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Customer Review

on July 5, 2000
This book is exactly what the title implies - a treatise on how many people in the scientific community (including physical and social science) and in the general public have come to regard biology, or more specifically DNA, as The Answer. Just as religion had The Answer in previous ages, so now, we "know" that all the answers lie in understanding our DNA. This has spread to all aspects of human society, from justification of our capitalist monetary system to modern medicine. To emphasise the point, a quote from the text: "[An] editor of Science, what asked why the Human Genome Project funds should not be given instead to the homeless, answered, 'What these people don't realise is that the homeless are impaired.... Indeed, no group would benefit more from the application of human genetics.'"
This is a chilling statement, and we're fortunate to have books like these pointing out the ethical and scientific problems in such pronouncements. Prof. Lewontin debunks the myth that DNA is the be all and end all. In a wide ranging series of essays, he attacks the claims of the Human Genome Project scientists (I want to point out that he does not attack the science itself, which is fine, simply the rationale in doing it) and others who are trying to find a panacea in understanding genetics. He argues that while DNA is important, it does not define what it means to be human, any more than a pile of bricks defines a house, and it certainly can't be used to justify capitalism, fascism, or anarchical government systems, as claimed by some political philosophers. Or that people are homeless because they have defective DNA.
There are two minor points that I must make objection to. The first is that he seems to imply that scientists (specifically, those working on the human genome) make wild claims as to how much their research will benefit mankind, and society is duped into believing them. While this is undoubtedly the case some of the time, in my experience, the media often exaggerate the claims of scientists to make a better story. "This project will help us understand cancer better, and will lead to better treatments" becomes "Cause of cancer discovered!" Lewontin tends to blame the scientist entirely for these grandiose claims. Secondly, I believe basic research is valuable, thus the Genome Project is important, something Lewontin doesn't seem to want to admit.
Those two points aside, however, this is an interesting and important book, if a little one-sided. Highly recommended.
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