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Contemporary Genetics


New genetic technologies, whether those associated the classical genetics of the first half of the twentieth century or the molecular genetics and genomics of the second half, have al- ways raised a wide variety of ethical issues within the larger society. Whether genetic knowledge is being used politically to place blame for social problems on "defective biology" or genetic engineering technologies are being used to produce "designer babies," geneticists have continually found themselves in the midst of highly controversial issues, ones that are often far more difficult and complex than those associated with other biomedical technologies. This may be in part a result of the long-standing, though mistaken, view that "genetics is destiny" and that knowing the genotype (genetic makeup) of an organism can lead to accurate predictions about its ultimate phenotype (that is, what actual traits will appear and in what form). But it is also in part due to Western society's optimistic faith that science and technology can provide answers to larger economic and social issues. This is an unrealistic view of what role scientific and technological information can play in human life. There is no question that knowing the science involved in any given area of biomedicine (especially human genetics) is critical for making social and political decisions. But it is never enough. Even if scientists could predict with complete accuracy the exact clinical effects that would characterize a fetus with Down's syndrome or Huntington's disease, the decision about how to respond to that knowledge would involve social, political, economic, and philosophical considerations that lie outside of the science itself. As much as anything else, consideration of the ethical and moral aspects of genetic technology should be a reminder that science itself is not, nor has it ever been, a magic bullet for the solution of social problems. Nowhere has that been demonstrated more clearly than in the history of genetics in the twentieth century.


Allen, Garland E. "The Ideology of Elimination: American and German Eugenics, 1900–1945." In Medicine and Medical Ethics in Nazi Germany: Origins, Practices, Legacies, edited by Francis R. Nicosia and Jonathan Huener, 13–39. New York: Berghahn Books, 2002.

Goodman, Alan H., Deborah Heath and M. Susan Lindee. Genetic Nature/Culture: Anthropology and Science beyond the Two-Culture Divide. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics. New York: Knopf, 1985.

Maienschein, Jane. Whose View of Life? Embryos, Cloning and Stem Cells. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Paul, Diane B. Controlling Human Heredity, 1865 to the Present. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1995.

Weir, Robert F., Susan C. Lawrence, and Evan Fales, eds. Genes and Human Self-Knowledge: Historical and Philosophical Reflections on Modern Genetics. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.

Garland E. Allen

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshContemporary Genetics - Eugenics And The Ethical Issues Of Selective Breeding (1900–1945), Dna, Genomics, And The New Ethical Dilemmas