Book Note: In Pursuit of the Gene by James Schwartz

This fascinating science history is subtitled “From Darwin to DNA” and, although the main action ends in the 1930s with only a 14 page epilogue moving from Oswald Avery to the Hap Map, the book does cover a lot of historical territory – and a lot of intriguing personalities.  The book follows the concept of the gene from Darwin’s notion of “pangenesis” through Hermann Muller’s prescient speculations about the physical nature of the gene.  It focuses largely on particular scientists and their work, hitting Francis Galton, W.F.R. Weldon, William Bateson, Hugo de Vries, Gregor Mendel, and Walter Sutton, among others, before reaching Morgan and his fly group, and particularly Hermann Muller.

It is not new to suggest that scientists have personalities, quirks, and feuds, but Schwartz provides at least two nice examples of battles within science, following at length the conflicts between Weldon and Bateson in the early 20th century and the travails of Muller with Morgan and his disciples. Schwartz, for good reason, is so fascinated by Muller that I wonder if there might be a Muller biography in his future, to supplement Elof Carlson’s 1981 book.  (What’s not to be fascinated about with Communist/eugenicist scientist from New York City who worked in both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR before working on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War?)  He clearly focuses much more attention on Muller than on Morgan, Sturdevant, Bridges, and the other members of the original Fly Room and its successors (perhaps as a complement to the way Kohler’s history of the fly room arguably under-discussed Muller).

One of the strongest points of the book, to me, was that Schwartz was willing to go into some detail about the experiments that led scientists to their conclusions.  The discussion of the fly crosses, for example, were clear enough that I really felt I understood what had been done and grasped the excitement caused by the results.

I’ve done a fair amount of unmethodical and unfocused (but interested) reading about the history of genetics and molecular biology.  I have greatly enjoyed some of the biographies, such as Evelyn Keller’s biography of Barbara McClintock or Paul Berg’s study of George Beadle.  And Jim Watson’s The Double Helix is, of course, in a category by itself (although into exactly what category this wonderful book fits remains unclear).  Of the broader histories, Schwartz’s seems to me to belong with Judson’s Eighth Day of Creation and Kohler’s The Lords of the Fly – even though it lacks a clever title.   I recommend it.

– Hank Greely