Why Social Science Grad Students Should Read ‘The Gene’

As well as recovering grad students.

May 30, 2016

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Published in May of 2016.

Social scientists in training (i.e. grad students) would not normally be assigned a book like Mukherjee’s The Gene. Not written by a social scientist. Written for a general audience. Not grounded in social sciences theoretical frameworks and methodologies.  etc. etc.

This is a shame - as reading The Gene provides the clearest insights possible to questions of nature vs. nurture that lie at the heart of so much of social science inquiry.

If the budding social scientist hopes to untangle causes of social behavior, then it is probably wise to have a grounding in the science of genetics.

How many PhD level social scientists, however, really understand genes? How many of us know the history of inheritance from Mendel to Watson/Crick down to the human genome project?

Understanding what genes are, what they do, and why this matters feels an essential component of a fully stocked cognitive toolkit. If my grad school experience is at all representative, then this is a domain of knowledge left out of the standard social science postgraduate curriculum.

The Gene is Mukherjee’s companion piece to his wonderful 2010 The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. In his first book Mukherjee, an oncologist, traced the biology and social history of cancer. In The Gene, Dr. Mukherjee takes the story of cancer to its origins - revealing the mechanisms that underlie unregulated cell growth (and all other biological processes).

Combining both a full description of the science behind genes (DNA, RNA, proteins, chromosomes, etc.), with a complete history of how this science has been discovered and misused (from Galton’s eugenics to Nazi genetics), can make for a daunting read. The Gene is 607 pages - and each sentence feels important to the story.

Mukherjee makes the sheer amount of science and history that covers digestible by making the story both personal (he relates the narrative of his uncle’s mental illnesses) and thematic (alternative between historical discoveries and scientific explanations).  

The result is deeply satisfying, as the investment in time and energy necessary to tackle The Gene results in a broad understanding and appreciation of the past, present and future of the science, possibilities, and politics of genetics.

How will grad students in social science programs find the motivation and time to read The Gene?

What are you reading?



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