Seminar in Composition
15 October 2014
The Human Genome Project: A Step in the Right Direction
Throughout the first few chapters of Lewontin’s Biology as Ideology, he is a harsh critic of modern science, arguing that specifically the Human Genome Project offers false hope for those affected by cancer and similar research is corrupt with poor intentions. Validly pointing out some of the major flaws in modern scientific research practices, especially the logic involved in the Human Genome Project, Lewontin’s criticism of modern science—discernable from that of an “anti-science” advocate—offers a bleak, pessimistic, and impractical approach to a constantly progressing society. If scientific possibilities are not explored in an effort to boycott exploitation and avoid failure, the functionalities of the institutions that might, one day, cure cancer have no fighting chance.
Although Lewontin is correct in his depiction of modern science as a sometimes selfish and corrupt venture, the possible outcomes of this research deem such a claim insignificant. He notes, “and I sometimes suspect that the claimed significance of the genome sequencing project for human health is an elaborate cover story for an interest in the hermeneutics of biological scripture.” Accusing scientists and doctors alike of using endless funding in order to simply appease curiosity despite whether a cure is actually attainable, Lewontin suggests that the Human Genome Project is not directly benefitting those it is supposed to serve. What Lewontin neglects to address, however, is the overwhelming evidence of progress and the promise of success. According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, results of the Human Genome Project are already aiding doctors in the ongoing battle against cancer. For example, specific knowledge gained from research has led to a more accurate diagnosis of certain cancers, paving the way for more effective treatments. In particular, patients carrying a mutation with metastatic melanoma have responded well to a treatment option that only works for that mutation. In another case, a set of twins in California suffering from “life-threatening neuromuscular symptoms” benefitted from research conducted at the Human Genome Sequencing Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. Upon discovery of a rare mutation present in the twins’ sepiapterin reductase gene, one that would not have been discovered if not for intensive genetic research, doctors were able to effectively treat and save the lives of these children. Lewontin’s caution of “the failure to turn knowledge into therapeutic power” (69), while it may be compelling in a general aspect, does not acknowledge albeit small successes, yet ultimately ones that matter and may lead to larger ones.
Lewontin presses, “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). Additionally, 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’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. However, evil in the form of corruption and ill intentions exists in all aspects of life; an attempt to avoid such evil demonstrates ignorance and naivety. Rather, a hard look at the past successes and future rewards of continuing with research like the Human Genome Project puts the negatives in perspective. Recognized specifically by Lewontin, James Watson’s “lobbying effort…aimed at capturing very large amounts of public funds and directing the flow of those funds into an immense cooperative research program” (60) is certainly worthwhile.
James D. Watson’s article The Human Genome Project: Past, Present and Future provides the optimistic yet realistic future outcomes of genetic research. As is needed to justify the amount of money, time, and effort put into the Human Genome Project, an exploration of past breakthroughs offers hope for future ambitions. The founding of the double helical structure of DNA in 1953, a seemingly “undreamable scientific objective,” gave scientists the ability to isolate bacterial genes, allowing for later discoveries in the late twentieth century. Although this research has only involved the sequencing of several bacteria, and much more time would be put into sequencing the human genome, results will “not only help us understand how we function as healthy human beings, but will also explain, at the chemical level, the role of genetic factors in a multitude of diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia, that diminish the individual lives of so many millions of people.” Often mental illnesses such as schizophrenia become heavy burdens on society, the prevalence of which increases crime rate, expenses for institutions, and homelessness. While costly, research of the human genome is beneficial not only for inflicted patients, but for society as a whole.
Similar to Lewontin, Watson acknowledges the setbacks of a project such as the Human Genome Project. These are issues not ignored by Watson, but rather taken into account by himself and other competent scientists measuring the pros as they outnumber the cons. Watson discusses an NRC (National Resource Council) meeting in which the launching of the Human Genome Project was debated. Those opposed expressed “fear that the project would be divorced from the main currents of biological research.” Additionally, there were “strong reservations about any project in which the ultimate control of resources lay in the hands of administrators, as opposed to control by the scientific community itself.” This concern is reminiscent of Lewontin’s argument that certain information may not be used with the best interests of those the project benefits in mind. This is yet another example of Lewontin too heavily criticizing the evils inherent in many systems and institutions.
