Tuesday 18 April 2017

Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour #WBP2017

I was honoured to be asked to be a host on the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 blog tour, and today it is my turn. I have known of the Wellcome Trust for many years. The first time I heard of them when I was told about my great-uncle making models for them, prior to the Second World War. The next time they came on the radar was when a stipend from them paid for my wife to do her PhD at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Their support for people to develop and explore ideas in the sciences has brought great benefits all around the world.

I do love a good short prize list, in particular, one with non-fiction titles in it and that is why I have followed the Wellcome Book Prize for a while now, normally reading one or two titles from it as and when it suits. This year because of the reading and reviewing I have been doing for Nudge, I have managed to read the entire non-fiction longlist for their website and I have now read the two shortlisted fiction titles. All this prior to the winner being announced.

Dropping some of the longlist titles to choose the six on the shortlist must have been hard as all the titles were worth reading, but the panel has decided on the list below:

The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee (USA), The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House

How to Survive a Plague by David France (USA) Picador, Pan Macmillan

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (USA), The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal (France) and translated by Jessica Moore, MacLehose Press

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (UK), Granta Books

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong (UK), The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House

Today I am going to be talking about The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I read this shortly after it was nominated for the Royal Society Prize and had been fortunate to get a review copy from my excellent local bookshop, Gulliver’s. But first an extract with many thanks to (The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee (USA), The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House)

Extract from ‘Prologue: Families’

As I write this, organisms endowed with genomes are learning to change the heritable features of organisms endowed with genomes. I mean the following: in just the last four years—between 2012 and 2016—we have invented technologies that allow us to change human genomes intentionally and permanently (although the safety and fidelity of these “genomic engineering” technologies still need to be carefully evaluated). At the same time, the capacity to predict the future fate of an individual from his or her genome has advanced dramatically (although the true predictive capacities of these technologies still remain unknown). We can now “read” human genomes, and we can “write” human genomes in a manner inconceivable just three or four years ago.

It hardly requires an advanced degree in molecular biology, philosophy, or history to note that the convergence of these two events is like a headlong sprint into an abyss. Once we can understand the nature of fate encoded by individual genomes (even if we can predict this in likelihoods rather than in certainties) and once we acquire the technology to intentionally change these likelihoods (even if these technologies are inefficient and cumbersome) our future is fundamentally changed. George Orwell once wrote that whenever a critic uses the word human, he usually renders it meaningless. I doubt that I am overstating the case here: our capacity to understand and manipulate human genomes alters our conception of what it means to be “human.”

The atom provides an organizing principle for modern physics—and it tantalizes us with the prospect of controlling matter and energy. The gene provides an organizing principle for modern biology—and it tantalizes us with the prospect of controlling our bodies and fates. Embedded in the history of the gene is “the quest for eternal youth, the Faustian myth of abrupt reversal of fortune, and our own century’s flirtation with the perfectibility of man.” Embedded, equally, is the desire to decipher our manual of instructions. That is what is at the center of this story.

As you can read from this snippet, it is a significant book. Mukherjee is right to point out that our mastery over the gene is as significant as it was for the atom last century, but, and this is a fairly large but, mastery does not equal control.

My original review for the book written back in August last year I think is still valid:

Genes are not only the key to life, but they hold the details of our history and our future too. In this book, Mukherjee takes us on a journey to uncover the origins of this master code and the story of discovering and deciphering it. It is a story that spans world history, but begins with a monk in an Augustinian monastery who discovers a unit of heredity in his study of peas. Mendel may not have been one of the first to be fascinated but the ideas of heredity, and he certainly wasn’t going to be the last. Darwin was one of the next with his discovery of evolution and the way that certain traits established themselves in the populations of finches on each of the Galapagos Islands.

As science advanced during the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, cells started to give up their secrets to the scientists that were studying them. Each discovery added to the knowledge of how each of us carries traits and characteristics from our parents. This dream of making the perfect human from good parents became the spectre that is eugenics, culminating in the horrors with the Nazi obsession with creating the perfect Aryan race and eliminating those that were deemed to be sub-human. Post world war two we knew more about the way that RNA and DNA worked, but no one could work out just how it did it. The brilliant X-ray images of DNA that Rosalind Franklin took gave Francis Crick and James Watson the insight to work out the construction of the beautiful double helix that is DNA. He describes the quest to map the entire human genome, a feat achieved by scientists working across the globe, who just beat a private company who had designs on patenting it.

He is eminently qualified to write this, as he is the assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University. He brings us up to date with the latest research and discoveries in genetic research as well as posing the questions that we need to ask and answer as we learn how to change and write to the human genome. To cover all that we have found out about the gene, the book needs to be broad in scope. It is fairly detailed and occasionally baffling and incomprehensible to a non-scientist like myself, but thankfully not very often. Woven through the book too is the story of Mukherjee’s family and their reoccurring history of mental illness as it moved through the generations; it adds a nice personal touch to the book, showing just how our genes can affect us all. If you want a good overview of the history of the gene, you can’t go wrong starting here.

It is a book that has a lot to add to the discussion and wider public knowledge of science as a whole and health in particular. Mukherjee’s book highlights the enormous benefits that the science of genetics has brought humanity so far, as well as the enormous potential that this research has.

With all the books on the shortlist you will enrich your soul and your mind by reading them. Take a chance, pick one and give it a go; you’ll probably learn something too

There are a number of events taking place prior to the winning book being announced next Monday; details can be found here:


  1. Love your personal link to the Wellcome Trust.

    I found that The Gene wasn't a book for me. Maybe I've read/watched too much already about the subject. However, I believe The Gene would make a wonderful primer for anyone considering Biomedical Science as a degree/career.

  2. Thank you Annabel. It was not my favouite of the shortlist, though it is a good book.