The Word Is Gene Not Genie


By Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald

Beacon x 206pp x $24

Every few weeks, it seems, a major newspaper's front page trumpets the discovery of a new gene "for" some ill that plagues us. Alcoholism. Schizophrenia. Cystic fibrosis. Heart disease. Most recently: colon cancer.

After a few paragraphs breathlessly predicting that a scourge will soon vanish, the caveats come: More research is needed; for now, all we'll have is a nifty test to confirm that you have or may develop an incurable disease. Deeper still is some scientist's admission that the disease is probably more complicated than one gene out of whack. Still, we discuss such stories optimistically. Someone usually suggests that soon we'll be able to just go get our genes fixed.

According to Ruth Hubbard, Harvard University professor emerita of biology, such stories, and many people's unquestioning acceptance of them, are a symptom of "geneticization." Suggesting that every illness or behavioral snag can be reduced to an errant piece of DNA in an organism as complex as the human body is scientific absurdity, she argues.

Worse, this genetic focus tends to absolve society of its responsibility to affect health and behavior through public policy and environmental protection. Hubbard's Exploding the Gene Myth, co-authored with writer Elijah Wald, provides a much-needed counterweight to the unearned confidence many reports about genetic research today convey.

The book's strength is its cogent explanation of enough biology and genetic theory to help lay people interpret news about genetic findings more realistically. Hubbard doesn't suggest that the research is bad. Rather, academe, government, and industry inflate their findings' import to attract funding or investment, or to serve other agendas, such as providing law enforcement with new tools--albeit ones of dubious value.

The book shows that the language we've come to use to describe genes gives them too much significance: Scientists speak of single genes "for" behaviors, diseases, and tendencies, when, in fact, thousands of genes operating in concert and affected by outside agents produce our looks, our behavior, our health. Geneticization, says Hubbard, can bring fatalism and surrender: "The belief that our capacities are encoded in our genes can prevent us from taking available steps to change ourselves or the conditions of our lives." Presuming to read DNA like tea leaves could stigmatize a new class of "healthy ill" who are not sick but who test positive for genetic flaws or susceptibilities. They could be denied jobs, insurance, and other rights.

The unsavory whiff of eugenics is in the air, says Hubbard. For centuries, she notes, scientists have been pressured to find genetic culprits for unwanted traits. From the antebellum South, for example, came the bogus invention of "drapetomania," a supposedly hereditary trait that gave some slaves an irresistible urge to flee their masters.

Hubbard sees twisted logic, too, in more recent research, such as a 1991 study of identical twins suffering from depression. Lincoln Eaves, a behavioral geneticist, found that most of the chronically depressed women in the study had endured more traumatic events--rape, assault, being fired--than other women. He concluded that their depressive outlook, probably genetically determined, made random troubles likelier. Retorts Hubbard: "If Dr. Eaves had found that football players frequently get fractures, would he have suggested that brittle bones make people play football?" Being raped or otherwise traumatized, she notes, could depress anyone.

Hubbard attacks the Human Genome Project, the multibillion-dollar effort to map the DNA of a prototype human being, as technically and conceptually flawed. The reason, she claims, is that molecular biologists today wield undue influence in research, in comparison with structural and systemic biologists, who study entire organisms and their environments. Much as history books used to play up the "great man" theory and ignore social fabric, she argues, so, too, has biology been skewed by molecular biology and the "great molecule," DNA.

Hubbard's book becomes frustrating in its vague, naive discussion of industry's actions and motives in the gene business. Why, she asks, doesn't any research paid for by the public get translated into great treatments sold at cost, instead of compromising scientists and making biotech and drug companies rich? The answer, of course, is that government is ill-equipped to go into business. And often, the transfer of technology from government to business is efficient and works to the public good.

In fact, most of the book's forays beyond biology and the flawed applications of genetic information are murky and preachy. Hubbard's cant that society should accept those with disabilities or illnesses, rather than treating all differences as something to be "cured" with drastic measures, is not merely an unattainable ideal. It disregards the pain and anguish of many ill and disabled people.

Still, Hubbard's articulate call for the proverbial grain of salt in interpreting genetic information is a service. Genetic research is valuable and exciting--but there's more to life than DNA.

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