Want to Understand GMOs? First Read The Gene

June 1, 2016 non-fiction, Science 13 ★★★★

Want to Understand GMOs? First Read The GeneTitle: The Gene: An Intimate History
Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads

Summary: Although this lacked The Emperor of All Maladies‘ focus on moving human stories, it was one of the most ambitious yet accessible books I’ve ever read on the history of genome editing.

Throughout history, our understanding of heredity and the gene has become more precise and more nuanced. As a result, our ability to manipulate the genes of other organisms and eventually our own has increased as well. In The Gene, Siddhartha Mukherjee places our current genome editing abilities in the context of this history and insightfully presents both the promise of these abilities and the potential results of their abuse.

As someone who loved The Emperor of All Maladies and who works on proteins that are used for gene editing, I had high expectations for this book and it met or exceeded them in almost every way. My only real complaint is that the human side of the story was a much smaller part of this book than in The Emperor of All Maladies. The author’s amazing empathy for his patients, which was part of what made me love that book so much, wasn’t discussed here. However, the writing was equally, astonishingly good. The author also once again did an incredible job tackling ambitious scientific topics in detail, yet in an accessible way. I wasn’t sold on every single one of this analogies and descriptions, but many blew me away with their combination of simplicity and attention to detail.

I also thought the perspective the author provided on this history was particularly informative. He told compelling stories about many of the researchers involved, weaving such delightful narratives that even the stories I’ve heard a million times (such as those of Mendel and Darwin) felt fresh. By bringing these scientists to life, Mukherjee was able to draw the reader into their world. More than any other author I’ve read, he made it clear why scientists wanted to answer particular questions and shared their sense of wonder with each new discovery. He also made the impact of every discovery very understandable.

Honestly, the only thing “wrong” with this book was that the author had the (mis)fortune to write a Pulitzer prize winning book first. Even though this didn’t wow me quite as much as his first book, I enjoyed it immensely. I would particularly recommend it, not only because it is an amazing book, but because I think it provides a perspective that is essential (although not sufficient) for an informed opinion on the dangers and merits of genome editing and GMOs.

13 Responses to “Want to Understand GMOs? First Read The Gene”

    • DoingDewey

      It was so good! This book, but even more The Emperor of All Maladies, are some of the best nonfiction books I’ve read.

  1. Naomi

    I’ve been curious to hear about this book. You make it sound amazing! But first I still have to read The Emperor of All Maladies. Sigh.

    • DoingDewey

      It was really good and I’d recommend The Emperor of All Maladies even more 🙂 It’s a long read, but definitely worth it.

  2. Resh Susan

    I havent yet read The emperor of maladies. Usually my reading interests consist of lighter book, so I really dont know if I would pick this up. I will at some point, when I want to diversify my reading spheres

  3. Stacy

    I’ve heard great things about this book! So glad you enjoyed it! Putting it on my nonfiction list to read asap! I’m fascinated by GMOs and gene therapy and would love to know more!

    • DoingDewey

      It’s definitely a good book for that! I really loved how the author put the gene editing people are doing now in the context of science history. I thought it gave him a reasonable perspective that didn’t ignore concerns about gene editing, but wasn’t sensational either.

    • DoingDewey

      Even though this isn’t how the book is being advertised, I think it really is a very relevant book for people interested in this issue.

  4. Heather

    I listened to The Emperor of All Maladies on audio and I had a hard time paying attention to it – I think it was my circumstances at the time, as in I was trying to multi-task too much while I was listening or something. I really want to go back and read it in print. And this one sounds great, too!

    • DoingDewey

      I think I might have trouble listening to The Emperor of All Maladies as an audiobook too! It was a great book, but also long and on such a heavy topic.

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