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Sociological Perspectives in the New Genetics by Conrad and Gabe

OrganizedKhaos's picture

         This collection of essays was edited by Peter Conrad and Jonathan Gabe. It focuses on the new era which is described as "the dawn of the genetic age" (Conrad and Gabe, p1). It starts out by laying the foundation about genetics and tracing it back to the eugenics movement which is often thought of in a negative sense. This is because during World War II this Nazi's used it as a way to annihilate an entire "race" of people. But this text's main objection is to draw together a range of sociological viewpoints on the new genetics, which include the topics of: gene therapy, lay perspectives and gene counseling, risk and responsibility factors, and much of the impact and implications these findings have and will have on society. It sends out a very strong message that these issues are not solely the problem of those with genetic disorders or "identified with genetic susceptibilities" but new genetics will eventually have an effect on the entire nation some day (Conrad and Gabe, p1).

          The two major topics which caught my eye were the essays that focused on the reconstruction of genetic disease and gene therapy and secondly, genetic risk and responsibility. These two topics seemed to incorporate much of what was learned in class this semester. It also puts forth many new questions and insights about both the sociological and biological side of genetics.

       The essay written by Paul A. Martin focuses on the idea that genetic disease has undergone some form of reconstruction in definition was the most intriguing. The main focus is on the emergence of new forms of genetic "determinism" questions and how they seem to establish social and environmental explanations for why people were ill and "challenge existing views about the responsibility of both the individual and society" (Martin, p15). The essay states that the cause is due to the new medical technologies available. Certain genetic disorders have always been known but more common illnesses such as, heart disease, are seen to have genetic components which merely increase risk. This has allowed for the claims being made about certain genetic roots in behavioral disorders such as schizophrenia and alcoholism. This is where connections begin to be made. It connects back to the impacts and implications certain claims have on the society.

            It first started with the Eugenics movements sterilizing those with similar defects (schizophrenia and alcoholism). They felt that it was genetic and those who "carried those genes" would breed an inferior race. Thus, they made the decision to inhibit the procreation of those with genetic "defects" (also including skin color) by using sterilization. To connect that old Nazi view to another claim made about genetics present day we took a look at an article entitled "In DNA Era, New Worries about Prejudice" in our class this semester. The claim made was that there is a link between race and intelligence. What does this new genetic research going on do for society? Within the article written by Amy Harmon the fear was that it would lead to prejudices in society and rid the nation's view of equality. If looked at and taken into extreme consideration could it not be the beginnings for another Nazi era? This is the exact research that Martin's essay writes about. He analyzes the types of research going on within genetics nowadays and suggests how they affect all of us and can be negative. He stresses that genetics does play a major role in the body but not everything can or should be acknowledged as important gene discovery. This essay connected to our discussions in class in numerous ways and provided and interesting look at a more detailed point within the text.

        Another interesting section entitled "Doing the right: genetic risk and responsibility" written by Nina Hallowell offered a different outlook on social perspectives of genetics. It at first seems a little confusing what she is hinting at but the main point is simply, that all the new technology on genetics is providing a pressure that individuals face in which they regard themselves as having responsibility for their genetic risks. She conducted an experiment and basically found that once people are told they are at risk they automatically take on the responsibility to worry about their health along with others. An example is a woman who was told that she had a one in eleven chance of getting ovarian cancer. The fact that she was told a probability did not matter she transformed the message and began to think that it would be inevitable that she would get it (Hallowell, p110). This makes Hallowell's point clear that the new genetic research which links certain diseases to families seems to be creating not only awareness but certain paranoia.

           It reminds me about my web paper on cervical cancer and Gardasil and how there is the entire Oneless campaign going on. The ad for this campaign states in bold, "your daughter could be one less life affected by cervical cancer." What exactly does this suggest? It seems to be applying the pressure on the mother to take responsibility for her actions and health but also her daughters now. Hallowell simply puts forth the idea that it is not only genetics that determine whether someone inherits a disease but environment does also play a role.

        This brings back the lab we did in class and how we looked at which characteristics in certain plants were influenced by environment and which were influenced by genetics. In the end of this lab the consensus was that there is no nature versus nurture controversy but that both genetics and environment play a role in the characteristics developed by individuals. Yes, because one's mother may have been diagnosed with ovarian and breast cancer they are at a higher risk (genetic), but what they choose to do such as getting routine pap smears and checkups (environment) can change the probability at which they are at risk.

        All in all the collection of essays in the text provide many insights into a sociological look at genetics while also focusing on the genetics of it all. I found this to not only be informative but also something which drew in the concepts we learned throughout the semester. The idea that people are beginning to think the genes affect everything and developing ways in which one can design their own baby and other such things is just the beginning and will one day affect everyone. Some questions that they lead to me to think about are how far will genetic research go? How far is too far? And how exactly will genetic research change the world? In summation to make an emphasis on the entire text, as both the editors state, "the issues around genetics are not only limited to those with genetic disorders or identified genetic susceptibilities, but rather the new genetics is likely to affect us all." (Conrad and Gabe)

"Sociological Perspectives on the New Genetics". Peter Conrad and Jonathan Gabe. Blackwell Publishers 1999.