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An Exclusive Conversation with Siddhartha Mukherjee, Author of "The Gene"

GeneSiddhartha Mukherjee is the author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. His new book The Gene: An Intimate History is our Spotlight Pick for the Best Books of May. It goes on sale tomorrow. Weaving science, social history, and personal narrative, The Gene tells us the story of one of the most important conceptual breakthroughs of modern times. In this latest book, Mukherjee animates the quest to understand human heredity and its surprising influence on our lives, personalities, identities, fates, and choices. Siddhartha Mukherjee joined us for this Amazon-exclusive Q&A.


Amazon: The Gene is an intimate history of genetics, from Mendel to modern day. For many readers who may not have engaged with these concepts since their years in high school, The Gene will act as an education in history and humanity. One piece of information that many readers will find surprising is that we did not, in fact, evolve from Neanderthals – that the iconic image of evolution from ape, to Neanderthal, to tall-standing man, is inaccurate. As a physician and researcher, is there anything that you found particularly surprising during your research for this book?

Siddhartha Mukherjee (SM):
Virtually everything in this book comes as a surprise and should come as a surprise. The amount that we've started to understand about human beings – about ourselves – both in wellness and in illness, through genes, is astonishing. For instance, genes tell us about race and in fact, debunk a certain conception of race in a way that I didn't know before researching this book. Genes tell us how old we are as a human species. They tell us how diseases can happen – complex hereditary diseases, like schizophrenia and bipolar disease, which we put under the blanket of "mental illness" - all turn out to have genes at their very core. So, what's interesting in this book is that, virtually everywhere you turn, genes become a kind of new lens through which you can see the entire world and humanity in a completely different way.

Amazon: Throughout The Gene, you connect scientific discoveries and research to society – from ethnic cleansing in the 1940s to genetic pre-screening of fetuses in the twenty-first century. Our knowledge of genetics brings with it a power to use and misuse this information. Do you think that the benefits of this knowledge outweigh the detriments to humanity?

SM: That's a central question in the book. We can't have that debate meaningfully without understanding all of the science and all the history – how genes might change, how we can change them – we need to arm ourselves with knowledge.

The question of promise and peril, or danger versus benefit, is relative. No other being in the history of our known world has had the capacity to change their own genetic code of instructions. We have now come to that point. Whether we use that technology responsibly or irresponsibly – whether we use it to eliminate extraordinary suffering or to create new forms of discrimination and suffering – is a human decision. We cannot make a decision as a society, as a culture, without knowing all of the history.  

Amazon: In The Emperor of All Maladies, you introduce readers to cancer through its impact on society and through your own stories as an oncologist. In The Gene you introduce us to evolution and humanity through stories of mental illness within your family and your fear of passing that illness along to your daughters. How have you, your patients, and your family reacted to having these stories and personal truths explored in a public sphere?

SM: In Emperor, patients were extraordinarily generous with their openness. Similarly in The Gene, my family has been extraordinarily generous. It created a series of very difficult conversations that we had to have within the family, and many of them are captured in the book. But there also is a sense of responsibility – even a sense of relief that we can talk about these things in a way that's not abstract or hidden, but really comes out into the open. The Gene, as you know, takes the word "intimately" very seriously. "Intimate" is not part of the title for decorative purposes – it is there because this book explores, in a rather searing way, what it means to be me and my family. The one thing that I hope people will take away from the book is that this could be the story of any family – displacement, migration, the unveiling of different faiths, mental illness, madness, normalcy – the definitions of how we behave and who we are, are questions that are common to all families.

Amazon: The Gene addresses and denounces the concept of racism by introducing a fact about which many people are unaware: Mitochondrial Eve, "a single human female that existed in Africa about two hundred thousand years ago," is the source of all modern humans – she is "the common mother of our species." Is this fact a new discovery? If not, why haven't we heard more about it and how do you think this knowledge might impact society if it were more commonly known?  

SM: Mitochondrial Eve is a hypothesis that was discovered decades ago. We don't know what she looked like – we don't know who she was, but the idea is that, if you trace back human mitochondrial DNA, you will eventually come to a point at which the number of people from whom we are descended narrows to one. The point being, Mitochondrial Eve is a beautiful concept; it's an important concept. It reminds us of how relatively young human descent is. We have to remember that she is not the only female that lived in her time – it is by a combination of forces that she happens to be our common matrilineal ancestor.

I think it's an incredibly important discovery. But, somehow, people haven't fully fathomed it, and I don't know why. But, we need to – especially if you're going to have conversations, particularly in this political atmosphere, about race, descent, and ancestry.

In some ways, The Gene is a more provocative book than Emperor. It asks questions about who we are and who we're going to become. It asks questions about how we found out what we know and what we might find out if we keep looking. To me, the most powerful or astonishing thing about The Gene is how little of this has entered public conversation and how much of it needs to.


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