And it was going so well, until I got to this...
In the early 1980s, a young geneticist in London named Peter Goodfellow began to hunt for the sex-determining gene on the Y chromosome. A die-hard soccer enthusiast—scruffy, bone-thin, taut, with an unmistakable East Anglian drawl and a “punk meets new romantic” dress sense—Goodfellow intended to use the gene-mapping methods pioneered by Botstein and Davis to narrow the search to a small region of the Y chromosome.
Seriously, people, what is it with the stupid descriptions of other people in pop science books?
Did all of the authors take advice from Bridget Jones on how to introduce people with random and slightly uncomfortable tid bits?
Luckily, the rest of the book is still great enough to mostly make up for this kind of nonsense.
As much as I am enjoying the book, it is not without flaws:
One flaw that wasn't apparent to me at the beginning of the book is that Mukherjee seems to present arguments to advance the narrative of the book, but doesn't acutally discuss the argument, or at least doesn't dicuss it directly and leaves it hanging until later in the book where he might discuss it but may or may not refer back to the argument.
In the last section I read, this annoyed me when he included two US legal decisions in his narrative: Roe v Wade and a case where a Mrs. Park sued a Dr. Chessin (to find the actual citation Park v. Chessin (1977) you have to dig very deep into the reference section, which aggravates me even more...).
The way that Mukherjee presents both cases (and one being more familiar to readers than the other) is limited to his narrative about genetics. He doesn't acknowledge the full legal argument for the decisions in both cases, and even when mentioning the argument of right to privacy in Roe v. Wade, this comes across as almost an aside to Mukherjee's tale of the story of genetic science.
The second case is treated similarly. He reports the outcome but the explanation is provided only through second-hand reporting and in one single sentence, which seems an unlikely thing to have happened in a case of such complexity and controversy.
In 1979, as opinions such as Joseph Dancis’s began to appear regularly in the medical and popular literature, the Parks sued Herbert Chessin, arguing that he had given them incorrect medical advice. Had the Parks known the true genetic susceptibilities of their child, they argued, they would have chosen not to conceive Laura. Their daughter was the victim of a flawed estimation of normalcy. Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of the case was the description of the harm. In traditional legal battles concerning medical error, the defendant (usually the physician) stood accused of the wrongful causation of death. The Parks argued that Chessin, their obstetrician, was guilty of the equal and opposite sin: “the wrongful causation of life.” In a landmark judgment, the court agreed with the Parks. “Potential parents have a right to choose not to have a child when it can be reasonably established that the child would be deformed,” the judge opined. One commentator noted, “The court asserted that the right of a child to be born free of [genetic] anomalies is a fundamental right.”
There are other flaws, too. References are not obvious, which makes it appear as if they are missing in large parts of the text. Good referencing is crucial to me in non-fiction books. Without an easy to follow reference system, the book looses credibility in my eyes or appears as sloppy research, neither of which I would want to accuse Mukherjee of because much of the book seems to be well thought out and seems to support that this work was put together diligently.
Another thing I have noticed is that some parts of his writing are stronger than others: well documented history of science seems to come across better than the discussion of thought experiments. And again, some discussion of complex consequences of the historical development and the impact on moral or ethical considerations seem to be left silent altogether.
Still, I'm enjoying the book and the chapters on the development of recombinant insulin and factor VIII (the blood-clotting agent used in the treatment of hemophilia) was riveting, even if large parts of that chapter read like the history of one specific pharmaceutical company.
The book is taking a break from the full-on hard science, and has moved into another double-edged aspect of science - commercial use, starting with a tale kicked off by what I can only describe as the IP Law equivalent of an ambulance chaser:
"STAN COHEN AND Herb Boyer had also gone to Asilomar to debate the future of recombinant DNA. They found the conference irritating—even deflating. Boyer could not bear the infighting and the name-calling; he called the scientists “self-serving” and the meeting a “nightmare.” Cohen refused to sign the Asilomar agreement (although as a grantee of the NIH, he would eventually have to comply with it).
Back in their own laboratories, they returned to an issue that they had neglected amid the commotion. In May 1974, Cohen’s lab had published the “frog prince” experiment—the transfer of a frog gene into a bacterial cell. When asked by a colleague how he had identified the bacteria expressing the frog genes, Cohen had jokingly said that he had kissed the bacteria to check which ones would transform into a prince.
At first, the experiment had been an academic exercise; it had only turned biochemists’ heads. (Joshua Lederberg, the Nobel Prize–winning biologist and Cohen’s colleague at Stanford, was among the few who wrote, presciently, that the experiment “may completely change the pharmaceutical industry’s approach to making biological elements, such as insulin and antibiotics.”) But slowly, the media awoke to the potential impact of the study.
In May, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story on Cohen, focusing on the possibility that gene-modified bacteria might someday be used as biological “factories” for drugs or chemicals. Soon, articles on gene-cloning technologies had appeared in Newsweek and the New York Times. Cohen also received a quick baptism on the seamy side of scientific journalism. Having spent an afternoon talking patiently to a newspaper reporter about recombinant DNA and bacterial gene transfer, he awoke the next morning to the hysterical headline: “Man-made Bugs Ravage the Earth.”
At Stanford University’s patent office, Niels Reimers, a savvy former engineer, read about Cohen and Boyer’s work through these news outlets and was intrigued by its potential. Reimers—less patent officer and more talent scout—was active and aggressive: rather than waiting for inventors to bring him inventions, he scoured the scientific literature on his own for possible leads. Reimers approached Boyer and Cohen, urging them to file a joint patent on their work on gene cloning (Stanford and UCSF, their respective institutions, would also be part of that patent). Both Cohen and Boyer were surprised. During their experiments, they had not even broached the idea that recombinant DNA techniques could be “patentable,” or that the technique could carry future commercial value. In the winter of 1974, still skeptical, but willing to humor Reimers, Cohen and Boyer filed a patent for recombinant DNA technology."
"By the early 1970s, as biologists began to decipher the mechanism by which genes were deployed to generate the astounding complexities of organisms, they also confronted the inevitable question of the intentional manipulation of genes in living beings. In April 1971, the US National Institutes of Health organized a conference to determine whether the introduction of deliberate genetic changes in organisms was conceivable in the near future. Provocatively titled Prospects for Designed Genetic Change, the meeting hoped to update the public on the possibility of gene manipulations in humans, and consider the social and political implications of such technologies.
No such method to manipulate genes (even in simple organisms) was available in 1971, the panelists noted—but its development, they felt confident, was only a matter of time. “This is not science fiction,” one geneticist declared. “Science fiction is when you […] can’t do anything experimentally … it is now conceivable that not within 100 years, not within 25 years, but perhaps within the next five to ten years, certain inborn errors … will be treated or cured by the administration of a certain gene that is lacking—and we have a lot of work to do in order to prepare society for this kind of change.” If such technologies were invented, their implications would be immense: the recipe of human instruction might be rewritten. Genetic mutations are selected over millennia, one scientist observed at the meeting, but cultural mutations can be introduced and selected in just a few years.
The capacity to introduce “designed genetic changes” in humans might bring genetic change to the speed of cultural change. Some human diseases might be eliminated, the histories of individuals and families changed forever; the technology would reshape our notions of heredity, identity, illness, and future. As Gordon Tomkins, the biologist from UCSF, noted: “So for the first time, large numbers of people are beginning to ask themselves: What are we doing?”
And thus repeats the cycle of questions... I just hope we keep on asking this, rather than assume to have an answer.