Long story short, we now use WordPress for the EPL page too and I got my pages/logins confused and thought I’d added posts here – but I added posts there. I’ll migrate them over later today (hopefully) and I’ll see you tonight!
UPDATE: All posted and I’m moving on to next month and Black Flags.
How Siddhartha Mukherjee gets it wrong on IQ, sexuality and epigenetics
We need a readable, authoritative popular guide to the latest developments in genetics. This, sadly, isn’t it
Computer illustration of double-stranded DNA molecules
Stuart Ritchie – 28 May 2016 – 9:00 AM
The Gene: An Intimate HistorySiddhartha Mukherjee
Darwin came tantalisingly close to understanding them, 20th-century eugenicists obsessed over them, and with modern science, we are poised to control them as never before. Genes are a constant source of fascination, yet ignorance and misunderstanding plague almost every public discussion of their effects on our health and behaviour. How useful it would be, then, if there was a clear, accurate, and up-to-date pop science book on genetics, a book that recounted the history of genetic science and reflected on its implications for the future of medicine and society. This is the goal of the new book by oncologist-biologist Siddhartha Mukherjee.
It is a lofty goal, and Mukherjee attempts it with lofty language. Except where he throws in some jarring puns, his prose is impossibly grand, bordering on the grandiose. Occasional tinges of purple (‘ancient myth — of the child consuming its father, of Cronus overthrown by Zeus — is etched into the history of our genomes’) may set eyes rolling.
Thankfully, for most of the book, the flowery style doesn’t obscure Mukherjee’s compelling stories of scientific progress. Whether it’s Oswald Avery’s brilliantly straightforward 1944 pinpointing of DNA as the carrier of genetic information, Watson and Crick’s building and rebuilding of their man-sized model of its structure in the 1950s, or the quest to isolate the gene for Huntington’s disease in the 1980s and 1990s, what shines through is the sheer ingenuity of the scientists who have demystified the genome, searching for ‘laws’ that might undergird biology as they do physics.
But although Mukherjee is awed by the intelligence of geneticists, he doesn’t think much of scientific attempts to measure intelligence. Indeed, in one chapter he launches an all-out attack on IQ tests. Why study the genetics of general intelligence, Mukherjee asks, when new evidence from the psychologist Howard Gardner shows that there are actually multiple intelligences? This will come as a surprise to Gardner, who has never provided any data for his now-debunked ‘multiple intelligences’ theory. In fact, general intelligence is probably the most well-replicated phenomenon in all of psychological science. But how would Mukherjee know this? His reading of the research on intelligence is cursory and out of date; he fails to cite a single scientific paper on the genetics of intelligence more recent than 2003, with most sources coming from the 1970s or earlier.
This lapse in scholarship is made all the more frustrating in the next two chapters, where Mukherjee discusses gender, sexuality and personality, happily concluding that they are all strongly genetically influenced. Perhaps he thinks IQ is one controversy too far. But a glance at the scientific literature shows that the research on the genetics of intelligence is vastly more developed than on, say, sexuality. No attempt is made to cover intriguing (and solid) findings such as the increasing genetic effect on IQ with age, or the first glimmers in large gene-hunting studies of DNA variants linked to more efficient brains.
Another underdeveloped topic examined in The Gene is ‘epigenetics’, the notion that the environment leaves marks on the genome that switch genes on and off, with concomitant health effects. Might these marks be passed on to our children, and even grandchildren? Mukherjee’s recent New Yorker essay on this topic angered scientists because it signally failed to acknowledge other genetic ‘switches’ that are far better known. That essay’s magpie-like focus on the shiny new ideas of epigenetics is not found in the book, but Mukherjee still leans too heavily on studies of the effects of the Dutch famine of 1944 — which do not rule out non-epigenetic explanations — and dismissively relegates alternative views (which are far more in line with the limited evidence on epigenetics) to a footnote.
