Body Of Mountains
I’m very conscious that I know little about the body that I have inhabited for almost five decades. I find it bewildering and frustrating that I can’t will my body to do what I want in spite of my best efforts. So I often seek out information that will help me get better acquainted with it. Honestly, the more I read about the body, the more I realized how much more I don’t know. The first–Seven and Half Lessons About the Brain–of the three recent books I read on the topic gave a somewhat comforting reason why this is the case.
It turns out that the brain, whose job I thought it was to think, isn’t actually designed for it. The brain’s “most important job is not thinking. It’s running a little worm body that has become very, very complicated.”(Feldman Barrett, Lisa. Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain (pp. 10)). First reaction was how was I processing what I was reading if not with my brain? The author answered: “Of course, your brain does think and feel and imagine and create hundreds of other experiences, such as letting you read and understand this book. But all of these mental capacities are consequences of a central mission to keep you alive and well by managing your body budget.(Feldman Barrett, Lisa. Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain (pp. 10-11)). A flash of realization came over me, no wonder my brain doesn’t always stop me from doing stupid shit. And explains why it takes me a long time to learn. More often than I would like to admit, I don’t learn! It is because my brain is too busy making sure I breathe, sleep, eat etc…so I can “perform nature’s most vital task: passing my genes to the next generation.” I wondered, what if you don’t want to or can’t pass your genes? What happens to the genes that don’t get passed on? Hence the next book in this reading trilogy, The Gene.
The foremost impression I had as I read this book was that such a book could only have been written by someone who is highly knowledgeable (Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee is both a medical doctor and research scientist ) and passionate about the topic. And that it exemplifies why it is vital that such people can share their knowledge in an accessible and engaging manner. By the time I finished reading the book, I too was full of enthusiasm for genes. The manner in which Dr. Mukherjee told almost two hundred years worth of the history of the quest to understand the genetic code was captivating. I felt I was there right in the labs or fields with scientists researching and experimenting. I experienced their failures, frustrations, rejections, successes and even their obsessions. I read a big chunk of this book whilst visiting the Atlantic coast of Portugal with some of the most breathtaking views I’ve seen. Instead of finding a spot on the beach to take refuge from the scorching sun, and soak in the views and splash in the sea like everyone else was doing, all I wanted to do was read the book. But the sheer volume of information was overwhelming. I needed to find a way to be able to process it. Normally, I would listen to the audio book while I clean the house as it helps me concentrate better on challenging titles, but since I was traveling walking was the best next thing. Every single day I was there I walked and walked, I just couldn’t stop listening to it. I needed to know how Gregor Johann Mendel figured out how a single organism transmits its genetic information to its offspring, and why it took the scientific world decades to realize and appreciate the importance of Mendel’s discovery. There was no way the sweltering afternoon sun was going to stop me accompanying Nancy Wexler and her team as they journeyed to the villages of Barranquitas and Lagunetas in Venezuela to gather the data that would help identify the gene responsible for Huntington disease. It was a 14 years long, painstaking journey that not only singled out the Huntington gene but also helped propel positional cloning as a technique for locating the position of a disease-associated gene on a chromosome. Not all the journeys and experiments I tagged along on were as successful and transformative. For example, scientists who have endeavored to find the “gay” gene(s) have failed. They have yet to identify genes that make a person homosexual.
The Book Of Man
“There are mountains beyond mountains.” (Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Gene: An Intimate History (p. 322)).
When I heard that Haitian proverb read out. I immediately stopped walking and paused the audio book because it completely captured how I was feeling. Even though I was mostly walking on flat ground, every time I walked and listened I felt like I was walking up a steep mountain of knowledge. When I thought I was done climbing one mountain then, I saw many more ahead of me. The chapter where the proverb is from is number 28. I thought surely this must be the last one, but no, there were 8 more ahead of me to get through. So I continued.
“Although we fully understand the genetic code—i.e., how the information in a single gene is used to build a protein—we comprehend virtually nothing of the genomic code—i.e., how multiple genes spread across the human genome coordinate gene expression in space and time to build, maintain, and repair a human organism… We do not know why certain genes are located in particular geographic locations in the genome, and how the tracts of DNA that lie between genes regulate and coordinate gene physiology. There are codes beyond codes, like mountains beyond mountains. (Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Gene: An Intimate History (p. 325)).”
It was comforting to know that after hundreds of years of studying the gene there is still a lot learned and brilliant scientists and doctors don’t know about the human body. So I’m in good company, hehehe! One thing I know for sure is that we humans will continue to climb up the body of mountains that is the human genome even if “its stewardship may be the ultimate test of knowledge and discernment for our species (Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Gene: An Intimate History (p. 504)).”
After I finished the book, I was going to catch my breath and enjoy the view of the sea for a while, then I heard Dr. Gabor Mate on Glenn Greenwald’s System Update talking about his latest book, the Myth of Normal. And off I go again, climbing. To be continued…