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.
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 the 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. Given known limits of today’s scientific knowledge, in addition to the sometimes bad intentions of research scientists, is such a cure worth pursuing?
Recent research behind the Human Genome Project may have hit a wall, a New York Times article entitled DNA Sequencing Caught in Deluge of Data suggests. While research has been successful in collecting useful information, it is becoming increasingly difficult to digitally store. BGI, the world’s largest genomic research institute, “churns out so much data that it often cannot transmit its results to clients or collaborators over the Internet or other communications lines because that would take weeks.” If cancer research is already wearing itself thin, perhaps so much faith, money, and effort, as Lewontin implies, should not be put into the hope for a cure. Given specific proof that the money going towards DNA research may not be furthering the goal to find a cure as a result of the challenge scientists face to make more storage available, Lewontin’s warning of false hope becomes increasingly relevant.
Furthermore, other unforeseen implications of the Human Genome Project make this research much more complicated than it first appears. According to an article in the Journal of The American Medical Association addressing The Implications of the Human Genome Project for Medical Science, concerns have arisen regarding the consequences of the discoveries of this project “reaching the medical mainstream in a decade or so.” Exploring genes leaves open the possibility for discrimination in the workplace and in every day life on the basis of genetic differences, implying racial or ethnic superiority. Lewontin seems to fear politics getting in the way of scientific exploration, as demonstrated by his suspicion of the reasons behind funded research, and this is yet another reason which affirms his angst.
On the other hand, throughout history, science has always been riddled with mistakes and repeats, a necessary inconvenience on the track to success. If such experimentation never has the chance to develop, how can society expect to reach a solution? While this may be true, and some science is not worth giving up on, it may be time for humans to succumb to certain forces that are much bigger than ourselves. While Lewontin’s argument may be inconvenient and socially unacceptable, he is valid in questioning the efforts of modern science specific to cancer research—a field in which we have much to gain but perhaps even more to lose.
Indeed there are many dangers that lie beneath the benign surface of research like the Human Genome Project. Not only does it imply promises that can not necessarily be kept, the reasons fueling such research are often self-serving and not genuine. While some may call Lewontin a negative anti-science cynical, I believe he is saying something very important about how modern practices of biology are constantly affecting our ideologies and vice versa.
Grady, Denise. Nytimes.com. The New York Times. Accessed 10-15-14.
Lewontin, R.C. Biology as Ideology. New York: HarperCollins Publishers; 1991. Print.