What of the future? In The Gene’s final section, we get a little on embryo selection, a little on gene editing and a little on stem cells, all of which may soon be used to ‘engineer’ healthier, smarter or otherwise altered humans. The book’s coverage of these techniques — on which the importance of a full, frank debate cannot be overstated — is accompanied by a vague ‘manifesto’ on some of their pitfalls and caveats, but the whole treatment feels rushed, as if Mukherjee didn’t wish to scare the horses by getting too far into the ‘newgenic’ implications.
This disappointing failure to grasp the genetic nettle can be illustrated by a quotation from Mukherjee’s section on IQ tests. ‘Is g [general intelligence] heritable? In a certain sense, yes.’ Alas, the ‘certain sense’ here really means ‘after much qualification’; in fact, after so much qualification that you’ll go away thinking the answer is actually ‘no’, and not worrying too much about it. So, in the same spirit: is The Gene worth reading? In a certain sense, yes.
Stuart Ritchie is a postdoctoral research fellow in cognitive ageing at the University of Edinburgh.
Genes influence who we are—and now we can manipulate them.
Identical twins, like these at the annual Twins Day Festival in Ohio, are important for genetic research because they share the same genome and often the same characteristics, habits, and tastes—even when separated at birth. Photograph by Martin Schoeller, National Geographic
By Simon Worrall
PUBLISHED July 24, 2016
The gene is “one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science,” argues Siddhartha Mukherjee in The Gene: An Intimate History. Since its discovery by Gregor Mendel, an obscure Moravian monk, the gene has been both a force for good and ill. In the 1930s, the Nazis exploited the pseudoscience of eugenics as a prelude to the Holocaust. Today, gene therapy holds out the hope of eradicating hereditary conditions like Huntington’s disease and even psychological disturbances, such as schizophrenia. [See how the DNA revolution is giving us unprecedented power.]
National Geographic caught up with the author as he was driving across the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City. Mukherjee, a professor of medicine at Columbia University who also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies about cancer, explained why the book has deep personal roots, how the United States eagerly adopted the pseudoscience of eugenics, and why allowing individuals to make decisions about altering the genetic makeup of their children may be a dangerous thing to do.
Your book’s subtitle is “An Intimate History.” Can you talk about the personal inspiration behind the story of the gene?
I’ve been thinking about this book for a very long time. Even before I had written my book on cancer, I had thought about the perennial question of why we are like and unlike each other. In my particular case, the question revolved around mental illness. Why were two uncles and one cousin of my family affected while the rest of us didn’t seem to be? That question was very much part of the background of my childhood and adolescence. My uncle Jagu, who lived with us, was provisionally diagnosed with a mental disease, which was called schizophrenia, but died before a lot of the terminology became clear.
A host of studies were being published in the 2000s linking schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, suggesting that there are strong familial and potentially genetic links between these mental disorders. Added to that was the question why, in crisscrossing family histories, some members are affected and others not. In other words, how did genes intercept with environment and chance to create powerful influences on human form and fate? That’s the central question in the book—and it’s also encapsulated in the history of my family.
You call the gene, “one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science.” Unpack that thought for us.
Powerful because of the question of heredity and identity, which is a central question that animates this book. What makes us who we are and how do we transmit that information? To what extent does heredity control our identity? These are among the most powerful questions we ask ourselves. They are also among the most dangerous because they raise the idea of what we can control and manipulate. What if you were given the opportunity to change human identity by changing human genes or even know someone’s future by knowing their genetic components? We’ve seen in the history of eugenics how genetics can be distorted by political forces and then can become very dangerous. The part of the book that focuses on eugenics is a series of incredibly important moral and social lessons because we learn how genes can be misused.
We both have identical twins in our lives: your mother and aunt, and my elder brothers, are identical twins. Why are twins so important in gene research?
