The Gene: An Intimate History – 10 Key Lessons from the Book

It’s exciting to have complex scientific concepts explained in everyday language, in a way that makes you acknowledge the relevance of the topic and understand how it affects your life. There is a line of great books that do that. In general, they belong to a genre called ‘popular science’ books.

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddartha Mukherjee – a cancer physician and researcher as well as a stem cell biologist and cancer geneticist – goes way beyond that narrow genre definition, though. With the objective of discussing “the birth, growth and the future of one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas” in science (the gene), the author explores historical facts and tells personal anecdotes about the main people involved in the narrated events, and bravely includes information about his own Indian family history – with its many cases of mental illnesses – to illustrate points and, ultimately, to justify his interest in the subject.

Containing a great number of literary and movie references, and using language that becomes poetic and evocative at times, the author does not hesitate to apply clarifying metaphors to help us understand processes and results. The Gene, therefore, must be categorized as a hybrid text, with strands of history, science, biographical data and literature tightly interwoven in a fascinating whole, in which issues of heredity, illness, normalcy, family and identity are discussed.

In this post, we list and summarize 10 key lessons we have learned. Of course, we will be simplifying and reducing much of the fascinating content you will find in the book.

1. Darwin and Mendel: The science of genetics started off in the middle of the 19th century, with the development of Darwin’s theory of the origin and evolution of species (based on the idea of mutations, natural selection and the survival of the fittest) and the first heredity experiments carried out by Gregor Mendel in his pea garden in the backyard of the Augustinian abbey where he lived. Mendel discovered that heredity was handed down through discreet units, which were much later – in 1909 – called genes.

2. Eugenics: In 1869, Francis Galton coins the term “eugenics,” in his book Heredity Genius. Eugenics misused new genetic discoveries, helping create distorted and evil racial hygiene government policies, which enabled the setup of special asylums and the submission of mentally ‘feeble’ women to sterilization by force in the 1920s in the US, and the promotion of Nazi ideas about the purification and preservation of the Aryans as a superior race during the 1930s and 40s, with the extermination of millions of human beings.

3. The gene: If the atom is the basic unit of the matter and provides an organizing principle for physics, genes represent a similar unit in biology and provide similar organizing functions. Genes are parts or stretches of chromosomes – “long, filamentous structures buried within cells.” Human cells contain forty-six chromosomes: 23 inherited from one of parent and 23 from the other. They provide recipes (instructions for processes: basically the making of different kinds of proteins) and regulate all the work done by our cells. They are located in the nucleus of the cell.

4. Chromosomes: Chromosomes are made up of a special molecule called DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), composed of sugar, phosphate and four kinds of bases (guanine, thymine, adenine and cytosine). The DNA structure – discovered by Watson, Crick, Wilkins, and Franklin in 1953 – consists of a double helix format with two strands linked by the bases.

5. RNA (ribonucleic acid): RNA is another molecule, similar to the DNA in structure, but with a single strand. It copies stretches of code from the DNA and serves as a messenger, carrying instructions from the genes located in the nucleus to the cytoplasm – the liquid part of the cell outside the nucleus – where proteins will be assembled according to the RNA code. Proteins compose most of the structures of our tissues, signal the initiation of processes and accelerate chemical reactions in our bodies. They rule.

6. Diseases associated with genes: From 1978 to 1988 a series of disease-linked genes were mapped. There are basically two kinds of gene-related diseases: monogenetic (involving one gene, such as cystic fibrosisand Huntington’s disease) and polygenetic (involving the coordination of a number of genes – most diseases, including cancer and schizophrenia, belong in this category). Besides, the effect genes have on the development of diseases is influenced by the level of penetrance. This means that different gene-related diseases are more likely to express themselves than others. The environment also plays an important role, working as a trigger to some of the diseases.

7. The ‘gay gene’: As of 1993 scientists started wondering if homosexuality could be directly linked to a gene. While there is evidence that there is a strong correlation between sexual orientation and the presence of a gene or a group of genes located in a certain region of the X chromosome, no one knows for sure how the process of formation of sexual identity is carried out. There may be other regulators scattered across other parts of the genome (see definition below); there’s no doubt that powerful environmental inputs or triggers are also at play here.

8. Race: Genetic studies disprove the mythical concept of race. Studies show that there is more variation within a “race” (85% to 90% percent of the level of total diversity of the human genome) than between the so-called “races” (only 7%).

9. The genome: The genome is the collection of all genes (with annotations, footnotes, and references) found in a species. In human beings, it amounts to three billion base-pairs, divided up into 21,000 to 23,000 genes (differentiated parts or stretches of the whole genome). In the year 2000, a draft sequence of The Human Genome Project, an international initiative to map and sequence the entire human genome, was announced.

10. The future: In the past years or so, we have developed new technologies which allow us to manipulate, re-engineer and edit genomes. We are at the stage where scientists are able to alter the human genome permanently, but we still don’t know all the moral, ethical, and physical implications of that. One of the objectives of this book is to bring more people into this interesting discussion. For the first time in history we will be creating a new species of humanoids. It’s, therefore, essential that all kinds of voices in the global community express their concerns, present their cases, and share their perspectives before we go down this road, as the process may be irreversible.

Siddartha Mukherjee’s previous book – The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer – won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and the Guardian First Book Award.

Jorge Sette.

