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The wonderful new world of biology

DNA research, stem cell research and the development of modern medicine and biology have set their minds. But as always, it's better to know than to think.

(PS. This article is machine-translated from Norwegian)

Literary scholar and guitarist in the band Nøkken, Bjørn Vassnes, creates a weekly debate in Klassekampen with his pointedly embraced embraces of evolutionary biology. Feminists of various calibers in particular have been provoked. Vassnes' new book is based on the pattern of the argumentative and well-informed newspaper articles.

In dispute with Dagbladet's reviewer Espen Søbye, Vassnes has described his book as dissemination of modern science, but The renewable human being. Stem cells and the quest for eternal life appears more like a pamphlet. The book has neither a bibliography nor a register, and the text is a warm and somewhat vulgar defense of stem cell research on all fronts.

From a political point of view it is easy to agree with Vassnes: All the frail arguments based on religious ideas or Kantian ethics are both counterfactual and nostalgic. We are told that one should not tamper with the creation work (as if it was like a new project), and those who have come to the brim with reason can sit down and discuss seriously whether 12 weeks old fetuses have the moral law in them.

The boys from Brazil

Vassnes should find himself bigger to argue with. Further ridicule and derision of religious and Kantians have nothing to do with it. Let these two camps continue their provincial value debate without further provision. It is neither Gunnar Stålsett nor the Saugstad brothers who decide what or why when it comes to stem cell research. Other Norwegian people argue profusely for sitting on the fence, while research into fetal stem cells is going on for the full abroad. And it is interesting that everyone who has respect for life and is afraid to tamper with nature, is not at all afraid to apply this horrible research when it comes to specific patients who have been so lucky to have their deer eyes and disorders on the front of the VG.

VassnesBut then, Vassnes: What about solving the technical and ethical problems of reproductive cloning? All the knowledge that Vassnes wants to generate in connection with therapeutic cloning will be able to be used to clone new individuals without problems. Many know this, including Vassnes, now it's time to start thinking a little about what the future brings.

Tabloid bioethics

Bioethical issues are usually perceived as associated with the meeting between physician and patient; what kind of medical information is to be communicated, possible access to medical records, and possibly research to find new treatment methods. One topic that is equally bio-ethically relevant is to discuss the consequences of how discoveries in genetic technology are communicated in the media.

Newspapers write more about medical research today than they did 20-30 years ago. And the journalists who work with this kind of material concentrate almost exclusively on a very small selection of professional journals: Science, Nature, New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, National Academy of Sciences, Nature Genetics og The Lancet. Everyone knows that important research is disseminated in many other places, but it is rarely consulted by journalists. Consequently, the picture newspapers, magazines, magazines, TV and radio convey what is happening in biomedical research, based on a very selective selection.

Disseminating the latest news from the science front is far from the same as referring to a scientific article (cited in some quotes): Journalists select, and form a "story" so that it becomes "news material." Complex and ambiguous scientific discoveries are enchanted into exciting and readable articles without any technical or medical terminology (lastly, it can scare readers away). In the book Selling science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology (1987) Dorothy Nelkin shows that journalism about science is often uncritical, and focuses on "selling science" to the public. It is constantly said that "new breakthroughs", or that "scientists are now for the first time able to". There is also a clear trend that positive findings are being presented – negative studies are receiving little attention. Negative studies and rejections of previous findings are, however, central to science, and an important prerequisite for being able to explain it; which in a wider context can help humanities to try understand the consequences of it. But little of this is addressed in the channel "News from the research front" in popular media.

Can genes explain?

The racial hygiene was met with great interest both by scholars and laymen from the late 1800s to around 1960, but fell into disrepute because of relatively few scientifically sound claims, and not least Nazi Germany's grotesque practice of eugenic theories of the time (first euthanasia of those considered inferior / defective, then the destruction of Jews and Gypsies in large style).

With the discovery of the structure of DNA, we have seen the emergence of a new genetics in recent years. In addition to some startling discoveries, the new genetics have also provoked questions of a legal and ethical nature.

In the last 20-30 years, molecular biology and medical genetics have become the forefront of science. Important new discoveries (such as the genes associated with serious hereditary diseases) have gained tremendous media coverage. The startup of The human genome project in 1989 has given further momentum to genetic research. Human Genome Project was supposed to take 15 years but was done before the time because the publicly funded project was challenged by a privately financed player: Craig Venter and the company Celera. Dag Undlien writes in the book Your unique heritage. Genetics and health: "Despite many assurances to the contrary, there was no doubt that they were in a scientific race. The race was not only about honor and honor, but also about principles and finances. ”

Day undlienThe human genome project has mapped all the three billion base pairs that make up the human genetic structure. The stated goal was to be able to find the chemical or genetic basis for about 4000 genetic diseases, and to find genetic links to other diseases – with the ultimate hope of being able to prevent and cure these. Critics have complained that the "genetization" of human problems has grown beyond the scientific, and that genetic fatalism is an unspoken prerequisite for the debate on genetics.

Regardless of what is meant by this, genetic research is relevant to a growing number of diseases, conditions and syndromes; and the genetic way of understanding has become more common to explain a wide range of human problems.

Check the bank statement from the bank!

At the same time, there are obviously possible ethical problems associated with gene analyzes and what they could possibly be used for; data security vs. gene information, the potential for genetic discrimination (which we remember Sebastian had to Blade Runner stay on the sad, dirty soil because he did not get approved gene test); problems associated with forced gene and DNA testing; and of course: the possibility of a new eugenics with tools and technology beyond all old dystopias.

