Seminar in Composition
Dr. Adam Johns
In R. C. Lewontin’s book Biology as Ideology, Lewontin argues the flaws of the human genome project. He specifically offers his view on the atomistic view being used by society and the disadvantages of holistic views. In a National Geographic article by Ed Yong, the case of Baby T is used to show the benefits the genome project has provided the medical and scientific community. It is in this article that we see the modern innovations provided to us by the genome project that Lewontin fails to address in his writing. The human genome project, has provided us with the technology and capabilities to further our advances medically in the understanding of genetic diseases and mutations.
Lewontin is very upfront about his view of the sciences and the reason behind large projects, such as the sequencing of the genome. “Science uses money. People earn their living by science, and as a consequence the dominant social and economic forces in society determine to a large extent what science does and how it does it,” (Lewontin, 3). I can agree with this statement as the effects of monetary and political power are so prevalent in today’s society. While I do not support the use of one’s social and economic influence to sway the means of the sciences (or any other community for that matter) I also do not think that the effects of these influences were entirely negative as I will discuss later on in this paper.
Another main point to my argument involves Lewontin’s opposition to the atomistic view of science. “Nature could not be understood by taking it into pieces because by doing so one destroyed what was essential to it,” (Lewontin, 11). This is a fascinating concept but, isn’t this necessary to understand the genome? I disagree with Lewontin that the purpose of sequencing DNA is to understand what it is that makes us human as he discusses on page 14 and throughout “The Dream of the Human Genome.” It is in this chapter that Lewontin discusses the advances made in medicine and its practices and states that “None of these depends on a deep knowledge of cellular processes or any discoveries of molecular biology,” (Lewontin, 67). It was this statement that intrigued me to look further into this claim and learn of cases such as Baby T’s.
Baby T’s case exemplifies the advancement made in technology and the understanding of the human genome. Assumed to have had the genetic disorder Bartter syndrome, the five-month-old’s blood was sent out for genetic testing to be positive. The results of the DNA testing showed that the doctors were wrong in their diagnosis. Baby T actually had a similar but different genetic disorder called congenital chloride-losing diarrhea, or CLD. This prompted the testing of others diagnosed with Bartter syndrome which in several cases it was found that they too had be wrongly diagnosed and had been suffering from CLD.
The genetic testing that made this discovery was one that Lewontin may not have approved of. “Rather than sequencing the entire human genome, the new technique shines its spotlight only on the small proportion that contains genes that code for proteins,” (Yong). This approach takes an even smaller view of the genome to target a specific location believed to house the coding for the disease. Does this disrupt what is essential to nature as Lewontin argued? How is the breaking down of the human genome that corrected the diagnoses of those living with CLD taking away from nature?
Perhaps Lewontin could not imagine the benefits that would come from sequencing DNA. This would explain the ignorance he exhibited on page 67. The medical advances responsible for Baby T’s case had everything to do with the “deep knowledge of cellular process” and discoveries made by molecular biology. Understanding the human genome allows for the insurance of medical diagnosis. Without which, lives could be greatly affected. As Yong states in regard to the case of Baby T and the others diagnosed with CLD, “This story provides vivid evidence of the benefits of exome-sequencing in both diagnosis genetic diseases and identifying mutations that cause those diseases.”
Lewontin, R.C. Biology as Ideology. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Print.
Yong, Ed. Genome sequencing reverses a faulty diagnosis for a genetic disorder. National
Geographic. National Geographic, 20 Oct. 2009. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.