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The Impact of the GeneReview - The Impact of the Gene
From Mendel's Peas to Designer Babies
by Colin Tudge
Hill & Wang, 2002
Review by Anne Philbrow
Oct 27th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 44)

The hero of this book is the nineteenth century Moravian friar, Gregor Mendel, who founded the science of genetics. Not that this was properly appreciated at the time. In the usual tradition of unsung heroes, after Mendel's death in 1864 (aged 61), a 'meddlesome monk' destroyed most of his notes.

Part of Tudge's aim in writing this overview of the history and social implications of genetic theory is to give Mendel his true credit as a significant scientist, rather than a monk who made a few interesting observations while pottering around with peas in the monastery garden. Tudge claims that 'all genetics is footnotes to Mendel' (p.10) and we can only begin to understand modern discussion of genetics by looking back to Mendel's work.

When analysing ideas and theories, it is certainly important to understand the historical and social context in which they arise, and Tudge describes Mendel's background in great detail, alongside his contemporaries, notably Charles Darwin. Like all the best scientists, Mendel got knocked back where his own hypotheses and experimentation did not accord with the beliefs of those with power and influence. Thus he repeatedly failed teaching exams and continued his work at half pay on account of his radical beliefs. At that time, it was still not even generally accepted that plants were sexual beings.

'Jesus would surely not have singled out the lilies of the field for such praise if they had been practising such covert naughtiness.' (56).

The dominant view was that only the male contributed hereditary material to the offspring, which accorded with the patriarchal culture. This view, known as spermism (ovists held the opposite view), was reflected in 17th century illustrations of spermatozoa with little foetuses curled up in the head. Mendel's view, that both male and female contributed equally, fell foul of his teaching examiner, Professor E. Fenzl, who was a spermatist. Mendel nevertheless continued his own research and scientific career. He was well respected, but even his peers seemed to fail to realise the importance of his work.

Following a thorough discussion of the historical and social context in which Mendel began to develop his ideas, Tudge gives a comprehensive overview of the ideas behind his plant breeding experiments. The book is meticulously researched, and Tudge's own background in genetics and evolutionary theory serves him well on presenting a complex subject to a lay reader. Carefully written, and accessible to a non-scientist like myself, I confess there were some swathes of theory which I would have skipped had I not conscientiously waded through for the sake of this review. Tudge is a consistently good writer, though sometimes a bit dry, and sometimes I felt his attention to detail was almost over conscientious. His determination to give as complete a picture as possible, within his area of demarcation, meant that as a reader, I sometimes felt myself getting lost among the trees, undergrowth and bifurcating pathways, and losing sight of the woods. However, it is possible to follow his main arguments and ignore the threads if they are not your thing, though some (in particular, biologists) may well rejoice in the details.

I suspect that most of us would pick up the book from philosophical or sociological interest, rather than biological, and Tudge covers many issues within these fields along the way. One of the many misuses to which so-called genetic theory has been put is genetic determinism. Tudge describes heredity as 'perhaps the central obsession of humankind '. Therefore it is not surprising when it turns up in the Bible as early as Genesis (9:25). All Ham's descendants were condemned to be slaves, and it is on this invidious principle that the South African church justified apartheid. 'Genetic determinism is thus the stuff of racism. It includes the notion that people of different skin colour (denoting different genes) are of a different clay and, ipso facto, inferior' (p 177).

Eugenics rears its ugly head fairly early on, having been misunderstood and misapplied to justify cruel and unjust political practices. Most famously, there were Hitler's attempts to breed a super race, but chillingly, eugenics has also been practised (though rather less blatantly) by countries generally regarded as liberal. There have been sterilisation programmes for the 'feeble-minded' in the USA, Canada, Finland, Norway, Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Iceland during the 20th century (p. 284).

Tudge also explains why Hitler's programme was not just bad ethics, but also bad science.

'Adolf Hitler's ambition to breed better people by crossing and selecting can be seen immediately to be ludicrous. Hitler's particular eugenic balloon can be pricked simply by reference to scarlet runner beans' (p.244).

Tudge discusses the 'selfish gene' (a term popularised by Richard Dawkins' highly readable book 'The Selfish Gene'), and apparent contradictions in the process of natural selection (which can work in opposition to sexual selection). For example, peacocks' tails may slow the bird down, but this disadvantage may be outweighed by the positive 'conspicuous consumption' message given off as a sexual attractant (as indeed with humans).

At first, the book is a little pedestrian, but improves as we get away from explanations of the science of genetics (worthy, but sometimes tedious) and into the social uses and implications. My own preference would be for more philosophical discussion: it is there, but the balance tips more to science than philosophy. Philosophy is mostly left for the epilogue, and some of it seems scanty. For example (p. 281), he discusses a possible positive face of eugenics. Although eugenics in practice has tended to be used coercively, it is not of course a feature of the technology itself. By virtue of the principle that people usually choose their own mates (thus effectively making a eugenic decision), it could extend to include genetic engineering. Parents-to-be could pay to have the genomes of their future offspring manipulated, and Tudge appears cautiously in favour of such operation of free choice (compare arguments for private versus sate education). However, he does not take this further – it obviously has other implications as 'choice' may well be only the privilege of the rich, so others are effectively politically excluded just as much as within more blatantly coercive regimes.

In the epilogue, Tudge's moral stance reduces to cautioning us against 'hubris'. He discusses several principles fundamental to major religions and secular ethics, and hubris – the sin of pride, blasphemy or arrogance is common to all. I find this vacuous; after all, most moral systems exhort some sort of respect for others and our environment. It is possible to deny that there is any reason for a moral system to be followed. It is its own justification and you cannot argue with someone who fails to recognise it. In practice, amoral people are few, and would probably be recognised as sociopathic. So it does not get us very far with the particular issues of genetic manipulation and whatever the future may throw at us. Anyone who wishes to justify experiments that may, in the view of the rest of us, demonstrate hubris, (eg creating a human-ape hybrid, as in Maureen Duffy's 'Gor') could presumably cite some lofty reason for doing so, After all, many who practise vivisection already do. So we need something more specific.

And what of the 'designer baby'? Possible, certainly, but there will always be the risk of failures: the stillbirths, the deformities, and Tudge thinks the price is too high. He rightly points out that we know very well how to build bridges, but they still fall down. Humans are immeasurably more complex than bridges, thus there are many more variables which can fail.

Overall, this is a comprehensive and well written overview which needs close reading, but is worth the effort.

 

  2003 Anne Philbrow
 

Anne Philbrow writes of herself:

I am a self-employed video producer and teach music and drama on a part-time basis. I have a BA Hons in Philosophy from UCW, Aberystwyth, UK and have done postgraduate research in Moral and Social Philosophy, specializing in Animal Rights. In my spare time, I do some freelance writing (book and theater reviews, articles) and have contributed to Philosophy in Review. I am a user of mental health services.


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