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by Scientific American (Editors)
Warner Books, 2002
Review by L. Syd M Johnson, M.A. on Feb 5th 2003

Understanding the Genome

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 quite erroneous.


© 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.