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chaptersebooks6 - Making Genes, Making Waves: A Social Activist in Science

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یکشنبه 20 شهریور 1390

Making Genes, Making Waves: A Social Activist in Science

نویسنده: Noah Reynolds   

Making Genes, Making Waves: A Social Activist in Science




Author: Jon Beckwith
Type: eBook
Date Released: 2002
Format: pdf
Language: English
Page Count: 254
Isbn10 Code: 0674009282
Isbn13 Code: 9780674009288


From Library Journal Even though science indisputably affects society, many believe that science should not be used as a tool for social activism. Beckwith, a pioneering geneticist, argues that, quite the contrary, scientists have a special duty to society by virtue of the kind of work they do. Beckwith's social commitment, amply illustrated in the causes he has supported, is evident throughout this fast-paced memoir. As far back as 1969, when he announced the discovery of a technique for isolating a gene, Beckwith cautioned of the possibly dire consequences of genetic engineering. Many of the most difficult ethical choices confronting modern science have emerged from his field, and he is especially worried when biological explanations are proposed for complex human behaviors. This first-person testimony to a life dedicated equally to science and social responsibility belongs in history and sociology of science collections. Gregg Sapp, Science Lib., SUNY at AlbanyCopyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. From The New England Journal of Medicine Those of us who are old enough to have experienced the 1960s but young enough to remember them with fondness and clarity will recall a time of great ferment. There was an air of excitement and possibility, but it was tinged with anxiety about losing a certain sense of order that was inherent in our existing institutions. Today, when ordinary citizens feel entitled to participate in all aspects of government and the leaders of corporations and universities are often preoccupied with public perceptions, it is difficult to conceive how unusual it was to question the status quo in the post-McCarthy era. In particular, activism was rare in the scientific community. The potential dissonance between intellectual endeavor and political activity, best illustrated by the unfortunate experience of Robert Oppenheimer and some of his colleagues on the Manhattan Project, is at the heart of this entertaining and engaging memoir by Jon Beckwith. The author, a scientist who was a major participant in the revolution in molecular biology that informs present-day biomedical research, shares his experiences as a world-class scientist and a forceful advocate for the scientist's responsibility to society. His dual role was a difficult one. At the outset, many of his colleagues chose to remain steadfastly apolitical or to drop out of science altogether. In retrospect, it is clear that, thanks to his respect for open-mindedness and his iconoclastic streak, Beckwith's career was bound to bridge the worlds of science and the larger society. The story is, above all, that of a scientist and is told in a straightforward, almost blunt style. As is the case in the realm of politics, much of what is routine today in biology was virtually unheard of then. The author's initial work of inserting into a viral genome foreign genes that regulate lactose utilization was an early precursor of a routine step in gene cloning. Mentors helped Beckwith develop a logical approach to science and, eventually, served as role models for combining a career in science with political activism. In 1969, Beckwith's group isolated the gene for (beta)-galactosidase. By the time the report of this accomplishment appeared in Nature, the authors' misgivings led to a press conference in which they expressed the concern that this exciting new technology could be used for evil as well as for good. The reaction they elicited was intense; it was a different world in the 1960s. As the author states, "discourse among scientists simply did not include discussions of the social impact of science." The resulting furor marked only the beginning of Beckwith's career as a social activist. He was revered and reviled for his support of the Black Panthers, Communist China, and the Sandinistas. Often, the context of his politics and his science was lost in the novelty of his willingness to speak out. By 1980, he sought to inject a sense of objectivity into these debates, pointing out that uncritical acceptance of any position by any political group was not appropriate, and he expressed this view in popular as well as scientific venues. The prime focus of Beckwith's concern has become the relations between science and society. In particular, the sophistication of the public, though increasing rapidly, has not kept pace with progress in genetics. Beckwith's extended critique of eugenics is a valuable resource for those who wish to examine the potential misapplication of science. He sees as the intellectual progeny of the eugenics movement the recent efforts toward developing a simplified sociobiology that can attribute complex types of behavior to specific genes. In the context of such analysis, the efforts of this basic scientist to affect the decisions of the institutional review board for clinical studies at Harvard become not only understandable but virtually obligatory. Seeking an explanation for the problematic interface between science and society, Beckwith notes that most scientific papers are written with an (admirably) elegant, straightforward logic, without describing all of the false starts involved or how the investigators arrived at their insight. Of course, his efforts to submit a paper describing these additional particulars met with a predictable response in the scientific community. His point, however, is a compelling one: the pretense of objectivity may itself hide bias that the world at large cannot discern. In the worst case, because of this lack of understanding, scientific reports could be viewed by the public as being prescriptive rather than informational. The result is not bad science but, rather, bad policy. Beckwith feels that scientists and the public both bear responsibility for this sad state of affairs. Anyone concerned with these issues would find worthwhile the personal insights in this eminently readable book. I must admit to being dubious at the outset, but I was won over by Beckwith's style and his argument. The issues he raises persist. We are in a period of contrarian reaction to science, in which rational analysis is often forsaken in favor of emotional responses. The optimal solution would accomplish on a mass scale Beckwith's personal goal: to increase scientists' sophistication about society and the public's sophistication about science. Perhaps the key to our future progress is the training of well-prepared and stimulating science teachers. Beckwith has already lent his support. H. William Schnaper, M.D.Copyright © 2003 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.

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