By Chet Yarbrough
The Gene: An Intimate History
Written by: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Narration by: Dennis Boutsikaris
Siddhartha Mukherjee draws a Delphic map outlining the boundaries of genetic science and Homo sapiens’ future. Predictions for Homo sapiens’ future are “Delphic” in the sense of being obscure. Ancient predictions of the Oracle of Delphi are noted to have been subject to interpretation. The predictive quality of a Delphic map of genes involves the morality and ethics of manipulating heritable characteristics of humankind.
Picture this: an average life span of 150 or more years, cure for all known diseases of mind and body, elimination of known genetic causes for debilitating mental and physical deformities.
Now, picture this: loss of the ability to procreate, accidental creation of a new disease because of an unintended consequence of a manipulated gene, extinction of the human race caused by artificial enhancement of the genetic code.
Mukherjee notes that the science of genetics is rapidly reaching the point of modifying, and potentially creating, human life that has no known physical or mental handicaps. Mukherjee’s Delphic map is intimately drawn in vignettes about his family’s life, and particularly a brother’s loss of life from mental dysfunction; i.e. a brother that takes his own life as a result of schizophrenia. Though Mukherjee’s family vignettes, and stories of children with inherited medical maladies, he poignantly clarifies the seriousness of the subject.
The science of genetics is changing medicine and society. Though genes are not the source of everything human life becomes, the science of the subject shows that human beings originated in Africa and grew to populate the world with humans from one original mother. Apocryphally, the Oracle of Delphi is a priestess rather than a priest who foretells the future. Once again, the future is scientifically acknowledged as dependent upon women.
Though human existence is dependent upon both nature and nurture, mitochondrial DNA comes from mothers while sex determination comes from fathers. The significance of that discovery is that converting food to energy comes from mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is only inherited from mothers. Without a mitochondrial Eve, there would be no human race (an ironic thought in view of the unequal treatment of women in the world.)
Mukherjee recounts discovery of DNA structure and how identifying the double helix in 1953 (by James Watson and Francis Crick) leads to mapping the human genome. With a map of the gene, it becomes possible to manufacture drugs that attack medical and psychological maladies at a genetic level. Mukherjee shows how the history of Watson’s and Crick’s discovery defines western culture’s search for knowledge.
During President Clinton’s term of office, competition for gene sequencing leads to a private/ public race that exemplifies the difference between entrepreneurial and governmental pursuit of scientific discovery. The objective of the private sector is to win the race by any means necessary. The private sector’s primary objective is to create financial return on investment. In contrast, government focuses on methodology of discovery and accuracy of results, with societal reward as a primary objective. Mukherjee is not overtly critical of the two approaches but implies that corners are cut by the private sector in order to patent discoveries for new medicines that heal but also sometimes kill.
This is somewhat analogous to what happened during WWII with the discovery and use of computers; i.e. one element of discovery is public and another is private. The difference is that computer discoveries indirectly relate to death and destruction while genetic discoveries directly relate to death and destruction. Each approach to scientific discovery, private enterprise and government research, have benefits and costs. What is at stake in the case of human manipulation of genes is the destiny of the human race.
Mukherjee acknowledges genes are only part of what makes humans human. A most striking reveal is about LGBTQ and the genetic component of what makes humans one sexual preference or another; i.e. winners of the battle between inheritable XX (female) and XY (male) chromosomes show significant correlation with sexual preference. Mukherjee reflects on the terrible consequence of family members, friends, or professional counselors who insist people who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, or questioning, can be socially engineered to be heterosexual. The insistence leads to psychological dysfunction and worse, the arbitrary murder of innocents; e.g. most recently, the Orlando, Florida massacre.
Though genetics are a major determinant in what humans are-environment plays a role. The role is complicated because one person’s response to outside stimulation can be entirely different from another’s even though they may be near genetic duplicates. Mukherjee sites studies of twins raised in different parts of the country, with different families, having uncannily similar life preferences; presumable because they have the same genetic inheritance.
“The Gene” is an important book. Its importance lies in the dangers inherent in sciences’ ability to tamper with a natural selection process discovered by Charles Darwin in the 19th century. Modern humans have evolved over 200,000 years through a process of adaptive genetic changes defined by Richard Dawkins as immortal genes. The caution one must recognize is that when humans make decisions for other humans, the consequence is inevitably different from what is expected. Humans may become extinct because of our environmental mistakes wrought by natural selection and nurture. However, one is equally wary of becoming extinct because of what society decides about gene modification by humans; for humans.