On the Necessity of Practising a Benign, or Utopian, Genetics

John Dupré

  • The Lives to Come: The Genetic Revolution and Human Possibilities by Philip Kitcher
    Allen Lane, 381 pp, £20.00, April 1996, ISBN 0 7139 9129 1

Scientists would sometimes like us to believe that science is just too difficult for the comprehension of ordinary mortals. Given the increasing diversity of specialities, moreover, there is no chance for anyone, scientist or otherwise, to understand more than fragments of it. Only committees of complementary experts, it would appear, will be able to make intelligent decisions when scientific advances raise questions of science’s answerability to society. This fear is greatly exaggerated. Although there are areas of science which it requires familiarity with advanced mathematics to understand, these are few and, as a rule, have no great relevance to public policy. Despite its prestige, high-energy physics has little obvious practical relevance to anything but the level of public funding of high-energy physics. A good sense of the fundamentals of most science is not beyond the reach of the educated outsider. The level of expertise required to grasp the broad implications of research is not the same as that required to advance that research. The real problems lie elsewhere.

If a tolerable level of scientific understanding is not beyond the reach of the general public, who might be expected to provide it? Most of us have neither the time nor the inclination to return to the classroom for a refresher course in molecular biology or microeconomics. If the goal were simply to provide access to the technical details there would be no problem: this would best be provided by the scientists themselves. But it is not the only or even the main goal. What we really need is an exposition of the science together with an evaluation, first, of its epistemic merits and, second, of its implications for society generally. With the former, scientists are likely to be advocates rather than disinterested observers, and the latter are not matters about which scientists have any particular expertise.

The philosophy of science might seem particularly well equipped to meet this need. Unfortunately, however, philosophers of science show little appetite for such work, concerning themselves rather with esoteric matters in the theories of confirmation, explanation, causation and so on. And where they do aim to advance understanding, they often seem more concerned to obtain the respect and approval of scientific practitioners than with presenting an external, perhaps critical, perspective. Nevertheless, in The Lives to Come, Philip Kitcher provides an outstanding illustration of what the philosophy of science can contribute to public understanding.

Molecular genetics, the topic of Kitcher’s book, is surely the area of contemporary research with the greatest potential relevance to society. In an astonishingly short-time, scientists have learned to read the billions-long sequences of molecules that comprise DNA, have described in great detail its basic functioning, and have discerned connections between defects in the DNA and disease. Radical transformations of the practices of medicine and law enforcement, and a revival of eugenics, are among the benefits (or fears) widely advertised by enthusiasts for this project.

Kitcher is both sensitive to the potentially adverse consequences of molecular genetics, and enthusiastic about the potential benefits. On occasion, however, this enthusiasm may have more to do with the pure excitement of the science than with any very clear practical consequences in the foreseeable future. The most commonly heard justification of the billions currently being spent on the Human Genome Project is that it will lead to advances in medicine. Yet this proves to be the area of greatest disappointment when we confront the reality. The example to which Kitcher, in common with other enthusiasts, constantly recurs is that of phenylketonuria, or PKU. Children born with PKU lack a gene necessary for the metabolism of a common amino-acid, phenylalanine. Under normal circumstances they suffer severe mental retardation. By providing them with special diets very low in phenylalanine, it has proved possible for many such children to develop nearly normally.

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