Genes, Cells and Brains

From The Guardian:

Clifford-Harper-illustrat-010We have outsourced the job of interpreting ourselves to the modern life sciences. The decoding of the human genome will tell us who we really are, pledged the gene-merchants. Brain scans will tell us who we really are, swore the neuro-hustlers. And what did we get? We got suckered. It turns out that humans have roughly as many protein-encoding genes as a fruit fly, and that fMRI scanning is still such an inexact art that a team of satirical neuroscientists have demonstrated significant “brain activity” in a dead salmon. This fascinating, lucid and angry book by the sociologist Hilary Rose and the neurobiologist Steven Rose (they are married) boasts abundant targets and a lethally impressive hit ratio. They decry the entrepreneurialisation of science – “wealth creation is now unabashedly formalised as the chief objective of science and technology policy” – not least because it actually impedes science. (“PhD students can work for months on a project only to find that they cannot continue as they have run into a patent.”) They lambast the “armchair” theorising of evolutionary psychology, with its ungrounded assumption that we have “stone-age minds in the 21st century”. They scorn the “neuromyths” sold to the educational establishment, with the result that schoolchildren become the unwitting subjects of uncontrolled experiments in applying alleged lessons from animal psychology to the classroom.

The book performs in high style the necessary public service of recomplicating the simplistic hogwash hysterically blasted at us by both uncritical science reporters and celebrity scientists. (The authors are very funny about Richard Dawkins, who clearly doesn't understand what a metaphor is.) Here are the knotty histories of molecular biology and evolutionary theory, with explanations of why evo-devo and epigenetics make the old genetic determinism untenable, and why there is hardly ever “a gene for” something. (“Ninety-five genetic loci have been found related to blood lipid levels,” the authors write, “possibly hundreds of genes might be implicated in coronary heart disease, and around a hundred in schizophrenia.”) They show how and why both genomics and stem-cell therapy have thus far failed to usher in a miraculous new age of medicine, and observe sorrowfully that, even as the media storm of neurogibberish rages unabated, Big Pharma is shutting down research into mental health disorders in favour of more tractable (and so profitable) diseases.

More here.

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