Twins represent a fascinating natural experiment. Aside from a few exceptions, their genomes are identical. So, how they turn out in the world, what diseases they get exposed to, what aspects of self they share, is a way to solve what aspects of human nature are influenced by genes versus not. It’s very important to remember that I’m using the word “influence” because, obviously, identical twins are not identical. Their lives evolve differently, which reminds us that biology is not destiny. Biology has strong influences on destiny. But it’s not identical to destiny. In the most extreme form, even if you have exactly the same genome, you don’t behave as an identical clone. You have a unique self.
Under the Nazis, the pseudoscience of eugenics aimed to cleanse the human race of genetic infirmities. Here, German women carry babies deemed to be of pure Aryan blood. Photograph by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
The pseudoscience of eugenics reached its apotheosis in Nazi Germany. But I think our readers will be shocked to discover that much of the groundwork was actually done in America. Tell us about Carrie Buck.
In Virginia, a young woman named Carrie Buck was involuntarily sterilized to prevent her from passing mental illness down to any children. As this historical marker indicates, her case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed the Virginia law in 1927. Photograph by Jason O. Watson, Alamy
The word genocide shares its root with gene. Describe the methods used by Hitler’s eugenicists and how they prefigured the Holocaust.
In the 1920s to ’40s, the Nazi Party launches the racial hygiene movement to try and ensure they cleanse the human race of genetic infirmaries. They try to identify anyone who has a suspected hereditary infirmity: the deaf, the blind, or those with congenital illnesses of various sorts. There’s a whole series of propaganda films, in which they try to describe how horrible the lives of these people can be, in order to justify that the right thing to do is to exterminate them. This forms the training ground for the much wider extermination program of the Holocaust. By the 1930s, Jewish men and women are already disproportionately being targeted as part of this racial hygiene movement.
James Watson (pictured above in 1993) and Francis Crick identified DNA’s double-helix structure in 1953—one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century. Photograph by Daniel Mordzinski, AFP/Getty Images
The great quantum leap forward in the story of the gene was DNA, which James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix, called “the Rosetta stone for unraveling the true secret of life.” Why was it so important?
In the 1910s and 1920s, people had thought about what was carrying the code to build organisms and to repair and maintain organisms. But they didn’t know what chemical form it was in. Thomas Morgan, the great fruit fly biologist, had, along with others, understood that genetic information was carried in chromosomes. But he didn’t know what chemical carried it, why the chemical carried it, and how a chemical could carry all this information. So the hunt was to try to find the chemical that carried this information. If you could identify that chemical and manipulate or move it from one organism to another organism, you could potentially change biological, hereditary information.
The discovery that it was DNA that carried genetic information was an enormous surprise. It was done by Oswald Avery and his colleagues at Rockefeller University in the 1940s. Then the race began to try to solve the structure. How on Earth could DNA carry information to build you and me? That was solved by discovering the structure of DNA. Later, it became clear that the structure allowed DNA to carry information in this unbelievable form: the sequence A, C, T, G, G, C, G, A, and so forth. Four letters carrying the information that allows humans to be built. And this ultimately led to the Human Genome Project.
At one point in the movie The Help, an African-American maid named Aibee says, “We’s the same. Just a different color.” Tell us about Mitochondrial Eve.
Mitochondrial Eve is a fascinating concept. The idea is that the genetic information we inherit comes from our fathers and mothers, one chromosome from each. There’s an exception to this, though: an energy-making factory in our cells, which also has genetic information. But that genetic information comes exclusively from your mother. If you look at that mitochondrial information, yours came from your mother, hers came from her mother, and so forth. There is a matrilineal lineage. Humans, as a species, are quite young, only about 200,000 years old. And if you track mitochondrial DNA back to one mother, then to the next mother and the next, we can trace that genetic information to one single woman, who lived in some part of Africa. She was not the only woman alive at that time. But she is the one that all our lineages converge on. That’s why she’s called Mitochondrial Eve.
One of the most controversial books of recent decades was The Bell Curve. What was it trying to prove—and why was it wrong?
