Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Review: The Human Blueprint

There are libraries in two separate nearby communities, thus even though I cannot borrow a book from a library in my own town, I have access to two different libraries within a twenty minute drive from my house. Usually I only go to the farther one when I am travelling there to do some shopping. The past two times I have stopped in they have had books for free - yes FREE - in the front lobby of the library. It just so happened that several of those books looked like they would be great for research for the novel I am writing, this being one of them.

Robert Shapiro, a chemistry professor at New York University, has written this book, The Human Blueprint: The Race to Unlock the Secrets of Our Genetic Script, to familiarize the common man with the Human Genome Project. You might remember from a recent book review I wrote, that I was studying up on the topic of eugenics. After Hitler's disturbing application of eugenics ideas, the scientists and financial backers of the eugenics movement shifted gears and renamed their efforts "genetics" instead of "eugenics." Most of Shapiro's comments and background information about the eugenics movement reveal that he wants to clearly distance himself from those ideas as well. Yet, he is fascinated by the study of human genes.

Shapiro wrote this book back in 1991. I believe he felt we would be further along in our understanding of human genes and how they influence what we look like, eat, feel, and fall prey to (illnesses). He provides numerous hypothetical scenarios to underscore his beliefs about what we will learn through this study. I found these scenarios a bit tiresome after a time (probably since I'm in the period he was speculating about). While I did enjoy reading up on the background of the project (starting with Gregor Mendel's observations about the hereditary makeup of peas, following Thomas Hunt Morgan's genetic maps, and Watson and Crick's discovery of DNA strands revealing genetic coding in four-letter scripts), after the history lesson left the 1950's, the narrative began to slog for me. I skimmed through much of the middle of the book, only pausing to read thoroughly on passages I thought might support the fictional world of my novel.

It was primarily Shapiro's predictions for our future that I was interested in gleaning. Here are the two paragraphs from the inside cover that sucked me in:

"Shapiro takes us inside the laboratories of the geneticists involved in the project, pioneers whose discoveries could give us the cures to hundreds of ancient diseases, catalog exactly the genetic makeup of each individual, identify risk of disease, identify a criminal from a single fragment of skin, and a thousand other wonders no one could have dreamed of a few years ago.

"Yet when this mammoth scientific undertaking reaches the point where the information it reveals becomes applicable, society will be faced with a variety of deeply troubling ethical dilemmas. Should corporations be allowed to screen potential employees for disease risk in order to keep down health care costs? Should children be directed along a specific educational path based on their genetic abilities? Will the choice of a marriage partner be based on hereditary compatibility? Will some genetic propensities be declared "good" and others "undesirable"?"

These were the questions and ethical issues I was most eager to explore because they play a significant role in the book I am writing. However, I did not glean as much useful information as I had hoped from the book. There were a few quotes I felt summed up the theme of my work. For example, sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman wrote: "In gaining the choice to control the quality of our children, we may rapidly lose the choice not to control the quality, the choice of simply accepting them for who they are." Another helpful quote came from geneticist Albert Jacquard who wrote: "Genetic richness comes from diversity ... we need to understand that others are precious to us insofar as they are different from us."

All in all, it was a semi-interesting exploration into the topic of genetics. While I am not opposed to the interventions of scientists to eradicate horrible diseases like cystic fibrosis, I am concerned that we play God too often. We wish to produce a certain outcome and mold things in our favor, when often the things that don't go in our favor are the very challenges that stretch us to grow and make our stories both interesting and meaningful.

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