The Meanings of the Gene: Public Debates About Human Heredity. Celeste Michelle Condit. 338 pp. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. $49.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.
The genome revolution has reached a stage in which an effluence of data is outpacing our analysis and understanding of the biomedical, scientific and social impact of genomics. The Human Genome Project acknowledged this disparity in 1990 and integrated the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) Research Program into its structure. The ELSI Program, which receives more than $10 million per year in federal funds, is the largest supporter of bioethics research in the world.
There are tremendous stakes—moral, cultural and economic—in the genome boom. Some fear the specter of eugenics, while others worry about medical privacy, health insurance and genetic engineering. Yet even in the presence of efforts by ELSI and others, a distinguished scholar such as bioethicist Arthur Caplan can lament that "we have done almost nothing to prepare for the advent of a flood of new genetic information" (Philadelphia Inquirer, April 10).
Into this morass has stepped Celeste Condit, research professor of speech communication at the University of Georgia. Her book The Meanings of the Gene: Public Debates About Human Heredity seeks to address many of these social and ethical questions by examining genetics in the United States during the 20th century. Condit calls the 20th century "the period in human social evolution when we began to exert conscious control over the hereditary characteristics of our species." Her goal is to draw from this era's changing conception of the gene to understand "recurring motifs and tendencies about which we can be aware as we take our next steps." If you can muddle though such postmodernist terms as "discursive event," "rational control lever" and "rhetorical transformation process," then the book is a helpful place to start to understand the role of "public discourse" (that is, the appearance and interpretation of a scientific idea in the popular media) in the promulgation of science.
Condit divides the genetic research into four distinct eras: The period of classical eugenics (1900–1935) was dominated by an ideal that saw heredity as uniform and predictable and genes as superior or inferior. The era of family genetics (1940–1954) witnessed an abrupt shift toward a view of heredity as a lottery in which one could have either normal or abnormal genes. Watson and Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA shaped the era of genetic experimentation (1956–1976), which explored ways in which the genetic code could be rewritten. Finally, in the era of genetic medicine (1980–1995), an increasingly complicated interpretation of genetics emerged that understood a genome as a blueprint, a starting point for understanding genes and a resource to be exploited by entrepreneurs.
One of the difficulties with Condit's approach is the stark separation she draws between the producers of knowledge (the scientists) and the consumers of knowledge (the general public). Many readers will be uncomfortable with this divide and the consequent absence of almost any mention of the scientists behind many of the discoveries discussed in the book. Condit also gets mired in her quantitative methodology. To measure the "placement of genetics within U.S. public discourse," Condit built a database of a random sampling of magazine articles on the topic that appeared in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature between 1919 and 1995. Her assistants coded the articles based on, among other variables, the degree of genetic determinism and attitudes about genetic perfectionism expressed and the types of ethical issues raised. The interpretation of these data was used, in conjunction with the extant literature, to formulate the book's theses.
In this type of quantitative interpretation it is easy to see how one might confuse public discourse with the final outcome. For example, Condit asserts that eugenics in the United States was a "failed rhetoric that had relatively small impact." However, she also writes that "approximately 30,000 U.S. citizens were sterilized in the name of eugenics during the classical eugenic era." Do 30,000 sterilizations not constitute a significant impact?
The path from eugenics to genomics has been fraught with pitfalls that still threaten to derail the potential biomedical and social benefits of genetics. But Condit essentially tells a story of progress. We have, as a society, she argues, created a more egalitarian (that is, less discriminatory) genetic discourse that should guide us to a healthy and democratic future. The book does express fears for a nightmare future in the wake of the genomics revolution. To keep such a dystopic vision from becoming reality, Condit wants to prevent the cloning of humans, ensure adequate genetic counseling and oppose commercial pressure for excessive genetic testing.
Condit's book adds to the growing literature on the historical and contemporary ethical issues of genomics. The Meanings of the Gene is not a perfect introduction to the complicated realm of the history and ethics of genetics, but one that can help begin to unravel the issues generated by the genomics revolution and prepare us for the future to come.—Michael Yudell, Program in the History of Public Health and Medicine, Columbia University