeners, both obsessive observers of the natural world." they "made their crucial leaps by asking variants of the same question: How does 'nature' come into being? Mendel's question microscopic: How does a single organism transmit information to its offspring over a single generation? Darwin's question was macroscopic: How do organisms transmute information about their features over a thousand generations?"
The answers to each question would ultimately become "the most important synthesis in modern biology, and the most powerful understanding of human heredity." (p. 31)
Read together the two books form an extended argument that it is impossible to understand science without including culture, society, politics, and language.
Mukherjee, Siddhartha (2010). The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. New York
Mukherjee, Siddhartha (2016). The Gene: An Intimate History. New York
Senior, Jennifer (2016). Review: Siddhartha Mukherjee’s ‘The Gene,’ a Molecular Pursuit of the Self.’ New York Times. May 8, 2016.
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.