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Making Genes, Making WavesReview - Making Genes, Making Waves
A Social Activist in Science
by Jon Beckwith
Harvard University Press, 2002
Review by Jackie Scully, Ph.D.
Dec 1st 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 49)

I wish I liked this book much more. In theory, Jon Beckwith's account of his life as a molecular biologist and as a social activist, really ought to push every button for me, articulating as it does a lot of the tensions that troubled my own career in molecular biology. There are substantial differences between the two of us of course, not least of which is that Beckwith is by several orders of magnitude the better scientist. And in his case, the context of his activism was the social and political ferment of America in the 1960s, a long way from the sleazy depression of Britain under Thatcher.

Beckwith's book begins with an account of his meeting, after a gap of 35 years, with a fellow postgraduate student whose life had taken a very different course. (He decided science and activism were incompatible, and ended up a quail farmer in Normandy.) The rest of the story effectively offers an explanation for why their paths diverged, and is naturally a justification for Beckwith's own road. The chapter 'Becoming a scientist' charts the young Jon's early days as a less than totally committed Harvard chemistry student, and his conversion to molecular biology and to the study of gene control that would lead, some years later, to a finding of major significance in the field. The next chapter, 'Becoming an Activist', then describes his life outside the lab, in what seems to be a very un-Harvard like parallel universe of out gay poets, jazz players, and people who drank homemade absinthe. (You see, chemistry can be useful after all.)

Postdoctoral work abroad exposed him to the liberal American expatriate scene in Paris, and there was more political activity back home during the years of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. One chapter describes the profound effect that reading about the US's eugenic history had on him. Afterwards he came to the conclusion that the problem lay not so much in the scientists or even the science, but in the ideological stances that fueled its misuse: interestingly, at this point he doesn't consider science's influence on the development of those same social phenomena. Like the Central Dogma of molecular biology, in which DNA makes RNA makes protein, the flow of information is only one-way.

His growing political consciousness meant that when it came to concocting the press release about his team's big discovery, it was exploited "as an opportunity to heighten public awareness of the potential social consequences of genetics research". Throughout the book the professional consequences of his activism are glided over -- either that, or else he got off very lightly indeed. (The personal consequences of his professional and political choices get even less of a mention.) When he received the prestigious Eli Lilly award from the American Society of Microbiology, his decision to donate the $1000 to the Black Panthers was received with "outrage and acclaim", but the "anonymous threatening letters" were nevertheless "more than balanced by other responses". Beckwith spent years working for grassroots organisations, notably Science for the People, tirelessly discussing and providing arguments to counter the extremes of sociobiology and genetic determinism. Deservedly, he has been rehabilitated as a good guy, one of the handful of biologists who continue to be taken seriously in their profession while making much-needed nuisances of themselves as political consciences (the chapter describing this is entitled, "I'm Not Very Scary Anymore").

Beckwith says he "wrote this book to make the claim that a scientist can pursue a productive scientific career and still be a social activist within science", and this is exactly what he does. This may be why, in the end, it's naggingly unsatisfying. It's a report of how to do it, or at least how one man did it, but what would be equally (or more) interesting would be to know why he bothered in the first place, and that Beckwith is unable or unwilling to tell us. He says that, "over the years, accumulating experiences had changed my political sensitivities," but lots of people's politics are changed by experience without them feeling the urge to take up social transformation as a major life goal. He is demonstrably committed to his science and his activism, but where does this commitment come from? Hanging out with proto-hippies at Harvard, Beckwith says he "saw values in these subcultures that I felt much closer to than those of the mainstream", but the attraction of a comfortably middle-class boy to the marginalised remains obscure. The writing is always eminently reasonable, and so there's no trace of the passion about injustice that one feels (perhaps wrongly) must be there. Perhaps this is just a reflection of the limits of Beckwith's literary ability, but it's also notable that he devotes less than two paragraphs to his childhood: his involvement in science begins "In high school...", as if in the making of a scientist or a social activist, nothing that came before then mattered.

The book is a good read, it's interesting, and it tells you quite a lot about what is now considered the early modern period of molecular biology. It's just a shame that in the end the overall impression is of a nonscientist's caricature of how a scientist would write about their most passionately held beliefs.

 

2003 Jackie Scully

 

Jackie Scully works at the Unit for Ethics in the Biosciences, Institute for the History and Epistemology of Medicine, University of Basel, Switzerland. She is author of Quaker Approaches to Moral Issues in Genetics (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002).


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