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

Alex Doherty 1 February 2013

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.


Further down, he salutes the Roses’ passionate tone, writing:


“They decry the entrepreneurialisation of science not least because it actually impedes science. […] They lambast the “armchair” theorizing of evolutionary psychology, with its ungrounded assumption that we have “stone-age minds in the 21st century”. They scorn the “neuromyths” sold to the educational establishment, with the result that children become the unwitting subjects of uncontrolled experiments […]”


Poole leaves the best for last: as he mentions, the Roses insist throughout the book that science is also political and that bioinformation is being commodified already in some countries and, possibly soon, at home. “The contrast”, he concludes, “between welfare policy for bankers and welfare policy for the poor” weakens the cry for solidarity, advanced by those in favour of vast DNA “biobanks”.

In the first paragraph of his review, Ian Wilmut describes Genes, Cells and Brains as “a scathing account of the failure of recent projects in biology to provide significant new knowledge”. As a member himself of the group 'attacked' by the Roses (“a 68-year-old Caucasian male who has worked in biotechnology for the past 30 years”), Wilmut politely scorns the authors’ socialist and feminist perspective, giving them, however, credit for providing “thought-provoking and interesting contrasts to the secular, neoliberal view that predominates at present”.

His main points of contention are two. One, that certain claims are either simply outdated or wouldn’t stand under scientific scrutiny in light of recent developments in relevant fields. Two, that the authors’ criticism of science’s commercialization willfully ignores the fact that without the private sector’s vested (if commercial) interests, research such as the one conducted to further understanding of debilitating degenerative diseases, would have little, if any, chance of being funded by governments – thus making the involvement of private companies not just a lucrative opportunity for them, but a necessary condition for this kind of research to perpetuate.

Wilmut’s disappointment at the rate of progress (which he shares with the Roses) doesn’t lead him to criticize the current state of research wholesale, but to embrace it with all its deficiencies in the hopes of a better, hopefully not so far from now, future.

Finally, Debora McKenzie, presents and seems to endorse most of the arguments of Genes, Cells and Brains, ending on an upbeat note:


“Just because the initial hype proved unfounded, that does not necessarily mean the science was wrong or that it will never deliver”


Visit the Guardian, Nature and the New Scientist to read each review in full.