Another important aspect of implementing such research is the ethical dilemma it poses, an issue briefly touched upon by Lewontin. The groundbreaking knowledge of genetics coming out of the Human Genome Project could cause havoc if released to the public. If differences in genetics are found among, say, different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, etc. it could be the basis of genetic discrimination. If taken advantage of, such information could be detrimental to society. In an article titled Ethics, Business and the Human Genome Project, Tim Symanietz expands on Lewontin’s worry regarding ethics and the Human Genome Project. With more information available regarding genetics, people will one day be able to learn that they will have a certain disease but may not be able to do anything about it. This creates even more problems, such as whether the doctor should be required to inform the patient of red flags or whether this decision should be left up to the patient. Even if the ailment is preventable, an individual may lead a very different life knowing a possibly grim future awaits. Symanietz lists “other ethical concerns” including “human cloning, gene modification for treatment of diseases and manipulation of genes to produce superior traits.” On the other hand, if scientists who have the capability and the means to possibly cure cancer do not follow through, is this an even worse ethic violation? Personally, I believe that the latter. The Human Genome Project, underneath the robotic aspects of science, becomes an issue of personal opinion. Are these lives worth saving at any cost? Advocates of the Human Genome Project may take into account the criticisms of Lewontin, yet are convinced that indeed lives are priceless and worthy of any endeavor.
Finally, Lewontin questions the time and money put into the Human Genome Project, an effort that “might take thirty years and occupy tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars” (48-49). This major setback of the project, seemingly deeming it a failed business venture, is put in perspective by economic benefits. So far, the project has generated “800 billion dollars and has also employed just under 4 million people in such a short period of time,” not to mention the money made from new drugs and methods of treatment aiding newly diagnosed patients.
Lewontin’s Ideology as Biology: The Doctrine of DNA is built on the largely accepted theory that our biology is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. Lewontin’s less vehement points about the Human Genome Project, including misguided funding, inaccurate scientific claims, among other reasons, are ultimately in support of a larger argument. Criticizing those in favor of genetic determinism—the belief that genes and genes alone are responsible for one’s composition—Lewontin argues that the Human Genome Project does not account for environmental factors and therefore is not effective in finding a cure for cancer. Recognizing the significance genetics have in the cause and treatment of cancer, Lewontin puts it simply: “we get cancer because our genes are not doing their business,” (41) however insisting that more care should be taken to include “environmental insult theories of the causes of cancer” (41). These ideas are explored in depth in the chapter Causes and Their Effects, in which Lewontin discusses the causes and effects of our surroundings on our health and the consequences of ignoring them. It is true that in the modern sense, tragedies such as “alcoholism, criminality, drug addiction, and mental disorders” (46) are thrust under the genetic umbrella. Society blames genes for a variety of issues that have strong environmental influences. Perhaps the Human Genome Project, described by Lewontin as “the current manifestation of that belief in the importance of our inheritance in determining health and disease,” (46) could use a supplemental investigation of environmental factors that may lead to cancer or rather a method that incorporates both. While Lewontin is no doubt a harsh critic of modern science, particularly the Human Genome Project, its discontinuation is not necessarily in support of the arguments made in Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA or in the best interests of those 1,665,540 individuals diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and the many more to come.
It is apparent that Lewontin is not against the Human Genome Project for the sake of cancer research nor for the sake of modern scientific research at all, rather he is opposed to the corrupt nature of its administrative forces and the misunderstandings among glorification of the project. Therefore, instead of dismissing important genetic research for it’s subliminal support of genetic determinism, methods that address the environmental influences of cancer as a third perspective is worth considering. Of course, it is now common knowledge that smoking cigarettes often leads to lung cancer and careless exposure to radiation from sunlight can cause skin cancer such as melanoma; harmful toxins like asbestos and lead paint are also generally known to cause health problems, many of which lead to cancer. As is the case with most criticisms, Lewontin points out many problems with The Human Genome Project, which is no spectacle given the inherent uncertainty and experimentation that goes hand in had with breakthrough scientific research. Only some kind of representation of genetic factors in addition to the continuation of research like the Human Genome Project will appease critics like Lewontin while minimizing the public’s risk of cancer. If the environmental impacts on cancer as well as genetics are not addressed, the two forces can not both be accounted for. As I have expressed in my defense of the Human Genome Project, I believe that philosophically and ethically—and to a certain degree intellectually—it is necessary to support such research. In order to keep this project in full swing, and in consideration of Lewontin’s claims, I agree some representation of environmental factors needs to be accounted for.
Lewontin and other critics of the Human Genome Project have a point—perhaps efforts made by the project have not been entirely successful and pose many ethical and intellectual problems. Morally, there remain issues regarding privacy and genetic discrimination, however, the moral implications of delaying a process with potential that we are capable of starting now are much more drastic. The research involved in the Human Genome Project represents a step in the right direction, a trial-and-error process that may very well end in error. Still, there remains a small glimmer of hope in the form of small successes that give scientists a reason to think that this is a cause worth pursuing.
Collins, Francis S., MD, PhD, and Victor A. McKusick, MD. "Implications of the Human Genome Project for Medical Science." JAMA Network. The Journal of the American Medical Association, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.
"Human Genome Project Pros and Cons - HRF." HRF. Healthresearchfunding.org, 17 Feb. 2014. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.
Lewontin, R.C. Biology as Ideology. New York: HarperCollins Publishers; 1991. Print.
Symanietz, Tim. "Ethics, Business and the Human Genome Project." Ethics, Business and the Human Genome Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.