Seminar in Composition
15 October 2014
The Human Genome Project: A Worthwhile Endeavor?
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. While Lewontin’s criticism of modern science—discernable from that of an “anti-science” advocate—is valid, it offers a bleak, pessimistic, and impractical approach to a constantly progressing society. If scientific possibilities are not explored for fear of disappointment, how can society expect to ascertain any solutions to the world’s pressing problems? After all, success is not possible without necessary mistakes; society has nothing to live for without the promise of a brighter future.
Lewontin 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. By definition, science is “systematic knowledge of the psychical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.” Without intellectual curiosity in cyclical form of testing hypotheses, scientists’ goals would certainly be impossible. Lewontin’s suspicion of scientists’ integrity mounts as he considers other reasons motivating research like the Human Genome Project.
Given the dangerously uncertain outcomes of projects like the Human Genome Project, 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). 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. Indeed, selfishness and greed are unfortunately common and innate human tendencies. History, while sometimes propelled by the frightening evils of society, is often guided in the right direction by genuine, passionate individuals fighting for a worthy cause. Isn’t a bright future worth the risk of failure?
Furthermore, a cynical Lewontin does not hesitate to point out that after the hype of trials involved with the Human Genome Project 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). Here, by using slight exaggeration, Lewontin argues that the public, although not directly affected by said diseases, will share the disappointment of those affected and possibly lose faith in the system. In countering Lewontin’s point, it is essential to acknowledge the significant good that has come out of research, therefore making the risk of disappointment and public upheaval worthwhile. Lewontin refers to the “lobbying effort by scientists such as…James Watson,” questioning Watson’s confidence.
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. Corruption should not take away an opportunity to cure cancer and many other genetic disorders, certainly
Another important aspect of implementing such research is the ethical dilemma it poses. 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. 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? While Lewontin expresses concern about the intentions of the Human Genome Project, I believe it is a risk worth taking. Imagine if we decide to discontinue research of the human genome and then centuries later, a cure is eventually found. So many lives could have been saved. Although I disagree with Lewontin’s criticism of the Human Genome Project, his definition of biology as an ideology is spot on—science is constantly entangled with the ethic standards of society.
Lewontin points out the flaws in modern scientific research, specifically the Human Genome Project, coming to the conclusion that the goal of a cure is out of reach and the time, effort, and money spent as a result is a waste of resources. The problems that we face when it comes to modern science, such as corruption and greed, are innate elements of human nature. Morally and logically, I believe, contrary to Lewontin’s views, that the continuation of the Human Genome Project is worthwhile.