DNA and grey cells

Book>> GENES, CELLS AND BRAINS, THE PROMETHEAN PROMISES OF THE NEW BIOLOGY • by Hillary Rose and Steven Rose • Verso • Rs 1,550

bookIn 1953, when James Watson and Francis Crick got the Nobel Prize for discovering the double helix of DNA it was the highest laurel for the scientists. Fast forward 50 years. Watson now heads the celebrated Human Genome Project. One of his colleagues comes in and shares his delight about a new discovery. An elated Watson exclaims: “Wow, that will make shedloads of money.”

For Steven and Hillary Rose, Watson’s exultation symptomises all that is wrong with the genetic science establishment. Even if we grant the venerable seer of genetics the benefit of doubt—it could well have been an offhand remark, and after all who does not want money—the Roses’ point is well taken. Commerce has taken over the quest to reach what at one time seemed one of the most exciting frontiers of science. In the Roses’ words “the pharma industry lurks inside universities”.

Many of us are aware of this takeover. What the Roses do brilliantly in Genes, Cells and Brains is to puncture some of the hype around genetics created by the industry-scientist nexus. The book is a rare collaboration; Steven is a neurobiologist and Hillary is a sociologist—of course it helps that they are married.

Research on genes is more than a century old. For the Roses, the major turnaround happened in the 1990s with the Human Genome project. That’s when the hype reached its acme. A lot of it came from scientists themselves, playing the industry’s game. They persuaded journalists to trumpet their results and goaded governments to fund research. Miracle cures for everything from cancer to schizophrenia were round the corner. Daniel Koshland, editor of Science, once wrote, “Illnesses such as manic depression, Alzheimer’s and heart disease would all be unravelled.”

James Watson (left) and Francis Crick recreate the double helix model for DNA in 1990The Roses show how and why both genomics and stem-cell therapy have thus far failed to deliver the cornucopia of benefits they have promised. “There’s now a significant research programme on the genetics of obesity. If you look at my and Steven’s school photos you won’t see a single obese child—unlike today. Yet they are looking for a gene to explain obesity,” Hillary wrote at another place. “The genes haven’t changed. So why keep looking in that direction? They go on looking in that direction because there isn’t profit to be made in the same way otherwise.”

This demystification reminds us of a commonly forgotten truism: science is intricately twined with politics. The failure to notice this link blinkers an even otherwise perspicacious thinker like Richard Dawkins into genetic reductionism. I led a large—and influential—section of the science establishment to believe that our complex behaviour can be reduced to one aspect of our biology. We will probably be spared a dystopia where doctors prescribe drugs on a patient’s genetic predisposition to diseases—and not go by symptoms.

Genetic reductionism has taken some pasting in recent times. Humans, its now evident, have the same number of genes as a fruit fly. Human genes are 98 per cent identical to chimpanzees. Let alone criminal behaviour—genes cannot even explain the colour of our eyes. Genetics is on the backfoot, but the pharma industry has not given up. The Roses remind us that, “We are living through the commodification of bioinformation, as vast biobanks are built from national populations.” The UK government is planning for National Health Service records to be made available to private companies.

Meanwhile in the science firmament, neuroscience is the next big thing. Everything—from romantic love to one’s political inclination—can somehow be put down to a bunch of neurons. It’s now all in the brain. Are we then headed towards times when the social scientist, the economist, even the environmental scientist will be in thrall to the neuroscientist? The jury is out on such dystopia.

Maitrayee Sikdar is a doctor in Chicago, US

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