Genetics and Evolution

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Unnatural SelectionReview - Unnatural Selection
The Promise and the Power of Human Gene Research
by Lois Wingerson
Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1998
Review by Dena S. Davis, J.D., Ph.D.
Jun 30th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 26)

I read this book on a coast-to-coast plane ride on the day following the joint announcement by Francis Collins and Craig Ventor that the first map of the human genome had been substantially completed. Wingerson's book promises to lay out the historical, political, and ethical context for that announcement by tracing the "gradual evolution" of our societal assumptions and beliefs about genetic research and the uses to which it can be applied.

There is much in this book to engage the interested reader who is a novice to this cluster of topics. Even the more sophisticated reader will learn some interesting gossip, and some intriguing pieces of political history. Wingerson, the author of a 1990 book, Mapping Our Genes: The Genome Project and the Future of Medicine, has certainly done her homework.

The book's topics include profiles of individuals coping with such genetic diseases as Tay-Sachs and cystic fibrosis, as well as a compelling portrait of a bemused European woman grappling with the American approach to pregnancy, in which it seems as if every fetus is guilty until proven innocent. There are chapters on the history of eugenics, on the roles of publicly created ethics commissions, and on the Human Genome Project. Useful sidebars presented concentrated information, for example a rundown of the ten recommendations presented in the Institute of Medicine’s 1994 report, Assessing Genetic Risks.

Ingerson presents her material in a lively and gripping manner, sprinkled with punchy quotations and, whenever possible, focusing on individuals as a way of engaging the reader's interest. Unfortunately, that technique becomes irritating in the course of a 400 page book. The author wants to show the social context and political history of the 20th century involvement in genetic research, but the fine brush with which she paints this often results in clutter. At the end of the day, for example, the reader is more likely to remember the political demonstrations at the 1995 conference on crime and genetics than the important issues being discussed there. She gives us everything but the kitchen sink, without clearly foregrounding what is important.

There are also serious errors. For example, the entire chapter on embryo research and the work of the Human Embryo Research Panel (HERP) is skewed by Wingerson’s focus on the single issue of whether or not to create embryos for research purposes (rather than relying solely on "spare" embryos remaining after a couple have completed their attempts at IVF and implantation). She then consistently confuses this issue with the question of whether it is ever ethical to perform research on embryos which is not directed to their benefit. Further, Wingerson misuses a quotation from Patricia King’s individual statement in the HERP’s 1994 Report. Anyone reading this section without outside knowledge of the HERP document would infer that the Panel had advocated creating embryos for research purposes if not enough spare embryos were forthcoming. In fact, the HERP Report specifically rejected that idea.

It is a little hard to know for whom this book was written. Its level of detail suggests a committed reader, but its scattershot approach is likely to turn off the scholar. Those who like to know the issues "up close and personal," with plenty of behind-the-scenes drama, will enjoy the book most. A public library should probably make the investment, but I would not buy it for a college library unless I had a very large budget.


Dena S. Davis, J.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law


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