Dr. Adam Johns
English Comp 0200
22 October 2014
Understanding Genetics Differently
By reading “Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA” we can pinpoint Lewontin’s views on the biology genetics, and expand it to social movements and political agendas. We can understand new information on the subjects in a different light. One such article discusses genetic analysis of tumors, and the overall point of the article is a discussion on “exceptional responders”, those who are given experimental drugs in a last-ditch effort to save someone who is terminally ill and respond well, while the majority of those the drug is tested on do not respond well.
By understanding the messages presented to us in Biology as Ideology, we can read articles such as these with a more “Lewontinist” mindset. One particular moment in the article is early on when the article defines an exceptional responder as “someone who defies all expectations by responding dramatically to a drug tried not with a real rationale but more out of a doctor’s desperate urge to do something” (New York Times). We can again take the theme of skepticism of science as found in “Biology as Ideology” and apply it to this portion of the article. Is the reason behind the experimental treatment really “a doctor’s desperate urge to do something”? As Lewontin points out, “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). And if this portion of the article does not even have factual basis and scientific grounding, who knows what deceptiveness the article may allude to?
So now we should return to the question. Is the experimental drug treatment really a last resort type of effort made by the doctor from a purely moral standpoint? We should assume that it is not, if we are looking at it as Lewontin would. As Lewontin has pointed out numerous times, if we are looking at it from a purely genetic standpoint, why would one person want to help another, who is a complete stranger, out? The rationale offered by Lewontin’s sources is that of reciprocal altruism. We can see the parallel between the doctor and the patient as with the people in the example given by Lewontin as “You see someone drowning and jump in to save that person even at the risk of your own life. In the future, when you are drowning, the person whose life you have saved will remember, and save you in gratitude. By this indirect path you will increase your own probability of survival and reproduction over the long run.” (Lewontin 100). However, it is highly unlikely that the patient receiving treatment will ever save the life of the doctor, meaning that the doctor’s own chance for survival has not been increased by a significant amount.
If it is not for reciprocal altruism, then why does the doctor have this “desperate urge to do something”? The doctor most likely has some financial stake in the matter. Lewontin said that from his own experiences he had never met a molecular biologist who had no stake in companies in the industry. A second time he mentions this, and delves into the idea in more depth when stating “Among molecular biologists who are professors in universities, a large proportion are also principal scientists or principal stockholders in biotechnology companies.” (Lewontin 52). He goes on to say “The human genome sequencing project is big business. The billions of dollars that are to be spent on it will go in no insignificant fraction into the annual dividends of productive enterprises.” (Lewontin 52).
When we take a deeper look at what money is at stake for the doctor, we can find this to be a plausible, and probable, explanation from the Lewontin point of view. This view is valid when considering that “Scores of Chicago-area doctors added tens of thousands of dollars to their incomes last year by making speeches for drug companies, according to an investigation by NBC Chicago and ProPublica.org.” (NBC Article online). We can see that doctors do indeed have a financial relationship with pharmaceutical companies. By using Lewontin’s perspective, we can understand scientific articles in a new way. We must read deeper and question the face-value of the words written.
Kolata, Gina. "Finding Clues in Genes of ‘Exceptional Responders’." The New York Times. The New York Times, 08 Oct. 2014. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
Lewontin, R. C. Biology As Ideology. New York: Harper-Collins, 1991. Print.
Smyser, Katy, and Nesita Kwan. "Docs Paid Thousands to Promote Drugs They Prescribe." NBC Chicago. N.p., 15 May 2013. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.