Rarely a week goes by that a headline does not extol some striking new discovery on the genetic frontier: a gene that may make us more vulnerable to cancer or schizophrenia, genes that may predispose us to obesity, deafness or aggressiveness, genes that can be manipulated or inserted in animals or plants to create new products, etc. Do these “breakthroughs” signal the coming of magic pills for all society’s ills that many have been longing for? Or will we learn decades down the line, as with so many other “great scientific advances,” that these darlings have, at best, failed to fulfill their billing, or, at worst, caused irrevocable harm to thousands?
Welcome to genemania! But for those not enthused about waiting years to see the forest through the euphoria, the word is out now in a new book, Exploding the Gene Myth – How Genetic Information is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators, and Law Enforcers by Ruth Hubbard, Ph.D. and Elijah Wald – and the word is “caution!”
Dr. Hubbard, professor emerita of biology at Harvard University, author of The Politics of Women’ s Biology and other books, with Mr. Wald, freelance writer, sees danger in putting so much hope, time and money into the gene basket. The myth explodes, Hubbard explains in step-by-step lay language, because of the absurdity of the too rampant reductionist view that humans are a collection of tiny disparate parts to be tinkered with, rather than a complex interrelated whole. Much as a mechanical failure might be traced to a lone blown fuse or faulty sparkplug, reductionists seek to identify single traits or malfunctions in specific genes and then set about “fixing” those that appear to need fixing.
But while the public has been led to see a gene as a singular interchangeable entity, the term is really only a shorthand for a section of a chain – a unit of a DNA molecule composed of hundreds, if not thousands of sequences of amino acids synthesized by the interaction of enzymes, minerals, body salts, etc. in symphony with all the intricate metabolic processes that contribute to the miraculous human being. Were it possible to reduce a condition or trait to one “flawed” gene rather than an intricate interplay of all
these forces, what would you fix? A mutation or malfunction could occur anywhere along this vast chain of events. To “fix” a single gene would involve tampering with a vast array of processes – a highly risky venture that could have untold repercussions on bodily function and future generations.
So how can it be that mainstream science is jumping over itself with claims for its dream human genome project – the mapping of all human genes such that each will one day be accountable for a specific human trait or condition?
As the subtitle suggests, Hubbard believes today’s genetic madness is being whipped up by overzealous groups who see their success inextricably bound to this hi-tech arena. Thus, the myth is fed by scientists who, having largely become cogs in a highly competitive capitalistic wheel, voice extravagant claims for their projects in order to compete for limited research funds. The huge pharmaceutical and biotech industries, prime sources for these funds, stir the fantasy by proclaiming the broadest possible
applications for potential products. In this charged kitchen, is it any wonder that others – employers, insurers, educators, law enforcement, etc., get drawn into the frenzy to seek their piece of the genetic pie?
Hubbard’s message in all this is that never has the call for an informed, activist citizenry been more urgent. Unbewitched by scientific expertise and self-interest, the lay public is better equipped than any other sector of the population to stand back and ask the huge questions, e.g.: Who decides the norms of desirable and undesirable traits? (The disability of one may be the gift of another.) If genes can be pinned down to specific diseases, must we all submit to an assembly line of new and expensive tests? What do we do with the knowledge that we possess a mutation that may develop into some problem down the line? Will living with a “bad” gene create stigma and heightened stress factors which alone can lead to illness?
Will employers be able to reject “healthy ill” workers on the basis of so-called genetic defects? What about screening workers for vulnerability to toxins in the work place so that those without the “defect” can endure more exposure to deadly substances and, thus, reduce the need for controls? Will insurers regard faulty genes as “pre-existing conditions” and grounds for non-coverage or higher rates? Will tampering with the genetic pool create new diseases and new health problems?
Most important, the author emphasizes that the focus on genes is taking away vital resources from research into areas of far greater impact on our well-being, such as nutrition, stress, environment factors over which we have more control. Would health be better enhanced by spending on tests for a gene that may predispose one to lung cancer or by developing programs to help people stop smoking?
Scientists are perhaps the last gods of our age – politicians, royals, even clerics having taken their earthly tumble. It’s time to lift the halo from matters of scientific direction and substance. Exploding the Gene Myth is a strident call for personal responsibility vs. reliance on medical miracles that separate us from our bodies and Nature.
Exploding the Gene Myth – How Genetic Information is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators, and Law Enforcers by Ruth Hubbard, Ph.D. and Elijah Wald (Beacon Press, Boston, 1999, 256 pp.).