The Ethics of Genetics: "The Gene" by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Patrick Bidulka

Recommended by none other than Bill Gates, “The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee dissects the history of the gene’s discovery; beginning in approximately 530 BC with Pythagoras’ misguided theory of ‘likeness’ and ending in 2016 with the excitement surrounding CRISPER/Cas9 technology, Mukherjee speculates on the future of gene-editing. Mukherjee presents an extensively researched narration of genetic history which is interwoven with his own personal reflection on the influence that genes have had in his family’s life. Insightful, cerebral, and to my surprise, exciting, Mukherjee has created a fascinating scientific documentary that invites the reader to not only consider the wonder of genetic discoveries, but also the vast sea of ethical questions and dilemmas associated with genetics.

Mukherjee spreads credit to both the popular and the lesser-known contributors to genetics; from Aristotle, Mendel, Darwin, Franklin, Watson, and Crick, to Dobzhansky, Wexler, and the Asilomar Conference, to name a few. What surprised me was the detail in which the author described the lives of the scientists, the intimate understanding of the collaborations, meetings, and competitions that catalyzed major genetic breakthroughs, and the suspenseful chapters that kept me glued to the pages despite already having learned about many of these discoveries in biology classes. All of this, in addition to the clever scientific diction, made “The Gene” standout as a compelling look at one of mankind’s most impressive yet still incomplete discoveries: the language of biological life.

What made this book special was the interweaving of Mukherjee’s personal experience into the text. Hailing from an Indian family with a dotted history of schizophrenia and bipolar disease, and as a cancer researcher/physician himself, Mukherjee guides this thorough investigation into the history of genetic discovery with his own reflections, personalizing the ethical questions revolving around genetics.

What defines an individual? What does it mean to be normal? What is “good” for a species? What guides human perception of “the other”? What should be the limit of genetic tailoring and manipulation? Should treatment always be focused on genetic intervention, or in some cases is the environment more malleable?

These questions serve as points of reflection throughout the text. Mukherjee describes genetic conflicts throughout history with huge global health ramifications, including Nazi Germany’s reprehensible human experimentation, China and India’s preference of male over female children, distribution of major diseases, and patent rights in emerging life-saving technologies. While the evolution of genetic technology may yield advanced treatment options for a variety of significant conditions, Mukherjee uses historical examples to stress the constant need of international collaboration in evaluating new technologies through an ethical lens.

Although “The Gene” may seem daunting to non-scientists, or even non-biologists, Mukherjee writes this book in a largely accessible format that should appeal to a wide audience. Technical at times, the biological concepts are described largely in layman’s terms; however, Mukherjee restricts the number of diagrams interspersed throughout the text, which may hinder non-geneticists in understanding some of the more technical topics. “The Gene” more than makes up for this small critique with relevant cultural references and probing moral questions; Mukherjee forces the reader to consider their own opinion on what “disease” really is, as well as how far genetic technologies should go in helping people whose genotypes (or better yet, phenotypes) do not suit our physical and social environments.


Patrick is a recent graduate from the undergraduate pharmacology program at McGill University. He worked at McGill Global Health Programs for 5 months, where he was initiated into the professional global health arena. Patrick hopes to make significant impacts in the field of global health in the near future.