Thursday, 14 July 2016

MUkherjee's gene, Variations and the Present Generation: My Thoughts

Rajarshi Mitra

This morning, while listening to Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History (2016) on BBC Radio 4, I couldn’t but get nostalgic about my research days in Hyderabad. Medical Humanities – an interdisciplinary method of learning about medicine and disseminating medical knowledge – had started attracting us Humanities researchers in Central University of Hyderabad. In 2009, when I went there first, academia was celebrating the 200th birth anniversary of Charles Darwin, one of my favourite natural historians.  There were lectures on Darwin and his method of analyzing natural pheonomena. We watched a movie Creation (2009), where Darwin, while obsessed with his thesis, was crumbling inside as Scarlet Fever destroyed his eldest daughter Annie.

Mukherjee’s book on gene begins with a chronicle of hereditary mental illness in his family in Kolkata. The family had explained recurring symptoms of manic depression among individual members as pathological fear triggered by partition experience. Those who have studied and researched partition in Bengal would know what this meant. Partition had released an inner violence, wounds of which we Bengalis carry even today. I never experienced partition, neither was my family ever affected by it, but for those belonging to families torn by partition, memories of loss and melancholia occur chronically.

When Mukherjee’s paternal cousin Moni, who is not a partition child, is diagnosed with schizophrenia and admitted to a mental facility, heredity comes under scanner. Mental illnesses can be linked to our genetic make-up. With advances in medical science, very soon we’ll be able to read our genetic map. What might happen to us then as human beings? How would we define ourselves?

Mukherjee asks what we might now consider post-human questions. It’s dizzying to think how many among us are asking post human questions now. Probably, it was Darwin, trying to amalgamate Malthus and the biological world, who had inaugurated this post human era. More I read Darwin (and today as I am listening to Mukherjee’s commentary on Darwin), I feel, he had dealt a deserving blow to “being human”. Naturally selected, variations massacred, humans had risen to spawn more variations. Humans are not unique creations of God, but like all other biological creations they’ve arrived organically to the present shape. No biological form is stable. Evolution proves that we are born shapeshifters.

All these madness' Mukherjee talks about could as well be variations! Horror and Sci-fi movies have speculated the rise of newer forms of human beings – cyborgs, zombies, super-humans and the list goes on. What about the Indigo phenomenon in the U.S.? American parents often announce their children are differently abled Indigos, who are hypersensitive and hyper-talented.  The society, their parents argue, do not realize the importance of their superior-minded children. Are the new variations in human beings about to appear?

As the present generation in India gradually becomes cyborgs (man-machine complexes), it remains to be seen what new variation they will spawn. Beyond Darwinism, I believe, the new generation, especially the one I teach in IIIT Guwahati, might help us understand how we are coping with knowledge networks. They have not inherited this knowledge network, yet they immerse in this and create newer forms of social bonding. I would be eager to know how the genetic map of this generation might look like. What new diseases would the new generation have to deal with? And, more importantly, how might we help them combat these diseases?