By Elizabeth Henderson
So since I do not oppose science, do I oppose genetic engineering? Yes and no. I share with geneticists their fascination with the functioning of the tiniest of particles that make up living matter. One of my favorite books is A Feeling for the Organism (by Evelyn Fox Keller, 1984), a biography of Barbara McClintock (1902-1992), a cytogeneticist who specialized in corn. McClintock was one of the first to map the corn genome. She demonstrated that genes turn physical characteristics on and off and discovered genetic transposition or “jumping genes.” She shook the notion that science held as a truth that the genome is a stationary entity with the genes in an order that is unchanging by showing that it is subject to alteration and rearrangement. For many years, the mainstream of science regarded her with disapproval only eventually to catch up with her and then heap honors on her great discoveries. Science lurches forward – and a great leap is yet to be made for a full comprehension of the relationship between genes and the environment.
The more geneticists look into it, the more complex the relationship of genes to physical traits turns out to be. As Jonathan Latham puts it:
“a defined, discrete or simple pathway from gene to trait probably never exists. Most gene function is mediated murkily through highly complex biochemical and other networks that depend on many conditional factors, such as the presence of other genes and their variants, on the environment, on the age of the organism, on chance, and so forth. Geneticists and molecular biologists, however, since the time of Gregor Mendel, have striven to find or create artificial experimental systems in which environmental or any other sources of variation are minimised so as not to distract from the more “important” business of genetic discovery.
“But by discarding organisms or traits that do not follow their expectations, geneticists and molecular biologists have built themselves a circular argument in favour of a naive deterministic account of gene function. Their paradigm habitually downplays the enormous complexities by which information passes (in both directions) between organisms and their genomes. It has created an immense and mostly unexamined bias in the default public understanding of genes and DNA.” (Latham, op cit)
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