It was trying to understand the underpinnings of human intelligence and the extent to which human genes can influence it. If you look carefully, genes do influence one notion we have considered for human intelligence: the IQ test. It’s one test for human intelligence. But The Bell Curve tries to make the argument that, not only was there a genetic influence on IQ but, more than that, if you measured intelligence across various “races”—and I use the word races in inverted quotes because these are handed down to us from the 18th and 19th centuries—you would find that Asians and Caucasians scored higher on these tests for intelligence by about 10 to 15 points.
Why is it wrong? The most important reason is that the construction of an IQ test is itself an idea that has been brought into question since the 1990s. We now know that if you subgroup the IQ testing into subtests, white people score higher in some parts of the test and black people score higher in other parts of the test. The way you change the weights and balances in the test determines the ultimate score.
What do genes tell us about sexual identity? Is there a “gay gene”?
We know that genetics has a powerful influence on sexual identity. We also know that there is no single gene that determines most sexual identity. Much remains undiscovered about the exact genes that influence sexual identity but we know that there is an influence, based on twin studies. There is no such thing as a “gay gene,” though. There may be multiple genes that interact with environment to produce different variants in human sexual identity. But no single gene has been identified as the “gay gene.”
More and more, we are sequencing the genome of eggs and embryos and beginning to use technology that will potentially allow us to alter the human genome. The potential benefit might be to eliminate diseases with strong genetic components, like Huntington’s disease.
The dangers are that there will be unintended consequences. All of a sudden we may find ourselves making decisions about which human genes are more preferable than others. In doing so, we risk making wrong decisions about what variations are and are not allowed to exist. Though human genome technologies are highly regulated, it is unlikely that there’s going to be a government mandate that says, “You are only allowed to have this kind of baby.” And when individuals make that decision it is still, ultimately, a eugenic decision.
What amazes you most about the story of the gene, Siddhartha?
The most amazing thing is how much of this is unknown to the larger public. It was a discovery that I made, of how much of the story of social eugenics is unknown; how much we know about genes and genomes today; and the extent to which we are on the verge of being able to change the human genome in ways that turned out to be surprisingly simple. This is a story I was not aware of. I was surprised—and amazed—by it.
Gregor Mendel was an Austrian monk who discovered the basic principles of heredity through experiments in his garden. Mendel’s observations became the foundation of modern genetics and the study of heredity, and he is widely considered a pioneer in the field of genetics.
Gregor Mendel, known as the “father of modern genetics,” was born in Austria in 1822. A monk, Mendel discovered the basic principles of heredity through experiments in his monastery’s garden. His experiments showed that the inheritance of certain traits in pea plants follows particular patterns, subsequently becoming the foundation of modern genetics and leading to the study of heredity.
Gregor Johann Mendel was born Johann Mendel on July 22, 1822, to Anton and Rosine Mendel, on his family’s farm, in what was then Heinzendorf, Austria. He spent his early youth in that rural setting, until age 11, when a local schoolmaster who was impressed with his aptitude for learning recommended that he be sent to secondary school in Troppau to continue his education. The move was a financial strain on his family, and often a difficult experience for Mendel, but he excelled in his studies, and in 1840, he graduated from the school with honors.
Following his graduation, Mendel enrolled in a two-year program at the Philosophical Institute of the University of Olmütz. There, he again distinguished himself academically, particularly in the subjects of physics and math, and tutored in his spare time to make ends meet. Despite suffering from deep bouts of depression that, more than once, caused him to temporarily abandon his studies, Mendel graduated from the program in 1843.
That same year, against the wishes of his father, who expected him to take over the family farm, Mendel began studying to be a monk: He joined the Augustinian order at the St. Thomas Monastery in Brno, and was given the name Gregor. At that time, the monastery was a cultural center for the region, and Mendel was immediately exposed to the research and teaching of its members, and also gained access to the monastery’s extensive library and experimental facilities.
