From Nazi horrors to genetic mapping, Siddhartha Mukherjee tells a great story

Tabish Khair
Tabish KhairAug 18, 2016 | 16:11

From Nazi horrors to genetic mapping, Siddhartha Mukherjee tells a great story

Pulitzer-winning Siddhartha Mukherjee is a scientist by training, and he writes like an excellent novelist. His new book, The Gene: An Intimate History, is worth reading just for the sheer pleasure of it. But what he has to say is even more significant.

For years, from a different perspective, I have been worried about the return of what is often called "Darwinism". It is often not even Darwinism but reworked Lamarckian Adaptation, and its return to intellectual and university circles has been more subtle than its continued existence in public culture.


What does the public make of Darwin’s theory of evolution? Two things, basically: survival of the fittest and natural selection. Now, let’s not get into scholastic debates about the extent, if any, to which Darwin talks of "survival of the fittest" or what he really meant by "natural selection". As any culturally unprejudiced scientist working in the area knew by 1920, if not earlier, Darwin’s theory had posited no mechanism of evolution.

How does the organism "adjust" to external factors, how are these factors communicated to the micro-organismic and molecular levels, and vice versa? The questions were many.

There was some evidence that not all pressures led to evolutionary adaptations, or by now kittens and mice would have been able to breathe under water. There was also some evidence that not all evolutionary changes are "superior" or "beneficial" ones, and that hereditary factors are not synonymous with class (or caste and race) "superiority".

The Gene: An Intimate History; Allen Lane; Rs 699.

We know now that the 19th century bourgeoisie doctored Darwinian evolutionary theories in order to justify its own privileges and give a false biological basis to its political ideology of a deserving meritocracy – we are rich because we are best adapted to the environment. But the scientific evidence on the ground was fairly thin.


The thinnest of the facts on the ground, before genetic mutation was understood, owed to Darwin’s inevitable failure to identify the actual mechanism of "evolution". But with the discovery of genes and mutation, bingo, we suddenly had a mechanism for "natural selection".

Certain sections of the bourgeoisie — not to mention white colonisers — were overjoyed, but they had jumped the gun. Because mutation — as well established as anything can be in scientific thinking now — did not really "prove" natural selection. One can say it proved natural rejection instead.

For one, mutations are random: a number of mutations take place, only some are transferred on to the next generation, and of these only some are "beneficial" — in a certain context.

Secondly, evolution plays Russian roulette with us. I wrote two years ago that "there is an argument that diversity is necessary for our survival because evolution does not manufacture the characteristic we need, or not when this characteristic is a significant and sudden development. Evolution just throws up a number of random changes, via mutation, and some of these happen to fit changes in the natural environment. Hence, the more diversity we have, the more likely life is to survive major natural catastrophes." 


I must concede that I found my basic layman’s understanding of evolution and genes (as in the paragraph quoted above) confirmed by Mukherjee’s The Gene, and that no doubt added to my enjoyment of the book. But Mukherjee has much more to say, tracing the story of the gene from an obscure abbey in Moravia in 1856, through Nazi horrors, and into our own age of genetic mapping.

This is a brilliant book, and I would recommend it to every thinking person.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Last updated: August 19, 2016 | 13:05
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