Celeste Condit – The Meanings of the Gene

Public understanding of science types (I was one for quite a while) are easily diverted by topics in the news. Genetics was big in the ’80s and ’90s, for example. There were other, good reasons for this as well. Lots of science going on, and some medical and other application. And there were some good studies of the history and sociology of public understanding, from Dot Nelkin and – reviewed here – Celeste Condit.

Previous analyses of public genetic discourse that have not employed quantitative methodologies have done little more than collect samples of one type of discourse and proclaim these dominant, without attention to their role in the balance of discourse and debate”. (p257)  This critique of method is at the heart of Celeste Condit’s problem with earlier discussions of  the course of debate about genes, heredity and DNA in the last century. There are already a couple of book length studies of this important topic[i]. As a relative latecomer to the party, she doesn’t think much of either of them. Her own work is as much concerned to contest their findings as to lay out her own interpretations.

Her main message is that if one wishes to mount a critique of genetic determinism as a pernicious influence on public as well as professional attitudes to possibilities of the new genetics, this requires more than demonstrating the presence of exaggerated ideas about the power of genes in the public sphere. It is necessary also to pay attention to alternative ideas which may still be accessible in any particular rhetorical formation (her term), and to consider how they may be interpreted. In her papers, she has argued that detailed print media analysis reveals no recent increase in the prevalence of genetic determinism in the United States. And she suggests that, in any case, audience responses show that supposedly determinist metaphors like the genetic ‘blueprint’ may be interpreted rather flexibly.

In her book, she very usefully brings all this work together and offers a unified narrative of American popular discourse about genetics through the twentieth century. From her core sample of 653 magazine articles drawn from a survey of the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature between 1919 and 1995, her analysis indicates four periods in the discourse – each with a different central scientific focus and its own dominant public metaphor. First, as you would expect, there is a period she calls the classical era of eugenics, when the scientific focus was on the germ-plasm and the dominant metaphor was stock-breeding. From the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, she suggests the best summary term is a period of ‘family genetics’, when the central concern was on the hopes and fears of individuals, rather than racial futures. Around the same time, the scientific focus switched to the gene, and the dominant metaphor was the gene as a particle – the atomic theory of genetics.

Her next period starts in 1953, the period she calls experimental genetics, dominated by the science of DNA and the metaphor of the code, a more plastic notion than the gene. Finally, the mid-1970s ushered in the current era of medical genetics, with a focus on the genome, and the advent of the blueprint as the dominant metaphor.

This will all sound rather commonplace to a historian, and if viewed critically is clearly too simple a scheme to sum up a century’s worth of discussion, even in one medium in one country. But the point is not to advance the history of genetics, in which all of these things are already documented in far more detail, but to make a rigorous appraisal of what aspects of this history can be recovered just by examining public discussion. Here, I think the account is an advance on earlier versions.

That advance clearly comes at a price, though. Although the criticism of Nelkin and Lindee, and Van Dijck, for lack of quantification does identify a crucial weakness in these accounts, they do also deliver things which Condit’s study does not stretch to. It is valuable, in making a more complete interpretation, to consider the cartoons, comic books, commercials and soap operas which Nelkin and Lindee place alongside their newspaper and TV news reports to build up their picture of contemporary genetic essentialism. Van Dijck’s attention to Europe as well as the US is equally welcome.

Nevertheless, Condit’s determination to restrict herself to sources which permit construction of a properly sampled time-series – hence her primary focus on popular magazines, though she looks at some newspapers, too – does enable her to offer serious challenges to both these accounts, and to the ongoing work of others who are active in this area like Peter Conrad. Her failure to record any increase in deterministic discourse and, though less convincingly grounded empirically, her query about the meaning of supposedly deterministic metaphors for lay readers, are both findings which have to be taken into account in any further efforts in this area. From now on, like so much else to do with genetics in public, this is contested terrain. That is a good thing for the quality of debate, and for our developing understanding of public responses to genetic technologies. It also means that the topic of genetics in public is becoming one of the best case studies in the trade-offs, blind spots, and differences in disciplinary temperament and methodological outlook which shape our knowledge of that elusive abstraction, the public understanding of science. (2000)

[i] D. Nelkin and S. Lindee, The DNA MYstique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon (New York: Freeman, 1995), J.Van Dijck, Imagenation: Popular Images of Genetics (London:Macmillan, 1998). She also makes reference to my own, somewhat related book, about which she has some kinder things to say. J. Turney, Frankenstein’s Footsteps: Science, genetics and popular culture (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1998).

(Review Celeste Condit – The Meanings of the Gene: Public Debates about Human Heredity Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press 1999), 325pp)


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