Tent of Miracles, by Jorge Amado: Racism and Parochialism Against the Backdrop of a Mythic Bahia

Jorge Amado (1912-2001), one of the most popular and internationally known Brazilian authors, started his career writing realistic books that carried a biting criticism of the economic elites and their exploitation of the working classes and the poor. This Marxist phase characterized the first of his works. After the publication of Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon in 1958, however, his novels became more populist and satirical, with a stronger focus on the sensuality and picturesque aspects of the afro-Brazilian culture of the author’s native state of Bahia, located in the northeast of the country. The author was harshly criticized by many for having changed his tone.

With Tent of Miracles, first published in 1969, one could say that Amado managed to strike a fine balance, providing a serious examination of Brazilian socio-economic issues and highlighting the hedonism and colorfulness of the Bahian culture, with its stunningly beautiful mulatto women, the freewheeling sensuality of its people, their lively songs, and dances and the prevalence of African-originated religions and cults.

The Themes

Tent of Miracles is a strong satire on the parochialism of the Brazilian intelligentsia – which needs validation from developed countries, especially from the US, before appreciating local talents in all areas of art and knowledge. The novel is also an inspired ode against racism, praising the power and beauty of miscegenation. In that respect, we can say that the themes of the book are more relevant than ever in today’s global context of generalized xenophobia, racism, and prejudice against diversity.

The Plot

The story kicks off when a Nobel Prize-winning North-American scholar, D.J. Levinson, comes across some forgotten books in the library of Columbia University and decides that their author is one of the best anthropologists he’s ever read. The racial considerations and the detailed description of the customs and “folkways” of the racially-mixed people of Bahia found in those four dusty volumes deserve to be known and discussed by the global academic community. The author, a black Brazilian called Pedro Archanjo, lived in Bahia for 75 years (1868 -1943), doing menial work in the streets of the city of Salvador (called Bahia at the time), destitute and unrecognized by his upper-class contemporaries. Levinson then comes to Brazil to experience first hand the theories put forward in the books and to promote their author.

Of course, the announcement of the arrival of the US luminary makes headlines in the biggest newspapers of Brazil. This arouses the interest and greed of the local authorities, intellectuals, and politicians, who wish to advance their own personal agendas, tapping into the newly-elevated status of Pedro Archanjo to scientific prodigy. It’s decided that the centenary of Pedro Archanjo’s birth – about to take place at the end of the year – deserves a fitting and official celebration in the city after all.

At this point, the lesser writer and poet Fausto Pena is hired by Professor Levinson to do research into the life and times of Pedro Archanjo, spanning more than 70 decades. In reality, Levinson’s main objective is to get Pena out of they way so that he can enjoy the pleasant company of the poet’s girlfriend, the journalist Ana Mercedes, an unashamedly social climbing mulatto beauty.

As a result, it is through Fausto Pena’s eyes that we get to know the story of Pedro Archanjo, despite all the gaps, incongruences and half-truths he gathers in his notes. We learn about Archanjo’s popularity among women, the innumerable children he fathered out of wedlock, his work as a runner for the School of Medicine and, finally, his rising awareness of the social conditions of the underprivileged people of Bahia, subject to all kinds of oppression, violence, and prejudice. Archanjo then decides to self-educate, write about race relations, and become a political militant.

Despite its important and political undertones, the story, of course, unfurls against the backdrop of a poetic and colorful Bahia, with humorous anecdotes and detailed descriptions of the rituals of the local afro-influenced religions, the local foods and spices, the dance and music. Jorge Amado kept many original African words in these passages – wisely kept in the translation into English – presenting a complete glossary in the back of the book.

The Characters

The characters of Tent of Miracles are not entirely realistic, but ironic representations of specific types that populate the Brazilian collective imagination. We can split them into the powerful (corrupt politicians, controlling newspaper editors, arrogant college professors) and the disenfranchised (the malandros, bon vivants, ruffians, drunks, gorgeous mulatto women, old wise men, and gold-hearted prostitutes). 

Most of them, however, come across as a bit underwritten; they are not fully rounded characters. Pedro Archanjo, of course, personifies all the contradictions of a typical popular hero, as all his facets are praised in the Carnival celebration held in his honor at the end of the book: minor candomblé priest, vagabond, striker, runner of the School of Medicine (where he started his more formal education), heavy drinker, womanizer, teacher, sorcerer and writer! 

The Style

Although the book has strong elements of magical realism, especially in the scenes that take place in the candomblé terreiros, the space where the afro-religions and cults have their rituals (devotees embarking in trances; divinities taking possession of their bodies; supernatural events occurring; myth and reality getting intertwined), most of the plot develops in a fairly realistic and straightforward way.

The Relevance of Tent of Miracles Today

Jorge Amado

Written during the first years of the Brazilian military dictatorship, the passages depicting the brutal repression by the police of the Afro-Catholic cults, the bloody raids against the terreiros, and the beating or killing of their members – which happened especially during the 1920s and 30s – can be interpreted as a fitful metaphor of the times.

The novel, however, does not feel dated at all, as its themes are still universal and very concrete. The irony made explicit in the story is that miscegenation deeply permeates the whole of Brazilian society, and, thus, the bigotry and racism of people whose mixed-race blood is either carefully hidden in the family past or even naively ignored are laughable and hypocritical. It’s time for Brazil – and other countries in the world – to bury the myth of white supremacy and come to terms with the fact that we’ll carry on living in an irreversibly multicultural, mixed and diverse society.

Jorge Sette