But as hinted at the outset, few have focused on the bioethical effects of the type of information most people get through the media about specific genes, and new perspectives on inheritance and genes in general. In recent years, we have been presented with sensational news about locating genes that (alone or in different groups) control or trigger manic depression, alcoholism, homosexuality, various types of cancer and much more. In addition, journalists have made them more sensational than they are, to spread the happy message. Relatively soon after, many of these theories and findings have been refuted, but as mentioned, it is very rare that this type of negative finding is sacrificed much space in mass media.

An obvious consequence of this is that there is an unfounded genetic optimism among the public. We pile up with gen-gla 'news weekly. It seems that science journalists have the same uncritical hallelujah attitude as cultural journalists. Even when science journalists mustn't write about rebuffing what was a sensational good news a few months or years earlier, they end the articles with a reminder or reassurance that "the lost gene" will probably be found, it will only take a little longer. So there is no need to give up hope. Alas!

Although everyone is aware of ethical dilemmas that arise in the wake of new gene knowledge, a desire for genetic testing is evident among all, and especially among those suffering from serious diseases that are probably due to inheritance or genes. Just as many pregnant women (who have previously spontaneously aborted) today pay huge sums of their own pocket for private ultrasound examinations several times a month while the pregnancy is in progress. Totally wasted and of course closer to magic than science.

Disinformation to the public

All possible discoveries of possible links between human disorders and genes are widely and positively discussed in the media. As Gideon Koren and Naomi Klein have pointed out in an article in JAMA, rejections and falsifications of such theories are very little communicated. The result of this is, in practice, that information is disseminated to the public, and patients and relatives become frustrated when Medicine does not fulfill the promises that are misrepresented by science journalists.

A historical example: In the late 1960s, a possible link between the XYY chromosome and criminal behavior was widely debated worldwide. This theory was falsified in the early 1970s, but not many people are aware of it. In the movie Alien: The Resurrection for example, we are on a planet with a penal colony exclusively for violent monsters with XYY. The mainstream Hollywood movie conveys what most people think, whether it's true or not. This kind of delusion lives well because of the already mentioned skewed media dissemination of news about such research. The general result is that at both the individual and the above-individual level there is a notion that genetics has greater explanatory power than it actually has.

The gene for yours and the gene for that

The gay gene, the obesity gene, the breast cancer gene, the thrillseeker gene. We have read all this in the newspapers. Regardless of what the future will show about the true correlation between genes and these problems, we can already state that media production over-simplifies. Single genes can trigger diseases, such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease, but for most diseases and ailments and deviant behavior it is not possible to point out any clear connection with individual genes or specific gene groupings. In the case of breast cancer, for example, genes can only explain a fraction of the disease. Similar to alcoholism and homosexuality: There is currently no alcoholism gene or gay gene – and it applies here as in many other contexts that it is difficult to predict.

The general turn towards cognitive psychology and DNA-weighted medicine means that both physicians and scholars now believe that humans are primarily a product of their DNA and other body parameters that are relatively unaffected by human reason, way of life and culture. It may be so, but it is far from as certain as some writers and evolutionary biologists claim.

Dag Undlien writes in his book about the somewhat disputed gene pool trial in Iceland. 36 percent of the population of the genetic isolate that Iceland represents has agreed to be re-registered by the company deCODE, whose goal is to identify gene variants that are prone to a number of common diseases (such as stroke and heart attack). One wants to be able to make better diagnoses and to make new medicines that can affect the physiological processes associated with disease-dispensing gene variants.

The only problem is that most common diseases are multifactorial. A particular gene variant need not be more than one among many relevant factors behind a disease picture. In the media, this distinction has not been particularly clear. Incidentally, Undlien urges caution regarding the use / misuse of statistical information. "Double the opportunity" sounds a lot, but is small if the opportunity is initially small. Two percent is twice as much as one percent.

There are specific public information problems and health problems associated with misrepresentation in the media. It is further problematic because resourceful players operate in this field primarily to make money. There is good money in medicine. And it is a lot of good medicine to buy, but not everything in the future will be available on blue prescription or Blue Cross.

St. Darwin still popular

Day O. Hessen's book What is biology is about everything that has been described so far, but his book is more generally focussed. In the University Publisher's "What is" series, it is a clear highlight so far. Hesse gives a good insight into what the subject biology is, and all the new issues that have made the subject more important than it has ever been before.

HesseHesse is a very good communicator, both orally and in writing, and also manages to keep calm when he presents controversial material. What is biology of Dag Hessen costs only NOK 149, and is undoubtedly the best book purchase of the year. As far as I can see, he manages to get through all the relevant aspects of his subject, and then I can for once look through his fingers with Hessen's unhistorical discernment of Charles Darwin. (Maybe Hesse would one day sit down and translate Darwin's second most important book: Descent of Man. Then I feel reasonably confident that we will get a full and interesting afterword on the purchase.)

From societal problems to DNA scanning

Who is interested in finding out that schizophrenia is due to inheritance alone? For example, the parents of schizophrenic children can comfort themselves with that de has done nothing wrong. I do not mean to curb heredity research or DNA studies, but one must be aware that neoliberalism's individualization can be found in the new tendency to blame individual genes instead of social conditions. Today, people in the newspaper read what problems they have. Then they uncritically search the internet for texts that say what they want to hear. These they take to their GP, and require immediate, up-to-date treatment and medicine. And in the meantime, naturalists sit and pretend to manage the truth as opposed to social scientists and humanists. The rate of circulation of scientific "truths" is growing faster, while Plato still holds the style (though in fierce competition with Kant, of course).

Day of death

“Your unique legacy. Genetics and health »

Cinderella 2005

Hesse day

"What is Biology"

University Publishers 2005

Bjørn Vassnes

"The renewable man. Stem cells and the quest for eternal life »

Cappelen 2005

Kjetil Korslund
Historian of ideas and regular critic in Ny Tid.

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