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The Limits and Lies of Human Genetic ResearchReview - The Limits and Lies of Human Genetic Research
Dangers For Social Policy
by Jonathan Michael Kaplan
Routledge, 2000
Review by Imre Szebik M.D. M.Sc.
May 31st 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 22)

Have you ever thought about why some authors tend to write bad books and bad reviews? Maybe there something in their genes that makes these authors unable to write clearly and thoughtfully -- isn't that a plausible explanation? Probably it is. Especially in our era of genetics, this is what our first guess might be. However, this gut feeling (we may call it hypothesis) must certainly be justified with scientific methods. So, what should we do? We take a cohort of bad writers and examine their genes. If we are adamant and lucky enough we will find a gene that seems to characterize these and only these writers to a certain extent. We may even name this gene as "bad writer gene" and we can already see it in the headlines of the New York Times: Gene has been found to cause bad quality papers.

Does this all sound bizarre? Certainly, it does. However, if you read Kaplan's enlightening book carefully you will see, it is not that unusual in genetics, especially in genetic epidemiology to get results this way. In his excellent book Kaplan examines how genetics are misused and misunderstood.

The relevance of this book in these days, when the scientific media is dominated by the results and potential future achievements of the Human Genome Project, is unquestionable. Although there are plenty of books on the market discussing the social consequences of HGP, what makes this book unique is that Kaplan analyses how geneticists and scientist mislead themselves and others with presumptions (a priori considerations) that are taken for granted and are never questioned nor proven.

Kaplan picks classic and hot topics: intelligence, criminality, homosexuality, depression, obesity. He shows that throughout the process of the alleged discovery of "obesity genes" and intelligence genes" and "homosexuality genes" the plasticity of environment is widely ignored. It makes no sense, he argues, to claim that intelligence is determined by this and that percent (the rest belongs to environment) since there is no uniform environment, in different environmental circumstances the capabilities are expressed in a different way, thus the environment-gene interaction provides far more complexity, far more variables than these research results may hint.

The last chapter of the book is dedicated to the concept of 'environment'. Environment as such cannot be defined nor made uniform. Choosing one given environment during the genetic research project is not only an arbitrary choice but may seriously bias the findings, Kaplan argues.

One may argue that arguments, like 'things are far more complex than we assume' lead nowhere, or to a certain kind of scientific nihilism. But Kaplan does not lead his readers on this path, and it is always better to remember the limits of our knowledge than to live in illusions. Illusions may lead to serious social problems, like genetic discrimination, and it is good to keep in mind that too often genetic discrimination is based on misleading interpretation of scientific results.

© Imre Szebik 2001

Imre Szebik M.D. M.Sc., Postdoctoral Fellow, Clinical Trials Research Group, Biomedical Ethics Unit, McGill University.


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