In 1849, when his work in the community in Brno exhausted him to the point of illness, Mendel was sent to fill a temporary teaching position in Znaim. However, he failed a teaching-certification exam the following year, and in 1851, he was sent to the University of Vienna, at the monastery’s expense, to continue his studies in the sciences. While there, Mendel studied mathematics and physics under Christian Doppler, after whom the Doppler effect of wave frequency is named; he studied botany under Franz Unger, who had begun using a microscope in his studies, and who was a proponent of a pre-Darwinian version of evolutionary theory.
In 1853, upon completing his studies at the University of Vienna, Mendel returned to the monastery in Brno and was given a teaching position at a secondary school, where he would stay for more than a decade. It was during this time that he began the experiments for which he is best known.
Experiments and Theories
Around 1854, Mendel began to research the transmission of hereditary traits in plant hybrids. At the time of Mendel’s studies, it was a generally accepted fact that the hereditary traits of the offspring of any species were merely the diluted blending of whatever traits were present in the “parents.” It was also commonly accepted that, over generations, a hybrid would revert to its original form, the implication of which suggested that a hybrid could not create new forms. However, the results of such studies were often skewed by the relatively short period of time during which the experiments were conducted, whereas Mendel’s research continued over as many as eight years (between 1856 and 1863), and involved tens of thousands of individual plants.
Mendel chose to use peas for his experiments due to their many distinct varieties, and because offspring could be quickly and easily produced. He cross-fertilized pea plants that had clearly opposite characteristics—tall with short, smooth with wrinkled, those containing green seeds with those containing yellow seeds, etc.—and, after analyzing his results, reached two of his most important conclusions: the Law of Segregation, which established that there are dominant and recessive traits passed on randomly from parents to offspring (and provided an alternative to blending inheritance, the dominant theory of the time), and the Law of Independent Assortment, which established that traits were passed on independently of other traits from parent to offspring. He also proposed that this heredity followed basic statistical laws. Though Mendel’s experiments had been conducted with pea plants, he put forth the theory that all living things had such traits.
In 1865, Mendel delivered two lectures on his findings to the Natural Science Society in Brno, who published the results of his studies in their journal the following year, under the title Experiments on Plant Hybrids. Mendel did little to promote his work, however, and the few references to his work from that time period indicated that much of it had been misunderstood. It was generally thought that Mendel had shown only what was already commonly known at the time—that hybrids eventually revert to their original form. The importance of variability and its evolutionary implications were largely overlooked. Furthermore, Mendel’s findings were not viewed as being generally applicable, even by Mendel himself, who surmised that they only applied to certain species or types of traits. Of course, his system eventually proved to be of general application and is one of the foundational principles of biology.
Later Life and Legacy
In 1868, Mendel was elected abbot of the school where he had been teaching for the previous 14 years, and both his resulting administrative duties and his gradually failing eyesight kept him from continuing any extensive scientific work. He traveled little during this time, and was further isolated from his contemporaries as the result of his public opposition to an 1874 taxation law that increased the tax on the monasteries to cover Church expenses.
Gregor Mendel died on January 6, 1884, at the age of 61. He was laid to rest in the monastery’s burial plot and his funeral was well attended. His work, however, was still largely unknown.
It was not until decades later, when Mendel’s research informed the work of several noted geneticists, botanists and biologists conducting research on heredity, that its significance was more fully appreciated, and his studies began to be referred to as Mendel’s Laws. Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns and Erich von Tschermak-Seysenegg each independently duplicated Mendel’s experiments and results in 1900, finding out after the fact, allegedly, that both the data and the general theory had been published in 1866 by Mendel. Questions arose about the validity of the claims that the trio of botanists were not aware of Mendel’s previous results, but they soon did credit Mendel with priority. Even then, however, his work was often marginalized by Darwinians, who claimed that his findings were irrelevant to a theory of evolution. As genetic theory continued to develop, the relevance of Mendel’s work fell in and out of favor, but his research and theories are considered fundamental to any understanding of the field, and he is thus considered the “father of modern genetics.”
