Friday, October 24, 2014

The Inaccuracies of the Human Genome Project

Jonathan Hranek
Dr. Adam Johns
English Composition 0200
22 October 2014
The Inaccuracies of the Human Genome Project
            In “Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA”, Lewontin refuses to accept the fact that the Human Genome Project will uncover the hidden secrets to ailments, therefore helping to eradicate those illnesses from those who have them. Because of this, he does not think that biology is the only factor that determines diseases. Instead, Lewontin reasons that environmental noise is a cofactor in sicknesses. This is inadvertently echoed in an article that gives credence to his ideas, years after their inception. Through this article, Lewontin’s beliefs that the Human Genome Project is not the promised, cure-all answer to diseases are soundly just and accurate.
            Lewontin argues that “the possibility that a ‘bad’ gene today might turn out to be useful someday” is high, so there is no point in such remedies as gene therapy (Lewontin 70). Lewontin’s thoughts are proven by illnesses such as sickle-cell anemia. Although a potentially lethal disease that sickles red blood cells, inhibits the clotting of blood, and the transport of oxygen, it can protect those who have it from malaria. This is a way in which a bad mutation in a gene can actually have a positive side affect that has been previously unforeseen. Gina Kolata’s article about Alzheimer’s disease validates Lewontin’s ideas about mutations and gene therapy. Kolata says, “a rare gene mutation … protects people against Alzheimer’s disease” (Kolata). This shows that Lewontin’s thinking process is correct. Mutations can be harmful, but there might be lingering beneficial side affects that go along with it as well. For this reason, gene therapy would eradicate a disease that potentially has added benefits.
            Kolata also discusses how many questions still remain about what causes Alzheimer’s disease, along with how the mutation protects the brain from its debilitating effects. Understanding this is key to interpreting what Lewontin is saying. He believes that the Human Genome Project will simply map the nucleotides of a chromosome, not unlock the keys to reversing or stopping diseases. He explains his reasoning by saying that “even diabetes, which has long been known to run in families, has never been tied to genes and there is no better evidence for a genetic predisposition to it in 1992 than there was in 1952 when serious genetic studies began” (Lewontin 71). This lack of evidence, Lewontin says, has an explanation outside that of chromosomes and genes of a human being.
            Lewontin wholeheartedly believes that the human genome is not the complete answer to everything biologically problematic with the species. He says:
“If we take seriously the proposition that the internal and external codetermine the organism, we cannot really believe that the sequence of the human genome is the grail that will reveal to us what it is to be human, that it will change out philosophical view of ourselves, that it will show how life works” (Lewontin 64).
This shows that he thinks that biological factors greatly influence the person. Lewontin thinks that a living organism is the result of an interaction between both the internal and external forces of nature. “The organisms do not find the world in which they develop. They make it. Reciprocally, the internal forces are not autonomous, but act in response to the external”, such as when a cell reacts solely due to environmental factors triggering a response (Lewontin 63-64). Because of environmental factors, something Lewontin refers to as environmental noise, genes are expressed in different ways for different people. In this way, situations and experiences only help to diversify the organism.
            Through Lewontin’s ideas and thoughts about the Human Genome Project years before its affects were beginning to be felt, he believed that it would do nothing to aid in the understanding and destroying of genetic diseases, and argued that some mutations could actually be beneficial. By reading Gina Kolata’s article, it is evident that Lewontin saw the holes in the project before there were any discoveries. Due to his thoughts, it is now only being realized that the more that is understood about chromosomes and genes, the harder it is to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

Works Cited
Kolata, Gina. "In Preventing Alzheimer’s, Mutation May Aid Drug Quest." The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 July 2012. Web. 22 Oct. 2014. <>.
Lewontin, Richard C. Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA. 1st ed. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1992. Print.

1 comment:

  1. I think you reverse the sequence of Lewontin's reasoning in your first paragraph - presumably he rejects the Human Genome project *because* "Lewontin reasons that environmental noise is a cofactor in sicknesses". I actually think you understand that, but the way you explained it was messy.

    I'm missing something in your second paragraph. What you're saying - that gene therapy has the danger of suppressing valuable mutations - only 100% makes sense in this context if genetic diseases carry benefits. Which, as you point out, they do with sickle cell anemia - it's both a disease *and* a benefit. But what is the benefit of the genes which influence Alzheimer's disease?

    The last couple paragraphs mostly summarize points from Lewontin. Those might be important points, but I'm not sure what you're really trying to accomplish with them.

    The short version: I don't really see an argument here. If you're arguing that the gene which protects against alzheimer's disease is itself also dangerous, I think I see the thread of the argument beginning to form, but your explanation of the article is a little too muddled for me to follow that. I don't really understand the argument.


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