Genes, Cells and Brains: The Promethean Promises of the New Biology

Dissecting the hype from the frontiers of bioethics, genomics and neuroscience

Our fates lie in our genes and not in the stars, said James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. But Watson could not have predicted the scale of the industry now dedicated to this new frontier. Since the launch of the multibillion-dollar Human Genome Project, the biosciences have promised miracle cures and radical new ways of understanding who we are. But where is the new world we were promised?

In Genes, Cells and Brains, feminist sociologist Hilary Rose and neuroscientist Steven Rose take on the bioscience industry and its claims. Examining the establishment of biobanks, the rivalries between public and private genesequencers, and the rise of stem cell research, they ask why the promised cornucopia of health benefits has failed to emerge and reveal the questionable enterprise that has grown out of bioethics. The human body is becoming a commodity, and the unfulfilled promises of the science behind this revolution suggest profound failings in genomics itself.


  • “Fascinating, lucid and angry.”
  • “On my must-read list! Genes, Cells, Brains... the rundown on the hype.”
  • “Whatever else we may need for the public understanding of science, we certainly do need the facts contained in this book. The Roses show how rapidly the ideal of disinterested scientific research has been evaporating since Mammon has been welcomed into the laboratory. Immense and still increasing profits have been made by people who have repeatedly promised various holy grails—discoveries expected to arise from genetic and cerebral research—but comparatively little of real use has emerged from that quarter. In particular, Genes, Cells and Brains shows how the recent expansion of the neurosciences, which was widely hailed as the dawn of a new psychiatry, has actually had little effect. Plainly this research has done little to check the steadily continuing increase in mental illness. Altogether, this is a rather blood-curdling but fascinating book and a much-needed alarm call!”
  • Genes, Cells and Brains is an angry book. It is also an important one ... contains wonderful descriptions of the science behind the new biology.”
  • “While I generally turn down requests for an endorsement of a book, I must make an exception for the superb analysis of a very important topic by Hilary Rose and Steve Rose. Genes, Cells and Brains refutes with authority the extravagant claims that everything that ails us will be cured by modern molecular and cellular biology. They show that despite the self-serving hype produced by both academic and entrepreneurial science, we still do not understand how the brain works nor can we avoid the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to.”
  • “A scathing account of the failure of recent projects in biology to provide significant new knowledge…the Roses provide thought-provoking and interesting contrasts to the secular, neoliberal view that predominates at present.”
  • “Rose and Rose provide incisive analyses of the successes of the new biology at improving corporate profits while failing to do much to improve human health. This is a valuable therapy for all of us suffering from the inflated promises and huge costs of the new biology, and a splendid resource for reinvigorating the Radical Science Movement in today’s global political economy.”
  • Genes, Cells and Brains offers a complex, compelling picture of the social and political challenges emerging around biotechnological investment, promise and hype.”
  • “I have just started Genes, Cells and Brains and I can hardly put it down. What clarity and insights, what history and up to the minute perceptiveness. And what brilliant and unpretentious writing. I think this is an important book.”
  • “What brilliant and energetic warriors Hilary Rose and Steven Rose have been! Reading this book is to visit the innumerable battlefields on which they have fought over half a century. The battle cries have now softened into gentler irony, but the pace of the writing is superb. Anybody who wants an incisive and radical perspective on the excessive claims made for human genome project, sociobiology, neurosciences, or human discrimination against other humans, should read this book.”
  • “[Hilary Rose and Stephen Rose] unwind the myriad assumptions about technology as the engine of improvement in our lives and offers a powerful argument against the sociopolitical machinery behind these dream disciplines.”
  • “The authors (professors emeriti of sociology and neuroscience at, respectively, Bradford U. and the Open U., England) place contemporary developments in the biotechnosciences of genomics, regenerative medicine, and the neurosciences (the "genes, cells, and brains" of their title) within the context of the global neoliberal economy and culture of the 21st century.”
  • “[Genes, Cells and Brains is] a detailed and acerbic history of 20th-century genetics: its uneasy dance in and out of the arms of eugenics, its stumbles on the envisioned road to decoding and commodifying human nature, and its upstaging—after the Human Genome Project disappointed hopes for disease cures—by neuroscience, which, in turn, has fallen short of its promises to find and fix the psyche in the brain.”
  • “The main arguments of Genes, Cells and Brains are clear, engaging and mostly convincing ... testament to the power of the Roses' writing and their perceptive understanding of the relation between science and society”


  • Why We Are Who We Are - a video debate on epigenetics with Steven Rose for The Institute of Art and Ideas

    Steven Rose, co-author of Genes, Cells and Brains: The Promethean Promises of the New Biology, is joined by philosopher Julian Baggini and leading geneticists Caroline Relton and Adrian Bird to debate whether we are on the edge of a radical new account of life and evolution. 

    The debate centers on the potential of the new science of epigenetics to provide such an alternative account. Are we moving away from the notion that DNA provides the definitive blueprint for life?

    View the full video now:

    The discussion is part of the Philosophy for our Times series, hosted by The Institute of Arts and Ideas, a collection of cutting edge debates and talks from prominent thinkers. You can see all of video content from the Institute here

  • “A strong exposé of the hype surrounding genetics” – Genes, Cells and Brains reviewed in the Guardian, Nature and the New Scientist

    We admittedly live in times plagued by an obsession with genetic manipulation of both ourselves and our species’ evolutionary path. Hilary and Steven Rose’s latest book, Genes, Cells and Brains, has stirred up a debate around the scientific validity and the moral implications of these efforts. Here is what reviewers Steven Poole, from the Guardian, Ian Wilmut, from Nature, and Debora MacKenzie, from the New Scientist had to say:

    Putting aside certain epistemological doubts (as in, how can we be skeptical of neuroscanning experiments for making assertions that we can neither prove nor disprove using any other sort of reference; or, alluding to underlying behavioural characteristics of which we know neither their provenance nor how and where they manifest themselves), Steven Poole generally endorses the book’s motives and claims, which are that the science behind using the human genome and brain scans to understand and interpret humans and their behaviours is much more vague and imprecise than its proponents would like us to think. Additionally, he points out that the ‘medicalization’ which comes as a result is not only vague and imprecise; it is, in fact, dangerous as it provides the pharma-industry and the healthcare business with much more responsibilities and powers than they should be afforded.

    Continue Reading

Other books by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose