50 whys to look for genes: 47. Revolutionary potential

The once science-fictional idea of “genetic engineering,” with its implications of altering the characteristics of human beings to ward off disease or to create armies of obedient slaves, has taken a long step toward reality in the last two years. (NY Times 1975)

The world’s oceans have been charted and its continents mapped. Today, a new kind of cartography is in progress, the mapping of the human genes and chromosomes, the microscopic biological structures that are the chemical basis to human identity.  The effort is one of the key expressions of a revolution in genetics, and is facilitated by recently perfected tools of biological research and impelled by the hope that the new knowledge new research yields will help in the detection of genetically based diseases. (NY Times 1975)

A revolution in the understanding of the genetics of plants will develop within approximately the next five years, a scientist said at a symposium… on the subject of genetic engineering applications to agriculture. (NY Times 1982)

How far and fast the field [of genetics] has come was abundantly apparent at a recent major international meeting in Toronto. Many, perhaps most, of the scientific reports given there would have been incomprehensible to geneticists as recently as a decade ago. Some would have been derided as fantasy.  But today the revolution of modern genetics that began 35 years ago when the structure of the genetic material DNA was discovered has entered a new time of acceleration.  ”Genetics is a great engine driving the advancement of knowledge in a whole host of fields in biology,” said Dr. Philip Leder of Harvard Medical School, a major figure in modern research on gene functions. (NY Times, 1988)

CONVINCED that advances in molecular biology and molecular genetics are transforming the theory and practice of medicine, the American Medical Association is virtually shouting at the nation’s doctors to pay attention.  It is publishing more than 150 articles on advances in molecular genetics in 11 medical journals today, devoting its resources to pointing out that the genetics revolution is well under way. (NY Times, 1993)

THIS spring, Joe Tusek and many of his fellow farmers here in western Illinois will plant soybean seeds fortified with a biological weapon borrowed from the petunia. The genetic alteration will enable the farmers to cut costs by dousing their crops with Roundup, a cheap but powerful Monsanto herbicide that would kill normal soybean plants along with the weeds.  Mr. Tusek, like thousands of other farmers across the United States, is volunteering as a foot soldier in a revolution more than two decades in the making. Since the mid-1970’s when scientists discovered an easy way to make copies of the genes that control the shape and behavior of all living things — and then how to move them among species — visionaries began predicting a new day in agriculture. Genetic engineering, as they called it, promised healthier food, more predictable harvests, fewer synthetic pesticides and more efficient use of water. (NY Times, 1996)

”There will be enhancements to life span, alterations to personality, like intelligence,” says Dr. Gregory Stock, the director of the Program on Medicine, Technology and Society at the University of California at Los Angeles. ”In the not-too-distant future, it will be looked at as kind of foolhardy to have a child by normal conception.”  Genetic research has always posed vexing social and ethical issues. But there may be no more complicated question than how the fruits of the genetic revolution should be used and, most important, who should have access to them. In the last century, eugenics was about the exercise of power and ideology. In the next, it may be about money. (NY Times, 1/1/2000)

For more than a decade, the public has been primed to expect an imminent revolution in genomics that would be the key to overhauling a broken medical system. Indeed, the promise of personal genomics is tantalizing: It could improve individual health by providing personalized risk information about diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity, and about how individuals metabolize drugs, whether they are carriers for certain diseases and even what personality traits they are likely to have. This promise suggests a different landscape for health care, one in which individuals would actively participate in understanding and shaping their personalized health profiles. Equipped with their personal genomes, patients could choose healthier lifestyles and thereby achieve better health outcomes. (Vernez and Lee 2011)

etc. etc.


Who is involved in deciding what research in genetics is undertaken?  What room is there/has there been for citizens to influence the course of science?  …and the application of results?

Who gains?  What should we expect to happen as a result of aspects of “life” becoming commodified?  (Rowling 1987 suggests that, once a market for a thing originates its production and exchange become tied up in increasingly complex social relations, in particular concerning:trade and the different levels of intermediaries; and control of production processes and the labour involved.)

What alternative paths to improvement are given less emphasis or not pursued?  (E.g., Identification and reduction of environmental factors involved in increases of many cancers?)

Where does this lead to?  (In the account of Yoxen 1986, there is no absolute technological inevitability in the sequence: prenatal screening & selective abortion -> somatic cell therapy -> germ cell (&early embryo) modification -> enhancement of specific genetic traits -> enhancement of more complex attributes.  However, each step would make the next more feasible. Yoxen proposes that the public should discuss the implications and so individuals can make choices that enhance their freedom, self-esteem and sense of responsible reproductive behavior.)


Rowling, N. Commodities: How the World Was Taken to Market.  London: Free Association Books, 1987.

Yoxen, E. “Unnatural selection/Gene Therapy.” In Unnatural Selection?, Pp. 157-173. London: Heinemann, 1986.


(Introduction to this series of posts)


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