Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Gene, Genetics, Mental Illness, and Me

I read the book The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a 495-page book about the history of genetics in detail, alongside personal experiences and comments from the author about genetics. I initially read this book when it came out in mid-2016. I started reading this book because the subject of genetics greatly interests me, and by the time I had finished the book, I had become even more interested in the subject of genetics, specifically how they work and their history.

This book is an excellent book. It is incredibly educational on the subject of genes and their history. I was especially interested by this book's discussion of mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, and their genetic factors. After I first picked the book up, I must have not put it down for about three hours. This book probably took me roughly eight hours to read in total. It does such a great job of making what would seem to be a somewhat mundane history actually interesting. Sometimes, it made me wish Mr. Mukherjee was my biology teacher in freshman year.

Some of the personal history in The Gene is directly relevant to me, especially the anecdotes about the author's family and mental illness. Several of Mukherjee's cousins and uncles had been diagnosed with schizophrenia - not unlike my own family. "Of my father's four brothers, two—not Moni's father, but two of Moni's uncles—suffered from various unravelings of the mind. Madness, it turns out, has been among the Mukherjees for at least two generations." (Mukherjee, 2). This affected me, because it directly relates to my family's history - there have been certain mental illnesses that I'm not comfortable speaking of traveling through the generations, and it just made me very aware of how when I have kids, my family's mentally ill genes may pass on to them. It had a kind of somber effect to me personally. When I first learned of my family's questionable genetic health, thought that maybe in the future, these genes could be altered to remove said maladies. However, in the epilogue, I read a passage that made me reconsider a little bit: "Illness might progressively vanish, but so might identity. Grief might be diminished, but so might tenderness. Traumas might be erased but so might history." (Mukherjee, 492). It made me think a little bit. My family's genetic illness is a part of its history, a part of who we are. It creates an odd situation. It causes suffering, but it's who we are as people.

In an article written by STAT News, this danger of the consequences of editing our own genes is highlighted. It states that while it can cure illness, it may cause us to lose our identity as different people, or cause different weaknesses altogether, in what I like to call "If you fix it, they'll find a new way to break it" - something this book was concerned with. In conclusion, this book educated me on the history of genes, the dangers of changing them, how far we have come, and almost changed me a little bit as a person.


Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Gene: an Intimate History. The Bodley Head, 2016.

Skerret, Patrick. “Experts Debate: Are We Playing with Fire When We Edit Human Genes?” STAT News, STAT News, 17 Nov. 2015,