An excerpt from ‘The Gene – An intimate history’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee was published in the May 2, 2016 New Yorker under the headline “Same but different” (subtitle: “How epigenetics can blur the line between nature and nurture”). This piece immediately led to a cascade of criticism and I wondered if I should even bother to read the book. A quick search for reviews of Mukherjee’s book today revealed 424,000 search results. Many reviews are very positive, yet some tend to the negative side. I will add one more, specifically directed to science educators. You may already have this book in your school library. The book is written at a level that is accessible to biology students in Grade 12 and those taking early undergraduate courses in biology, biochemistry and genetics.
I liked the way that the book mirrored the way I learned about genetics and molecular biology. It was presented in chronological order that emphasized the scientists, their papers and their contribution to the building of the overall heuristic scientific model. Mukherjee does an excellent job of putting these historical findings all together. He then spends the latter portion of the book speculating on both the possibilities and the ethics of what comes next. In reading these chapters, I could not help but reflect on the 1997 movie GATTACA and how prescient the movie was. The predictions for good and evil still exist and the need for vigilant ethical watch remains in place.
With all its encyclopedic information, I felt when reading the book that I was reading a very enjoyable textbook. Keep in mind, however, that this book comes with controversy. The major criticisms in the fields of epigenetics, intelligence and sexuality cannot be ignored. These are rapidly changing and developing fields, yet Mukherjee has not always included the most recent interpretations. Some critics also note that he perhaps has grossly oversimplified to make his point. If you are reading this book it is important to be aware of these criticisms.
How can you use this book with your students? Perhaps assign various passages and have the students do their own fact checking. Mukherjee reveals several major ethical dilemmas: you could turn these into class discussions or debates. Let this book take you on one of the most complete journeys through the world of the gene, it is a trip worth taking.
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