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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

It's in our genes

I’ve been reading a fascinating book entitled The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee. You may remember that Mukherjee, an Indian born, American trained Oncologist wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book some years ago, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer which was subsequently made into a PBS documentary by Ken Burns. Emperor was deserving of the Pulitzer not only for helping us to understand the nature of the disease but also the research into novel new treatments that only now are becoming reality. Neither book is a light read, but Mukherjee is an engaging writer who manages to make complex subjects accessible to the lay reader with immense humanity, and a rare gift for capturing the curious, the seemingly anecdotal turns that led to pivotal breakthroughs.

The books are connected of course, because Cancer is a disease that arises from and exploits mutations and alterations in our genetic makeup, faulty reprints, if you will that have crept into the otherwise normal process of cellular reproduction. They are also connected because the discoveries that have led to new-found cancer treatments, and which many scientists believe will ultimately lead to its eradication, are largely derived from our growing understanding of genes and the process by which they control life itself.

Now this might not sound like a page turner, but I guarantee you it is. The characters are in many ways larger than life, Malthus, Mendel, Darwin, Watson, Crick and many others whose names might be less familiar, but what comes across so meaningfully is the humility—the awe in which these and so many other scientists hold for the extraordinary elegance of the processes that govern our existence. As you read the unfolding mystery—one that is still in progress, it is hard not to share that awe but also a sense that this process, life, cannot have been a entirely random accident of evolution—that it must have been planned. It is the same precision and yet simplicity that underlies the higher realms of mathematics and physics, a hidden order that cannot be appreciated until one sees it all laid bare.

I don’t want to mislead you. I am not making a statement about the existence of God the maker, and for the most part neither are the scientists leading this work. That is a different discussion and one that must be had as humans begin to wield tools that confer a God like power to shape life itself. We have now within our grasp both an understanding of the genetic process at its most fundamental level—a knowledge of biology akin to particle physics—and tools to manipulate the very process that makes us, us. It is shocking, exciting and scary. Exciting, because the path forward will allow us to reach into the genetic makeup of an individual and tweak those defective genes that cause life threatening disease, that cause us to lose our cognitive abilities and grow frail with age. We are already doing so with diseases like Sickle Cell Anemia and some Cancers. But that knowledge comes with a terrifying responsibility, to use that God like power to create or negate life according to human design or madness.

We are not so far removed from the atrocities of Eugenics as practiced in Nazi Germany and in our own country in the early part of the last century to be reminded that understanding without wisdom and humanity may be our undoing. It is not clear that humans should be trusted with such knowledge. And we should also be wary of our ignorance, as we search for new cures we run a very real risk of causing inadvertent alterations that could poison the human genome forever. An analogy to atomic power seems perfectly apt, unintended consequences shadow both.

This is a book that should be read even if you find yourself, as I did, having to go back a few times to clarify your understanding. At a time when pseudo-science and glib Internet ‘research’ is being offered up to persuade people around the world about the present threat to mankind and the vaccines which we hope will keep it at bay it is important to arm ourselves with fact, unbiased, clear and objective information about how life really works. It will upend the perverse arguments about how Covid came to be, how it was possible to engineer vaccines on such an unprecedented timeline and still ensure they would be safe, and why the outlandish claims and conspiracy theories that have been attached to the dialog are simply dead wrong.

Even, perhaps especially if you did not pay much attention in your high school biology labs, this book is an essential tool for critical understanding. The national dialog between immunologists and the public has been fraught with misunderstanding in both directions, hence some of the skepticism which surrounds it. Armed with the insights Mukherjee has so patiently laid out we have the means to dispel the witchcraftery and nonsensical claims made for political gain that are doing real damage to the elimination of Covid. I have no doubt that we will eventually do so—but at great cost in human life and with long term impact for generations to come. But of even graver import, it is so vital that we, the public understand what is unfolding. Disease, aging, decline and death will be with us forever. How we cope and equally important where we limit ourselves in the use of our new found knowledge is a conversation that must be had while we still have the ability to do so.

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