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Book Review: The Geneticist Who Played Hoops with my DNA

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In this book, David Ewing Duncan introduces readers to the scientists who are ushering in new developments in how we understand (and potentially manipulate) life on a molecular and genetic level. He observes that “Experiments are under way to create new forms of life,” and yet “we hardly know the scientists and others sweeping us into the new world.”

The book is essentially a series of biographical portraits, based on Duncan’s interviews and other available information, of seven of the men and women on the “frontier” of biotech and genetic research. Duncan casts each of these often larger-than-life characters as some sort of mythical figure: for example, James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix, is introduced as Zeus, while Craig Venter, who founded a private company to compete with the publicly funded Human Genome Project on sequencing the genome, is portrayed as Faustus (i.e., the guy who made a deal with the devil).

The portraits themselves are somewhat uneven, filtered as they are through Duncan’s own impressions of the subject. Still, there is an engaging quality to much of it, especially as Duncan largely manages to combine his references to Prometheus, Eve, and Frankenstein to their appropriate subjects (no telling, now). More, he interjects himself into the narrative (for example, by having his own DNA tested by one of his interviewees, at which point there is an interesting discussion between the two about what genetic “predisposition” toward a particular thing might actually mean in reality, as opposed to popular culture where we assume a genetic proclivity in a certain respect is akin to predestination).

Duncan attempts to portray himself as somewhat ambivalent, or neutral, as regards the future; in practice, however, it seems a bit contrived or forced; he seems to have rather assumed the answer to his purported question of whether we can “trust” these scientists who are, in the words of Star Trek, “boldly going where no [one] has gone before.” Despite that quibble, it is fascinating to see the ideals of science examined through the filter of these often wildly disparate individuals, many of whom are somewhat combative or contentious in their own right. Their personal stories and their individual reasoning about the possibilities of the future are often compelling (even if occasionally contradictory).

There are those like Douglas Melton, a champion of stem-cell research, who patiently explain their research. Others – like Watson or Venter – are far less likely to suffer those whom they consider (rightly or wrongly) fools. Likewise, it is interesting to compare someone like Nobel recipient Paul Berg, a pioneer of recombinant DNA who often focuses on issues of safety and ethics, with some of the others who consider “ethics” largely irrelevant to the pursuit of their personal Holy Grail.

In sum, the book is a quirky, thoughtful portrayal of some of the most brilliant minds in the biotech field. It allows them the opportunity to vocalize their thoughts and provides an interesting foundation for understanding their work. The reality, of course, is that the promises of genetic research cannot simply be ignored; while we go about our daily lives, life itself is being sliced, diced, and transformed in laboratories around the world. It is certainly worth the time to take a look at those behind the next great revolution – which, as with most, is coming whether we like it or not.

Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World

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About Bill Wallo

  • Duane

    Thanks, Bill. It’s always dangerous for scientists to expose their personal selves to the media. There’s sometimes the urge on the part of scientists to act like a “personality,” to utter quotable quotes, and to portray themselves as something they’re really not, e.g., Zeus. It sounds like in this case they come off fairly well, however.