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by Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald
Beacon, 1999
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jul 4th 1999

Exploding the Gene Myth

It’s hard to keep up with the rush of information and opinion coming out on genetics and human cloning.. Even without our fully realizing it, genetic technology is entering almost every area of our lives. Discoveries of links between human DNA and different illnesses, including mental illnesses, regularly get covered on prime time television news. The Hollywood movie Gattaca paints a bleak future in which people become equated with their DNA code, and discrimination becomes scientific. (In Austin Powers, Dr. Evil clones himself into "Mini-Me.") College professors offer new courses with unwieldy titles such as "Ethics in the New Genetic Era." Publishers put out a plethora of new books on the science of genetics and what it means for society. Some authors try to alert a sleeping public what is going on and why it should be alarmed. Jeremy Rifkin and Ruth Hubbard are two such authors, with similar ideas.

Before I had read this The Biotech Century, I’d notice that when I’d hear other bioethicists mention Jeremy Rifkin’s name, their faces would take on a look of disapproval. He’s an activist rather than an academic, and he takes a strong stand against the new genetic technology. He’s a prolific author: the inside cover lists thirteen other books he has written or co-written.  He is good at getting media attention, and pulling "publicity stunts." (I imagine that I take on a similar expression when people talk to me about Peter Breggin author of Toxic Psychiatry.) This raises the suspicion that Rifkin’s book is slanted, presenting a biased version of the facts, twisting them to his purpose. Nevertheless, I have to report that I found it impressive and gripping.

Especially useful is the vast number of facts that Rifkin has collected. The book is written in journalistic style, quoting many different sources of information, and is packed full of cases from the recent history of biotechnology.  These include the developments in agriculture as well as in medicine, and the issues that have arisen to do with the patenting and ownership of genetic information. Of course, there are developments all the time, which creates a danger that The Biotech Century will become out of date before the end of this year. Fortunately, Rifkin has created a website associated with the book, which provides his most recent writings and interviews, and so will help keep the reader up to date with relevant information.

Ruth Hubbard, the main author of Exploding the Gene Myth, is also critical of the genetic revolution. First, she believes that genes are given too much credit for their role in our lives: we are mistaken if we think that knowledge and control of the human genome will solve all our problems. Focusing on genes takes our attention away from other factors that are also important, and are often easier to control. Second, the sees the way that government, private industry, and the law are using genetic information in ways which will make society worse. It will increase discrimination and decrease liberty.

Hubbard is a scientist (professor emerita of biology at Harvard University) and so it is not surprising that she puts more emphasis than Rifkin on the scientific aspects of the issues. For the most part, though, the writing is accessible to the lay person. She explains that we are being far too reductionist in our approach to genes. In only very few cases will there be a simple relation between one’s genetic code and one’s health, because so much depends on our environment.

This book was originally published in 1994. A new afterword was added in 1997, and a new preface has been added this year, which helps somewhat to keep the book up to date. Still, Rifkin’s book is overall the more thorough of the two, because it holds so much detail.

Both authors outline the history of the Human Genome Project. They both go back in time to a century ago, when eugenics started to become popular in the US. Rifkin produces an astounding quote from Theodore Roosevelt:

Criminals should be sterilized and feeble-minded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them… the emphasis should be on getting desirable people to breed.

The eugenics movement in the US had some success. By 1935, over 20,000 people were involuntarily sterilized, mostly in California. The eugenics movement in Nazi Germany in some ways took its lead from what was going on in the US. We look back on pre-World War II eugenics with horror, and rightly so. Both authors imply the new genetic technology will reintroduce eugenics, in more subtle ways of course, but possibly with just as alarming results.

Both books also detail how genetic code has become the property of corporations and universities. In my experience, most people when they learn this are amazed that this is the case and are shocked that it has been allowed to happen. They are disgusted by the attempts of health management organizations to exclude some people with genetic disorders from health care coverage on the grounds that their conditions are "pre-existing." Even in cases of apparently benign uses of genetic information, such as expectant parents finding out if their unborn baby is healthy, it is important to note that pre-natal testing can carry some risk, and sometimes results in spontaneous miscarriage.

By the end, each author has managed to present a powerful case that there are grave dangers inherent in this new biotechnology. They do not condemn all new technology wholesale, but they do urge that we need to use this it with great caution, and we should avoid the simplistic ways of talking about genetics into which the media has already fallen.

What strikes me as odd, though, is the implicit assumption that there is something especially problematic about the new genetics. American society is already one of great disparity of opportunity. People already have fewer opportunities because they were not born into the right families. The media is simplistic about everything, not just genetics. Millions of people have no health insurance and no reliable access to basic health care. Major corporations have amazing power in people’s lives. Yet, Americans seem to be relatively content with, or at least resigned to, this state of affairs. This being so, I’m perplexed as to what makes genetic technology so special. If one accepts the criticisms of genetics made by Rifkin and Hubbard, then one has to question most other aspects of American society too.