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Genes in Development: Re-reading the Molecular Paradigm

by Eva M. Neumann-Held and Christoph Rehmann-Sutter, Editors
Duke University Press, Durham, USA, 2006
378 pp., illus. b/w, $23.95 USD
ISBN: 0-8223-3667-7.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


This book metaphorically drops a stick of dynamite down through the centre of the DNA double helix spiral. The subtitle, Re-Reading The Molecular Paradigm does just that and is a fairly accurate description of the book’s purpose. Many scholars will find this book challenging, especially those who uncritically embrace the widely held view of genetic reductionism. "Those who have attributed too much significance to DNA and too little to extra-DNA factors have been called gene centrists" (p.1).

None of the 14 contributors suggest that DNA is not an extremely important factor in the creation of life on earth; they do, however, deconstruct the dominant paradigm that DNA is solely responsible for programming such life. This deconstruction involves discussion of developmental systems approach, methodical culturalism, the molecular process concept of the gene, the hermeneutic theory of description, and process structuralist biology. The result is a much broader and comprehensive understanding of how life develops than afforded by the simplistic DNA blueprint-for-life scenario allows.

Genes In Development has a smattering of black & white illustrations throughout the 14 chapters which are themselves divided into four sections: 1 — Empirical Approaches, 2 — Looking Back Into History, 3 — Theorizing Genes and 4 — Social and Ethical Implications. Section 3, regarding Gene Theory is by far the most comprehensive, with nine extremely detailed and highly technical essays. These present different interpretative approaches to genes in development. As the editors Neuman-Held and Rehmann-Sutter point out the original title was Genes and Development but in keeping with the attempt to clearly define the role of genes it was changed to, Genes in Development — a subtle though significant realisation that "…our thinking encompasses both organic and conceptual refinement" (p. 2).

This book is not really directed at general readership. The arguments presented are complex and require at least a basic knowledge of genetics, history of molecular biology and the way science is a socially constructed body of knowledge. This last point is almost as equally important throughout the book as the science itself. "Since its origin, molecular biology, and particularly molecular genetics – symbolised by DNA – has had controversial historical, cultural, and social impacts" (p. 2). It is quite astounding just how much scientific research is socially and culturally biased, a point the general public do not realise. The public are led to believe science is a purely objective, value-free enterprise undertaken for the benefit of all people. Nothing could be further from the truth, which in some cases could be seen as fraudulent as the public purse is the source of much research funding.

Genes in Development, whilst not extremely political in overall outlook, does address the relationship of science funding and the public. As an example in Chapter 3, From Genes As Determinants To DNA As Resource the author, Sahotra Sarkar drops the following little bombshell. "If the HGP [Human Genome Project] is judged by the explicit promises that its proponents made in the late 1980s and 1990s to secure public support (and funding), it has been an unmitigated failure, the most colossal misuse ever of scarce resources for biological research" (p. 87). There is no space here to quote at length this damning assessment of the HGP farce, just one more small quote should be enough to make Sarkar’s point and make us wake-up! "None of the promises of Gilbert’s radical genetic reductionism have been borne out. Proponents of the HGP promised enormous immediate medical benefits. There have been none" (ibid).

Further on in Chapter 3, Sarkar argues that DNA (and hence the gene) cannot any longer be seen as the locus that is responsible for the structure, behaviour and diversity of living entities. As I suggested earlier, this is a challenging book. It will be interesting to see if in the near future the arguments presented attract sound refutation from scientists and philosophers working specifically in this area.

The last two chapters of the book deal with some of the ethical and social concerns regarding the re-reading of molecular biology. I would have liked to have seen this section contain another two or three essays to thoroughly flesh out this aspect of the genetic game. I understand there is a limit to book size but this recommendation would not have made the book unmanageable in size and would have thoroughly rounded it out.

This minor criticism aside, Genes in Development will become a standard text in the field for both students and scientists at the highest level of research. I also believe it will be a gold mine for science writers and journalists who are the intermediaries between the scientist’s laboratories and our lounge rooms.



Updated 1st September 2006

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