Guide MAKING GENES, MAKING WAVES: A Social Ativist in Science

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  1. Making genes, making waves. A social activist in science
  2. Making Genes, Making Waves: A Social Activist in Science, by Jon Beckwith
  3. Related items
  4. Making Genes, Making Waves — Jon Beckwith | Harvard University Press

A thoroughly engrossing memoir that recounts Beckwith's halting steps toward scientific triumphs--among them, the discovery of the genetic element that turns genes on--as well as his emergence as a world-class political activist, Making Genes, Making Waves is also a compelling history of the major controversies in genetics over the last thirty years.

Presenting the science in easily understandable terms, Beckwith describes the dramatic changes that transformed biology between the late s and our day, the growth of the radical science movement in the s, and the personalities involved throughout.

Making genes, making waves. A social activist in science

He brings to light the differing styles of scientists as well as the different ways in which science is presented within the scientific community and to the public at large. Ranging from the travails of Robert Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb to the Human Genome Project and recent "Science Wars," Beckwith's book provides a sweeping view of science and its social context in the latter half of the twentieth century.

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.


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Beckwith's social commitment, amply illustrated in the causes he has supported, is evident throughout this fast-paced memoir. As far back as , 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. Those of us who are old enough to have experienced the s 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.

Making Genes, Making Waves: A Social Activist in Science, by Jon Beckwith

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.

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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 , 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 s. As the author states, "discourse among scientists simply did not include discussions of the social impact of science. 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.

Genes as Medicine

By , 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: 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.

Making Genes, Making Waves — Jon Beckwith | Harvard University Press

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.


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The issues he raises persist. He brings to light the differing styles of scientists as well as the different ways in which science is presented within the scientific community and to the public at large. The digital Loeb Classical Library loebclassics. Our recent titles are available via Edelweiss. Visit our multimedia page for video about recent projects and interviews with HUP authors. Join Our Mailing List: Subscribe to receive information about forthcoming books, seasonal catalogs, and more, in newsletters tailored to your interests.

Terry, coeditor of To Shape a New World: