Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Prompt 1

Ruthie Cohen
Professor Johns
Seminar in Composition
15 October 2014

The Responsibilities of Modern Science

Throughout the first few chapters of Lewontin’s Biology as Ideology, he criticizes modern science, arguing that specifically the Human Genome Project offers false hope for those affected by cancer. Denise Grady of the New York Times discusses a possible cure for HIV linked to the genes in her article Study Gives Hope of Altering Genes to Repel HIV. Grady’s article gives Lewontin’s ideas some context within the frame of modern science and research. Lewontin suggests that the false hope created by modern scientists is irresponsible.
            Grady describes a process in which cells are drained from patients, engineered to repel AIDS, and then inserted back into the body. This is a revolutionary form of treatment and a possible cure for an illness that has plagued modern society for quite some time. Similarly, as Lewontin explains, the Human Genome Project aims to record the entire pattern of human DNA in an attempt to find and then fix mutations that lead to cancer. Both are groundbreaking methods offering the solution to diseases that take the lives of many. Such a solution would give peace to many victims of cancer and HIV/AIDS and their families.
            However, a cynical Lewontin does not hesitate to point out that after the hype of such trials have died down, “The public will discover that despite the inflated claims of molecular biologists, people are still dying of cancer, of heart disease, of stroke, that institutions are still filled with schizophrenics and manic-depressives, that the war against drugs has not been won.” (Lewontin 52). Such a threat of disappointment can be seen in the word choice of Grady’s article. Although very hopeful and optimistic, ambiguous terms such as “may seem like a pipe dream,” “in theory,” “might in effect” and “seemed to help” imply a lack of confidence, a preparation for a setback. Indeed, exploratory science is unpredictable and merely experimental. Both Lewontin and Grady explore the topic of “gene editing” and its tantalizing and simultaneously risky aspects.
            Given these dangerously uncertain outcomes, Lewontin asks the pressing question, “Why, then, do so many powerful, famous, successful, and extremely intelligent scientists want to sequence the human genome?” (Lewontin 51). The answer, Lewontin believes, is in the promises of this work. Although not quite there yet, scientists are seeing through to the end of the tunnel—“Nobel prizes…honorary degrees…important professorships…huge laboratory facilities” (Lewontin 51). Taken to an extreme, Lewontin’s argument suggests that such scientists are nothing but false, self-made martyrs seeking out the possible gains of a cure to cancer only to further their own careers. Taken to an extreme, Lewontin seems very cynical and illogical. However, given Grady’s factual presentation of a promising study hoping to cure HIV in which lies sizeable question marks and wrinkled brows, Lewontin’s argument seems more plausible. Grady’s skepticism shows that there are other such instances of modern experimentation that have the same structure—a build-up of hope followed by vague conclusions, leading to disappointment.
            Now of course most scientists and doctors care about their patients and they effects their studies might have on them. But are such studies merely, as Lewontin points out, a recipe for disaster, a giant arrow back to square one? Are there other motives behind these studies and research, other than pure dedication to the victims of cancer and HIV/AIDS? At the conclusion of “Causes and Their Effects,” Lewontin claims, “what appears to us in the mystical guise of pure science and objective knowledge about nature turns out, underneath, to be political, economic, and social ideology.” (Lewontin 57).  Lewontin questions the morality of dangling a carrot, so to speak, and giving false hope to those who are counting on a cure.

Works Cited

Grady, Denise. The New York Times. Accessed 10-15-14.

Lewontin, R.C. Biology as Ideology. New York: HarperCollins Publishers; 1991. Print.


  1. I think your essay overall was very well organized and had specific points that helped to prove your argument. However I had a little trouble figuring out how the second paragraph directly related to your thesis. I understand that it is relevant to the third paragraph, but I don't think it should have been a completely separate one altogether. Instead, I think it would be beneficial to combine the second and third paragraphs to make a cohesive idea flow more efficiently.

    I think you also hit upon some very intriguing points, such as how scientists did not perform research experiments for the advancement of science, but for their own personal gain. This being said, I think that these topics could have been delved into further, but you definitely explained yourself well within these topics. As a whole, I think your essay had some extremely well developed ideas and that you presented the information in a way that certainly accomplished your goal of proving the thesis, so great job!

  2. Your introduction is good, clear, direct, and not too long. Your next two paragraphs are excellent, but summarizing the article and setting up a Lewontian response to it. Your writing is clear and compact. My biggest question at this point is about your views - do you agree with the Lewontian critique of this form of gene therapy (am I using the term correctly?) that you seem to be setting up?

    “Grady’s skepticism shows that there are other such instances of modern experimentation that have the same structure—a build-up of hope followed by vague conclusions, leading to disappointment.” This is good but maybe a little understated. I would have liked to see you use Lewontin to articulate the motivations for this kind of therapy.

    1. This kind of therapy may, of course, actually work
    2. Regardless of whether or not it works, it can make careers and build institutions
    3. This kind of therapy is insanely expensive. Therefore there is potentially a lot of profit in it. Therefore, at least parts of our medical system love this kind of treatment, regardless of how effective it is.
    4. So some Lewontian questions might include: who does this research program benefit? What interests does it advance? Where does the money flow, and why?

    I think your initial focus on false hope is good and clear. But if you revise it should only be a starting point. Lewontin *is* interested in the problem of false hope, but false hope isn’t just a concern in itself - it helps us understand how money flows and how institutions work.


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