Seminar in Composition
21 October 2014
Science and Society: A Dangerous Combination?
There is no doubt that modern knowledge of genetics due to scientific research is beneficial; from genetic disorders to cancer, the secrets to illnesses that plague the human race may lay in our DNA. While such discoveries connecting biology to society are promising, more insidious results linger beneath the surface. Just as Lewontin’s Biology As Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA explores the entanglement of DNA, individuals, and society, Amy Harmon’s New York Times article discusses the eerie influence of modern genetics on the individual, and by extension, society as a whole.
Borrowing from Lewontin’s reasoning, it is safe to say that “we are, in Richard Dawkins’s metaphor, lumbering robots created by our DNA” (Lewontin 107) and each of us as individuals, influenced by our DNA, contributes to the actions of society as a whole. In the chapter “Science as Social Action,” Lewontin states “the fact that organisms define their own environment” (Lewontin 111). Indeed, it is impossible to separate biology specific to us as individuals and the society in which we live as a collective group. Depending on individual behaviors, this could either be a good or a bad thing. Lewontin explains, “The characteristics of society are seen as cause by the individual properties that its members have, and those properties, as we shall see, are said to derive from the members’ genes. If human societies engage in war, that is because each individual in the society is aggressive.” (Lewontin 93). On the other hand, important events in history, such as the Women’s Rights Movement, would not have been made possible if not for the unison of individuals with a similar set of goals. Nevertheless, it is essential that our biological origins are tied, whether for social betterment or communal conflict, the environments in which we live and the people we are surrounded by.
In DNA Era, New Worries About Prejudice uncovers the alarming truth behind recent research conducted on DNA. Scientists have found a correlation between race and certain patterns of DNA, suggesting that “race is more than skin deep.” With this new information, other connections such as those between intelligence and race threaten to surface, giving way to a possible recurring epidemic of “long-discredited racial prejudices,” giving them “a new potency.” To a certain extent, this research is inconclusive, as differences in DNA could be the effect of environmental factors and specific to what a race might individually define as intelligent. For example, in Western culture, the ability to solve complex word problems might be an appropriate indication of intelligence, however, in certain areas of the world that are less formally educated, and where such skills are therefore useless, the ability to skin potatoes correctly might be more highly valued. These different skills may have evolved over time, in a process known as natural selection—something that may be specific to different races and cultures. However, when this argument becomes distorted by the media and interpreted by the public, the question of discrimination comes into play. Harmon fears, “genetic information is slipping out of the laboratory and into everyday life, carrying with it the inescapable message that people of different races have different DNA.” Given the basis that different races contain differences in genes, it is not a far stretch for some races to grant themselves superiority over others. It is this propaganda that was the catalyst for warfare and genocide such as the Holocaust, crediting abusive dictators such as Adolf Hitler. Herein lies the paradox of science and society—will research methods that could possibly save the lives of millions kill us all in the process?
As society changes and technology evolves over time, new challenges face its members. Provided the foundation of Lewontin’s thought-provoking connections between DNA, the individual, and the individual’s impact on society as a whole, Harmon’s article brings to light these associations and their implications. Moving forward, how do scientists cope with their findings? Whose responsibility is it to ensure the correct exposure of such research? These burdens, what Lewontin would call biology hopelessly tied to ideology, are simply byproducts of a constantly advancing society.
Harmon, Amy. In DNA Era, New Worries About Prejudice. 2007. Retrieved Octover 23, 2014
Lewontin, R.C. Biology as Ideology. New York: HarperCollins Publishers; 1991. Print.