Sunday 29 May 2016 04.00 EDT Last modified on Tuesday 2 May 2017 13.48 EDT
Siddhartha Mukherjee: ‘I’m basically trying to understand how the intersection of medicine and biology and culture enables who we are.’ Photograph: Anna Schori/Camera Press
The Gene is subtitled An Intimate History, and a very personal story runs through it. Can you explain what that is
The book gets intimate from the first page. I have two uncles who have schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and then one of my cousins, also from my father’s side, was also diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalised. So that story hung over my childhood and raised questions that were very urgent. Would I be affected? Was there a genetic predisposition? What was happening in my family? We’re often tempted to think about genes in terms of laboratories or universities, but of course it’s personal: it’s your story, it’s my story, it’s a story of how hereditary factors influence our lives. It’s the question that we’ve all wondered about. Why do we look like this? Why do we behave like this? Why are we like this?
Did you uncover things about yourself?
Absolutely. I had blocked out anything to do with mental illness. I didn’t want to understand partly because I was too fearful of understanding, but then this book allowed me to answer that with a clarity I would have otherwise lacked. When you have a history like this, amazing forces of denial rise inside you. Much of my childhood and my family was organised around the idea that it wasn’t there.
What you wrote about your mother’s experience of being an identical twin was very moving. The idea of the twin, with the same genome, but shaped differently by experience, as a shadow self living another life, was very powerful. Did you ever think about your shadow self? What he might be doing now?
That’s a wonderful question. You know if you think about genes in a deep way, you do have to think about alternative lives because you have to think about what would happen if that same set of genes, that same self, was put under very different circumstances. It’s a natural question that arises. I think everyone thinks about alternative lives. We have fictional doppelgängers. That idea has been around a long time, but our knowledge of genes has increased our anxieties around it.
Though you’ve carefully avoided the question…
I could certainly still be in India. Perhaps never having left the neighbourhood that I grew up in. I could easily have not been a scientist… it could have been very, very different.
Though you already embody a number of alternate selves, don’t you? You’re a research scientist and a practising oncologist and an award-winning writer. It’s quite a lot for any one person, isn’t it?
Yes. I mean I try to fulfil my roles. I try to always turn back to patients. And almost all the research I do is focused on moving medicine forward. So in some ways by restricting the themes, I find it actually becomes much easier.
Your scientific work sounds incredibly involving and intellectually complex… it did make me wonder where this drive to write books as well comes from?
This book came out of a need to describe what it was that I was looking for in trying to search for answers for my family illness. What that means and what it would mean for the future. It starts as a memoir and only afterwards does it become an exploration of history and other things. There was a real urgency that I needed to explore this.
Your last book, a biography of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, won a Pulitzer prize. That must be a tough gig to follow?
It was very important to write completely afresh. I always thought this would be a memoir but it started growing on its own accord. Books are like that. They take off and then you have to follow them.
It was an excerpt and in retrospect, I could have emphasised more of the material on the foundational role of gene regulation… it was covered at length in the book. It was three pages out of a 600-page book.
In your work as an oncologist, you’ve talked about being with people in their most terrifying moments as a “transcendental experience”. I wondered what you meant by that.
It’s not spiritual. It means it transcends ordinary things. Most of us don’t experience that moment in which we’re interacting with someone facing their own death. It’s an unbelievable moment but in oncology you do this every day. And you encounter people with astonishing resilience. With startling internal resources.
How does that affect you personally?
Some people find themselves dejected by this, I find myself energised. Every clinic visit for me is a source of energy. I find myself understanding more. I find myself respecting more. I find myself learning more every time I’ve been in the clinics or the wards.
Does it affect how you think about life and death?
Absolutely it does. I mean I don’t have a formulaic response to life and death. The one thing I’ve learned is that people’s response to dying is extremely different. It ranges widely and there is no archetypal response.
