Evelyn Fox Keller, a well-known social critic and professor of philosophy of science at MIT, termed the 20th century the “Century of the Gene.” Five years into the 21st century, it can be easily argued that we are in for another century full of genetic wonder, hope, frustration, and fear.
It is impossible to read a newspaper or watch the news without hearing about the discovery of a gene that will affect all of our lives. Recently, genes have been reported to be responsible for problems ranging from compulsive shopping, obesity, and alcoholism to breast and prostate cancer. How do nonscientists wade through the hype of these new discoveries? How does society make sense of what is being put into our food under the umbrella term “genetic modification?” How do we decide if it is ethical, or smart, for scientists to clone humans or to manipulate crop plants?
In their book, Genes and DNA: A Beginner’s Guide to Genetics and Its Applications, Washington State University professors Charlotte Omoto and Paul Lurquin offer a starting point for addressing these questions. The book walks the reader through the complex world of genetics and does an excellent job, not only of explaining difficult concepts, but also putting them in a historical perspective.
The authors go far—perhaps too far—to avoid making judgments for the reader. They do, however, provide information that will help readers understand the science behind modern genetic techniques so they can add science to the mix of factors—including emotion, values, religion, experience, and common sense—upon which they base moral and ethical decisions.
The book opens with a definition of DNA, how it was discovered, and why it is such an interesting molecule. It then progresses through chapters on topics that range from human genetics to the use of bacteria as factories for producing synthetic proteins, to genetic testing. Scattered throughout are chapters that explain how genes actually function to maintain and, ultimately, define life. Each step of the way, the authors are careful to bring the topic back to the gene. In the chapter, “Survival of the Fittest?”, for example, they introduce complexities such as the forces of environment and selection in causing change, but they keep these concepts in the context of the gene.
The individual chapters stand sufficiently on their own to make the book useful as a reference source to help average readers make sense of what they read or hear in the popular press. The glossaries on scientific names of organisms, human genetic diseases, and terms should also come in handy.
Many of the chapters end with a “Try This at Home” section for children. I can imagine kids on a rainy Saturday trying out the “Extract DNA from Vegetables in Your Kitchen” idea. However, unless your child is the president of the math club, I don’t see him or her calling friends over to play the “DNA Replication, Transcription, and Translation Game.”
While it provides a sound basic explanation of genes, the book leaves out some of the less positive outcomes of genetics. The chapter titled “Nature Versus Nurture” would have been a prime spot to discuss the roles of geneticists in the eugenics movement in the first half of the 20th century. In the United States, the movement resulted in over 60,000 involuntary sterilizations, mostly of women, who were deemed to be genetically “unfit.” It is a sad chapter in our scientific history, and it would have been valuable to see the authors discuss the movement in the context of their book. Genetics, like all science, has gone down some regrettable paths. To highlight these should humble rather than shame us. Ultimately, the knowledge of our mistakes should help us to better steer our efforts in the future.
As a society we are asked to make informed decisions on complex issues such as stem cell research and the labeling of our food based on its level of genetic modification. We have a lot of homework to do, and this book is a good start.
– Stephen Jones, professor , Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, WSU