Understanding the Genome, a volume in Scientific
American's "Science Made Accessible" series, is meant to shed
light on the Human Genome Project and related research in genetics. What it
illuminates, instead, are the shortcomings of popular scientific journalism. Understanding the Genome has an unfortunate
tendency to emphasize the viewpoints of the scientists and business
entrepreneurs involved in the Human Genome Project as a commercial venture, and
to forgo substance for speculation. In paying scant attention to the ethical,
legal and social implications of the HGP, as well as the (so far) limited
scientific usefulness of the enterprise, the book offers a very one-sided
perspective, one that often seems more like cheerleading than explication.
Granted, the purpose of the
series is to simplify complex scientific ideas for the general reader, not to
provide either scientific or philosophical arguments for professionals. But Understanding the Genome takes an
unquestioningly reductivist view of genetics, touting the HGP as the holy grail
of modern bioscience, one that promises to unlock all the secrets of the Book
of Life. Editor George Olshevsky gives in to the hype when he states that
"We will become able to cure, or at least to work around, devastating
hereditary disorders. And we could in time create nearly perfect 'designer'
babies, thereby ultimately fine-tuning our own evolution. The significance of
the Human Genome Project to the human species is impossible to overstate."
But as such statements demonstrate, it is quite possible to overstate the
significance of the HGP. "The door into a 'brave new world' of biology and
medicine is now open -- it will be fascinating to see what comes through,"
Olshevsky continues, remarkably ignoring the fact that references to Aldous
Huxley's dystopic Brave New World
typically express a negative rather than positive view of the genetic
engineering of humans.
With chapters that profile or
interview entrepreneurial figures like Stuart Kauffman of Cistem Molecular and
Craig Venter of Celera Genomics, and one written by Human Genome Sciences CEO
William A. Haseltine, Understanding the
Genome emphasizes the promise of genomics, with only perfunctory mention of
important issues such as the controversy over the patenting of genes and
genomes, and access to genetic information. Diane Martindale's brief chapter on
genetic discrimination describes some of the potential perils of misusing
genetic information, but a great deal more discussion of such issues is
particularly important in a volume intended for the general reader, since their
implications for the average person gets so little informed and meaningful
attention in the popular media.
The Human Genome Project is
an important and fascinating undertaking, but speculation about the "brave
new world" it promises to open up to us isn't science, it's science
fiction. Science fiction, while it is sometimes amazingly oracular, can also be
2003 Syd Johnson
Syd Johnson is a Ph.D.
candidate at SUNY Albany, where her primary research focus is on genetic harms
to future persons and the ethical implications of genetic technologies such as
pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, genetic enhancement and gene therapy.