Friday, October 24, 2014

Lewontian and Genetics

Emma Sullivan
Seminar in Composition
Dr. Adam Johns
22 October 2014
            The textbook assigned to my Biology 1 course defines the Human Genome Project as, “The multinational research project that sequenced the human genome,” (Freeman G: 18). It also of course, touches upon the insights we have gained and continue to gain from said project. It’s portrayed as a sort of bible for all of the genetic discoveries we have made thus far, perhaps as it should be. This brief description and portrayal can precisely sum up what I know and have been taught about the Human Genome Project since my first biology course. An insight about this miraculous study that I never quite gained is the one Lewontin boldly lays down in “The Dream of the Human Genome Project”. Here, he touches upon the ideas that we as a scientific community view sequencing human genome as obtaining the theoretical “holy grail” of science—that it will someday solve all, and that from this we can perhaps conclude that he does not want this for society and that he believes it does not hold all the answers.  
            Fast-forward over two decades from when Lewontin wrote his book, and we still have not made some of the genetic advancements he touches upon being incomplete during his time. For example, Tay-Sachs disease, a genetic mutation which he claims lacks any “therapy” despite our apparently understanding of the mutation (Lewontin 66). It is, of course, undeniable that we have made countless advancements thanks to the Human Genome Project, yet as a student with a basic understanding of biology, genetics, and the like, it is personally rather surprising to see how far we have yet come from the time that Lewontin first criticized the principle of the project in the early 90’s. This all goes back to Lewontin’s idea that nature cannot and will not trump nurture, and DNA cannot and should not eclipse environmental factors. His position on this is firm, and can be best summarized by his argument that DNA is not the soul composition of a living organism when he states, “A living organism at any moment in its life is the unique consequence of a developmental history that results from the interaction of and determination by internal and external forces,” (Lewontin 63). 
            Applying this perspective to a modern situation, it is not hard to shed a Lewontian light on a study involving genetics. Merely looking at an all too recent finding published in The New York Times that certain Latina populations may posses a genetic variant that greatly lowers their chances of getting breast cancer, one can easily be a bit less impressed by the study with an outlook like Lewontin’s. According to the article, “About one in five Latinas in the United States carry one copy of the variant, and roughly 1 percent carry two,” (O’Connor). Yet it is also mentioned that certain behavioral factors attributed to the Latina population can also account for reduced risk. This particular environmental point admittedly is one that Lewontin would commend the researchers for considering and the author of the article for mentioning for mentioning. However, this triumph would be quickly canceled out by the fact that the scientists on this study go on to say that they have faith in this finding holding true genetically for Latina women and that the study is “very good science” (O’Connor). The problem with them simply calling it “very good science” is that to Lewontin, proceeding the statement that they assume the cancer resistance lies in the genes is the assertion that assuming this is “good science”. His  contention is that genetics simply cannot be our bible and that, “social organization does not reflect the limitations of individual biological beings,”—meaning that overall, he believes social factors impact society more than genetics (Lewontin 121).
            Personally, I would argue that Lewontin is right in that we cannot put all of our faith into genetics as though it is a religion and we are its loyal followers. It’s necessary to account for our environment, our atmosphere, and what lies within it. Yet all the while, I also think that Lewontin’s claims are a bit extreme. In the center of his argument, I would hypothesize that he may be afraid of a society that lives too stringently based genetics, one that could someday control eye color, skin color, genetic defect. This fear makes sense of course, and is one that has in fact been presented to me by past biology teachers. In essence, Lewontin’s ideals raise the question of how far we should be going. Currently, we are finding potential genetic discrepancies across races and ethnicities, yet these discrepancies could serve us in learning more about major medical problems like breast cancer. Is this okay? For now, I believe that Lewontian’s views may be too extreme for a time in which people are sick, and we need cures. This is not to say that our society should ignore the ideological underpinnings Lewontian has pointed out, but rather continue to advance with his words of caution in the back of our minds.  

Works Cited
Freeman, Scott. Biological Science Volume 1. N.p.: Benjamin-Cummings, 2013. Print.
"Genetic Variant May Shield Latinas From Breast Cancer." Well Genetic Variant May         Shield Latinas From Breast Cancer Comments. The New York Times, 20 Oct.             2014. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.
Lewontin, Richard C. Biology as Ideology: The 

1 comment:

  1. Good start. It would be interesting to see if you carry the metaphor the holy grail forward. In the introduction I’d like to see some initial version of what *you* think.

    Question: “It is, of course, undeniable that we have made countless advancements thanks to the Human Genome Project.” In what sense do you believe this to be true? Lewontin would doubtless agree that some amount of theoretical knowledge has been gained. But remember his strong division, especially within medicine, between theoretical and practical knowledge? Have we gained anything *worthwhile* from the Human Genome Project? (As an aside, I certainly don’t know the answer).

    “The problem with them simply calling it “very good science” is that to Lewontin, proceeding the statement that they assume the cancer resistance lies in the genes is the assertion that assuming this is “good science”.” -- this is an excellent and very Lewontian line of thinking, but you stop prematurely, I think. Where should we go to understand this phenomenon (that certain Latina women, with certain genes, seem to have a reduced likelihood of breast cancer), if not strictly to the genes? Presumably Lewontin’s assumption would be that cancer’s causes are often more environmental than genetic, even if both are involved, and that Latina women have a particular socioeconomic profile.

    For instance: Let’s say (this might be wrong) that Latina women get breast cancer more often than women of Asian descent, and also (this is true) that Latina women statistically are much poorer than women of Asian descent. If the cancers are partially caused by socioeconomic conditions, then, is the correct way of understand the particular genes that they partially mitigate some negative effects of belonging to a low social class?

    Your ending is clunky, because you don’t really engage with Lewontin’s argument. Lewontin may well be extreme or incorrect, and I certainly think you have a point that he might partake in some rather dystopian anxieties. However, you’re skirting around the essence of his critique of current medical research: that it is not, in fact, aimed at curing the sick, but at building careers and institutions and most of all making money, and that genetic research into medical subject, although not a very effective way of curing the sick, *is* a very good way of making fortunes and reputations.

    Any part of that assessment might be wrong. For instance, you might argue that genetic research has become a cost-effective and justifiable way of saving lives. But you’re in danger of making up a straw man Lewontin (who suffers primarily from sci-fi anxieties about genetic engineering) in place of the real Lewontin (who believes that large-scale science is conducted primarily for private profit, and not for the public’s benefit, although the public funds it).


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