In the west though, death tends to be treated as a medical condition rather than a philosophical concept. People end up in the hospital attached to machines…
Absolutely, and I’ve written about this. My grandmother’s death was a signature moment for me. It was one of the most dignified deaths I have ever witnessed. Dying at home, without machines, can be very beautiful.
At 45, you’re still young in terms of your career. What’s next?
I’m basically trying to understand how the intersection of medicine and biology and culture enables who we are. I’m still trying to understand that over and over again. Every book is about trying to understand that intersection. I don’t know if I’ll write another book. I mean, I write books when I get confused.
And your scientific ambitions?
We’re working on leukaemia mainly and blood formation, a little bit of work on bone formation. A lot of the work that we’re doing is trying to figure out new ways of curing leukaemia.
Are you hopeful that there will be a cure?
I’m very hopeful. Every year has brought a kind of clarity about what works and what doesn’t work and how we can move things forward in trying to take care of a disease that has so many different manifestations and yet has some core similarities across these manifestations.
An article in US Vogue described you and your wife – the sculptor, Sarah Sze – as New York’s most brilliant couple. That seems like quite a lot to live up to…
We don’t seem like New York’s most brilliant on most days. I feel as if I’m spending my time, you know, getting through the day, paying the parking tickets, going to work at the hospital and trying to write and finish a book. I don’t feel particularly brilliant a lot of the time.
The article also said that when she went to the Venice Biennale, you not only remodelled the kitchen as a surprise, but you also bought a summer house. You’re setting quite a high bar for husbands everywhere…
It’s not like I was sitting there with a hammer and nails making a new kitchen… The house was empty, and our kitchen was falling apart, so I hired a friend of ours who is an amazing architect. We had to move out while this was being done so that’s why I found another place. Far from being a rather glamorous enterprise, it was motivated by the fact that we can barely keep our lives together.
At the end of the book, you say that the influence of genes on our lives is richer, deeper and more unnerving than we had imagined. In what way?
Genes are an incredibly important factor in determining who we are as ourselves. That idea I find very unnerving. We know we’re dominated by the vagaries or the ups and downs of fate and chance and destiny and random accidents and so forth. But behind that, there’s a kind of predisposition or structure. And it’s those predispositions and structures which I think are governed by genes. That’s what we’re trying to figure out and I find that to be fascinating.
Do you think about it when you look at your children and think about how to bring them up?
I have two daughters, six and eleven, and I think it’s every parent’s dilemma to figure out how genes and environments and chance will result in the unique human beings that are your children. I think it’s every parent’s conundrum and that’s why the conundrum I try to get to in the book. But you know…you can’t live your life as if you’re in a clinical trial.
Exclusive: Ken Burns developing ‘The Gene’ based on Mukherjee’s bestseller
Gary Levin, USA TODAY Published 10:22 a.m. ET Oct. 20, 2016
Ken Burns is simultaneously working on projects ranging from Vietnam to the history of the Mayo Clinic to a documentary on country music.
Next he’d like to tackle human genetics.
WETA, the PBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., has optioned the rights to The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s expansive book on the human genetics, published in May, with Burns attached as producer.
The four-hour project, now in development and seeking funding for what Burns anticipates will be a 2018 airdate, marks a reunion of the author and producer: Burns’ 2015 project, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, was based on Mukherjee’s 2010 book. Both projects will also share producer/director Barak Goodman.
The Gene is “very much the kind of detective piece I always (liked) in my work; it’s asking the historical question of who are we as individuals,” Burns says in an interview, “It’s getting to the most atomic level of what existence means, and it’s thrilling.”
The project’s scope is also more expansive than Maladies, but “we’re dealing with complex science we know we can make accessible to anyone,” Burns says.
The book, which combines Mukherjee’s family story with science and social history, topped the New York Times’ best-seller list and won praise from critics.