Highlights: The Gene, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
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Three profoundly destabilizing scientific ideas ricochet through the twentieth century, trisecting it into three unequal parts: the atom, the byte, the gene. Each is foreshadowed by an earlier century, but dazzles into full prominence in the twentieth. Each begins its life as a rather abstract scientific concept, but grows to invade multiple human discourses—thereby transforming culture, society, politics, and language. But the most crucial parallel between the three ideas, by far, is conceptual: each represents the irreducible unit—the building block, the basic organizational unit—of a larger whole: the atom, of matter; the byte (or “bit”), of digitized information; the gene, of heredity and biological information.
force? The simple answer is that matter, information, and biology are inherently hierarchically organized: understanding that smallest part is crucial to understanding the whole.
George Orwell once wrote that whenever a critic uses the word human, he usually renders it meaningless. I doubt that I am overstating the case here: our capacity to understand and manipulate human genomes alters our conception of what it means to be “human.”
Embedded in the history of the gene is “the quest for eternal youth, the Faustian myth of abrupt reversal of fortune, and our own century’s flirtation with the perfectibility of man.” Embedded, equally, is the desire to decipher our manual of instructions. That is what is at the center of this story.
These efforts reach their crescendo in the Human Genome
He was disciplined, plodding, deferential—a man of habits among men in habits. His only challenge to authority, it seemed, was his occasional refusal to wear the scholar’s cap to class. Admonished by his superiors, he politely complied.
Mendel began to experience the intellectual baptism that he had so ardently sought in Brno. Physics was taught by Christian Doppler, the redoubtable Austrian scientist who would become Mendel’s mentor, teacher, and idol. In 1842, Doppler, a gaunt, acerbic thirty-nine-year-old, had used mathematical reasoning to argue that the pitch of sound (or the color of light) was not fixed, but
Straining to see the world through triangle-shaped lenses, Pythagoreans argued that in heredity too a triangular harmony was at work. The mother and the father were two independent sides and the child was the third—the biological hypotenuse to the parents’ two lines. And just as a triangle’s third side could arithmetically be derived from the two other sides using a strict mathematical formula, so was a child derived from the parents’ individual contributions: nature from father and nurture from mother.
consistent explanation for human and animal heredity. Men came from small men, as large trees came from small cuttings. “In nature there is no generation,” the Dutch scientist
A descriptive view of nature—i.e., the identification, naming, and classification of plants and animals—was perfectly acceptable: in describing nature’s wonders, you were, in effect, celebrating the immense diversity of living beings created by an omnipotent God. But a mechanistic view of nature threatened to cast doubt on the very basis of the doctrine of creation: to ask why and when animals were created—by what mechanism or force—was to challenge the myth of divine creation and edge dangerously close to heresy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, by the late eighteenth century, the discipline of natural history was dominated by so-called parson-naturalists—vicars,
The essence of Darwin’s disruptive genius was his ability to think about nature not as fact—but as process, as progression, as history. It was a quality that he shared with Mendel.
each island. How could Darwin reconcile these two facts? Already, the bare outline of an idea was coalescing in his mind—a notion so simple, and yet so deeply radical, that no biologist had dared to explore it fully: What if all the finches had arisen from a common ancestral finch?
It was, Darwin knew, an explicitly profane diagram. The Christian concept of speciation placed God firmly at the epicenter; all animals created by Him sprayed outward from the moment of creation.