Book Review – Algorithm of life

June 29, 2018 0 By CH Unnikrishnan

Siddhartha Mukherjee opens the book with an intimate history of familial schizophrenia. He has grown up witnessing how this heritable form of illness haunts his family wreaking havoc upon promising lives.

The science of genomics has unfolded, following the decoding of the human genome–the Book of Life. This new-age discipline takes everyone of us back to the very fundamentals of our biological being. Like atoms to physical matter or bytes to digitalised information, genes provide an organizing principle for modern biology.

In the early decades of 21st century, we are learning to think genes, speak genes. We are trying to describe everything —illness, identity affinity, temperament, preferences and even fate and choice — in terms of genes and genomes.

In fact, we are on the threshold of a realization that the influence of genes on our beings is “richer, deeper and more unnerving than we had imagined.’’

Tracing the birth, growth and future of one of the most powerful ideas in the history of science, the author comes to the understanding that embedded in the story of gene is the quest for eternal youth and perfectability of man.

It remains one of perennial fantasies to learn to alter our fates and choices by interpreting and altering genes. The idea becomes more provocative and destabilising as we acquire the ability to manipulate genes intentionally.

Clearly, this astounding idea can be dangerous — a reminder of the Faustian myth of the abrupt reversal of fortunes.

Schizophrenia, as it turns out, is an illness caused by multiple genes. Naturally, the author, who is a physician and a gene researcher, can’t help wondering if his relatives devastated by the illness could have been ‘normalized’ with the new knowledge of heritable vulnerabilities if they had been born in the future.

The genes that cause schizophrenia can also potentiate hyperfunctional creativity in another, albeit in rare circumstances. Here, the very definition of illness in one becomes the definition of exceptional creativity in another. Suddenly things starts falling into the gray. It becomes difficult to say where “the twilight ends or where the daybreak begins.’’

The double helix of DNA is a molecule of contradictions that encodes an organism of contradictions


An Intimate History
By Siddhartha Mukherjee
pp592 Penguin Books