August 1, 2016
Editing the genome
by Ryan Harrington
“So wildly wrong that it defies rational analysis,” ranks among the toughest reviews an author can receive—particularly if it comes from a Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist in response to your writing on the gene. But that is what scientist Walter Gilbert had to say about Pulitzer Prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee’s recent New Yorker article that was drawn from material in his bestselling 2016 book The Gene.
The article takes as its subject the increasingly visible field of epigenetics, which, among other controversial questions, struggles with the possibility that environmental factors (not just DNA) can make a mark on the genome, resulting in changes to future generations.
A number of scientists have derided the piece as inaccurate and overly simplistic. As Jennifer Maloney reports for the Wall Street Journal:
The New Yorker later published a letter to the editor criticizing the piece and a response to the letter in which Dr. Mukherjee acknowledged that the article didn’t include important ideas that were explained in his book. In an interview this week, the author said he has made changes to the book “to remove the last iota of confusion.”
“The original book did not need corrections,” he said. “These were clarifications to reemphasize things that were already in the original book.” Dr. Mukherjee said he would share the changes with the New Yorker so the magazine could decide whether to publish a clarification.
Indeed, a few things could be said in Mukherjee’s defense: the field of epigenetics has a hard enough time defining itself; the science of heredity advances every day; and the New Yorker article and book are targeted toward a popular readership—not the scientific elite. And Mukherjee—whose 2011 book The Emperor of All Maladies was a bestseller, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, and recipient of the Ken Burns treatment—knows a little something about writing on difficult and controversial science for the masses.
The fifth and latest printing of The Gene (which was published in May and has about 150,000 print and electronic copies out in the marketplace) will have a few clarifications and updates to the science, as well as some standard fixes like typos and and missing photo credits.
Books are very hard to make, people.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.