The Gene: a great book, but regrettably not a biopic about Gene Hackman (yet…)

Intellectually, I’m a dog. I treat new ideas like chew toys, i.e. I’m really into them for a while – gnawing, clawing, and tearing at them until they’re worn out and old – and then I move onto the next chew toy, invariably forgetting about the last one. Each new toy is the only toy I’ve ever had, the only toy I’ll ever have. Which makes me a weirdly present creature when I learn (deliberately), but this otherwise redeeming quality makes me an unrelenting sieve. Knowledge pours through me; my hope is that what I carry forward (epigenetically?) are marks of understanding.

The Gene was a wonderful new chew toy. In it, Siddhartha Mukherjee traces the lineage of genetics, focusing mostly on the history of the science, but also breaking down the science itself for the lay reader. I had to teach genetics, so most of my reading enjoyment probably came from a persistent pat on the back I was giving myself for actually having understood what I taught. If that sounds strange, remember that I’m a trained English teacher who was eventually privileged with the opportunity to run a course that integrated English with History and Science. So yeah, I know my genetics. Sort of. Fortunately, if I claim ignorance, I’m right in line with the field itself; what we don’t know, like dark matter (and our understanding of that too), far exceeds what we do know, to the point that we can barely claim to know anything. Human hubris (as opposed to the other manifestations of hubris) won’t allow us to admit that though. Okay, so practical reality also undermines postmodern quibbles with epistemological limits; regardless of how much we don’t know, we get a lot done with what we do know. I was just trying to rope our species into my ignorance. Pretending we’re more ignorant than we are is probably the worst absolution of agency. If I said, “but what can we ever really know?,” I’m putting up the most untenable and obnoxious form of self-defense. Just because there are always limits to our knowledge doesn’t mean we shouldn’t (it especially doesn’t mean we can’t) push ourselves to those limits and beyond. See: Rick Ross.

That paragraph was a discursive pile of shit. Focus.

Sorry. Must be a genetic thing, right? Can I blame everything on my selfish genes, who are just using me to perpetuate their own existence?

Yeah, that’s the way to approach your authority over your own life. Abdicate it to something external that’s actually as internal as you can get. I’m not sure Richard Dawkins intended that type of petty surrender to the recipes that help create us.

Yeah, well, he’s a petty atheist now, so whatever meaningful research he did in the 1970s is…

Still valid until scientifically disproven. Religion – and other memes – that’s not our business right now.

What is?

How about this delight:

The peculiar charm of this idea— called preformation— was that it was infinitely recursive. Since the homunculus had to mature and produce its own children, it had to have preformed mini-homunculi lodged inside it— tiny humans encased inside humans, like an infinite series of Russian dolls, a great chain of beings that stretched all the way backward from the present to the first man, to Adam, and forward into the future. For medieval Christians, the existence of such a chain of humans provided a most powerful and original understanding of original sin. Since all future humans were encased within all humans, each of us had to have been physically present inside Adam’s body—“ floating . . . in our First Parent’s loins,” as one theologian described— during his crucial moment of sin. Sinfulness, therefore, was embedded within us thousands of years before we were born— from Adam’s loins directly to his line. All of us bore its taint— not because our distant ancestor had been tempted in that distant garden, but because each of us, lodged in Adam’s body, had actually tasted the fruit.

Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Gene: An Intimate History (p. 25). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

That’s the kind of shit a 5th grader would say, which goes to show you how far we’ve come intellectually as a species.

I’m not sure many of us have let go of such ideas. In fact, centuries from now, evolution might prove to be equally as ludicrous.

If a child came already preformed, then its formation was merely an act of expansion— a biological version of a blowup doll. No key or cipher was required for the deciphering. The genesis of a human being was just a matter of adding water…

By the end of the seventeenth century, preformation was considered the most logical and consistent explanation for human and animal heredity. Men came from small men, as large trees came from small cuttings. “In nature there is no generation,” the Dutch scientist Jan Swammerdam wrote in 1669, “but only propagation.”

Not that long ago, man. And it was just restating Pythagoras’ male-centric spermism idea: all the information needed to make a human was housed in sperm.

Call it my genes, but I’m too tired to continue this post.

I feel you. Readers, if you want to learn about how we came to our current theories in genetics – quite the history that includes stuff like preformation – or how eugenics reared its ugly head in American and then Nazi Germany; or how scientists self-imposed a moratorium on research of stem cells (before eventually facing public and political scrutiny later on after an ill-advised attempt at gene therapy ended in a patient’s violent death); or how science and business collided in the race to discover the human genome; or how we’re all mutants (and thank God, so to speak); or how Mukherjee himself wrote this because he’s terrified by his own genetic inheritance (namely, schizophrenia)…if anything in here sounds compelling, treat yoself and come to know thyself more deeply.


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