Truly, we live in an age of exploration at extreme scale. Even as the James Webb telescope shows us the furthest reaches of our discernible, expanding universe, we burrow deeper and deeper into the microscale to understand the dynamics of life. And even as we develop the tools to see into the most basic building blocks of life, we find that there is so much more to see, to grasp, to understand.
It takes the most skillful of writers to balance the art of seeing “the world in a grain of sand” while remaining grounded in the empirical structures of scientific evidence-making. With his third book in a planned quartet, Siddhartha Mukherjee once again demonstrates that he is such a writer – a storyteller with the mind of a scientist and the heart of a philosopher, someone who is able to both zoom in at his tabletop microscope and zoom out to contemplate the existential, the sociological and the cultural questions that science and technology throw up.
In his The Emperor of All Maladies, cancer became the central character in an exploration of disease as not only a medical but a human experience. In The Gene, Mukherjee’s curiosity took him on an emotional yet clinical journey through the genetic basis of disease and the dynamics of biological heredity and its expression. His new book, while pulling back from the subcellular plot of DNA, throws us into the complex workings of the most fundamental of living units.
The Song of the Cell is Mukherjee’s expansive history of cell biology, reaching back into 17th- and 18th-century European science, traversing the tumultuous debates of the 19th and the early 20th centuries that gave us Louis Pasteur and later Alexander Fleming, and bringing us all the way up to the current decade, when cellular therapy is slowly entering the mainstream.
The subtitle of the book – “an exploration of medicine and the new human” – hints at the framework of what is an emerging argument for which he carefully, yet playfully, amasses evidence: that the introduction of new cellular material into the human body, for therapeutic or preventing purposes, is a radical stage in thinking about how life works. Whether it is by vaccination or transplantation, by stem-cell therapy or skin-grafting, what we are doing is intervening at the cellular level, taking advantage of the cell’s “laboratory of reactions that enables life”.
This is, however, no simple or linear history. Mukherjee crisscrosses across time and geography, moving from a conference in Pennsylvania where he encounters Emily Whitehead, an early recipient of cellular therapy (who “embodied our desire to get to the luminous heart of the cell, to understand its endlessly captivating mysteries”) to Prussia in 1821, where we are introduced to Rudolf Virchow, who created one of the first modern maps of the human body.
We are taken farther back to the 1600s and Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s ingenious microscope and then jump back (or ahead?) into the 1960s, to evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis’s description of mitosing cells.
Disavowing a straightforward timeline – which in any case can’t happen in any complex branch of science – Mukherjee instead organises this history in six thematic parts, each of which probes a different aspect of cellular biology.
At times dizzying in its scope and detail, the science of The Song of the Cell is tempered by Mukherjee’s personal narrative – a hallmark of his style. He introduces us to his own patients who have benefitted from cell therapy and from knowledge gained through cell biology; he traces the source and substance of his preoccupations thus:
“I sit by the microscope in the darkened room, a notepad by my side, and whisper to myself as I go through the slides. It’s an old habit; a passerby might well consider me unhinged. Each time I examine a slide, I mumble out the method that my hematology professor in medical school, a tall man with a perpetually leaking pen in his pocket, taught me: ‘Divide the main cellular components of blood. Red cell. White cell. Platelet. … Move methodically. Number, color, morphology, shape, size.’”
It is these interjections of the personal into the professional (can they ever really be separate?) that turn The Song of the Cell into literature, into work that gives us not only fact but also the rich context of scientific inquiry, something that serves to foreground certain routes of investigation and close off others. While the reader may find a bit too much literary flair in some sections, I would put it down to Mukherjee’s immersion in his subject, an enthusiasm that is expressed by an occasional surfeit of words. And one can certainly forgive him that.
The Song of the Cell is deep on context and thick with scientific explanation, ever sacrificing nuance for simplicity, even as it does not purport to be a critical history. Cellular therapies present ethical dilemmas just as complex and contestable as those raised by genetic manipulation or artificial intelligence, and Mukherjee leaves us confronting those questions by invoking, finally, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go.
Mukherjee gives us, without overt judgement, the case of Chinese scientist “JK” who announced that he had, through a dubious process of consent, successfully genetically manipulated two human embryos, as he discusses the “tampered cell” within the framework of “transgressions of trust”.
“… as the combined forces of genetics and cell engineering extend their reach to touch new depths of the human body and personhood, the ‘moral landscape’ has changed radically…”
With The Song of the Cell, Mukherjee forces us to think through, in an informed way, how we, the “new humans”, might wish to navigate this new moral landscape.
Usha Raman is a writer and academic based in Hyderabad.
Featured image: Siddhartha Mukherjee at the University of Texas at Austin, April 2017. Photo: Moody College of Communication, CC BY-SA 2.0
This article was first published on The Wire Science.