Politics in the Laboratory:
The Constitution of Human Genomics
Ira H. Carmen
The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004

Ira Carmen is a political scientist who has been active for years in the area of biopolitics. His book is largely about how politics influence the study of biology rather than how biology influences politics. The world of human genomics, we learn, is the world of the Beltway, although Federal legislation and national mindset threaten American hegemony in the field. In his concluding chapters Carmen postulates that one day political science will reveal how politics is formed by underlying biological drives, but such a “bioconstitutional politics paradigm” is still further away than Carmen would like to believe. He presents himself as a follower of Edward O. Wilson’s sociobiology and the latter’s worldview of “grand consilience.”

Carmen, who displays a refreshing and laudable cynicism about academic life, accurately points out that the vast majority of political scientists are largely ignorant of the political implications of our growing knowledge of genetics. When Crick and Watson discovered the DNA double helix structure, the event was totally ignored in the world of political science. Interest in biology was channeled in the direction of behavioralism and, later, “Rational Choice Theory.” Political correctness being what it is in academic life, sociobiology even had to be rechristened “evolutionary psychology” to render it more palatable in some circles.

Carmen could just as accurately have written about the blithe unconcern of geneticists for the ultimate political implications of their research. It is all part of a greater and greater degree of specialization and isolation in academe. Nevertheless, the political implications of genetics can be compared to a teenager building a 500-mile-an-hour race car in the garage who assures his parents that it is only for use as a golf cart. We as a species are rapidly learning how to redesign ourselves. Soon it will no longer be a question of knowledge but of political will. The golf cart designer is even now racing the engine as his parents watch “I Love Lucy” in the living room.

Carmen points out that egalitarians have made much of the fact that 99.9% of the three billion base pair sequences are held in common by all humans, but the remaining 0.1% of 3,000,000,000 still equals three million. The glass is so enormous that being virtually full is not by any means the same as being full.

Carmen the political scientist is really quite knowledgeable about genetics, but on the essential question of whether to use the racing car only for hauling golf clubs or to bring it out on the track, he is a fence sitter, touching here and there upon what should have been a major topic&emdash;eugenics&emdash;but never in depth. Of course, one could argue that the topic of any book is the exclusive purview of its author, but Politics in the Laboratory is, after all, intended to be a thorough discussion of politics and genetics. Thus Carmen writes that “the paradigm of today… possesses unprecedented potential to unify competing theories of who we are and how we think and behave,” but he fails to discuss our future evolutionary trajectory. The reader is evidently expected to view as courageous the following statement: “We take the position that a grand synthesis in human understanding of social phenomena under the banner of genomics is now discussable.” And it must be said that what Carmen does present of eugenics is overly reliant on and non-critical of Daniel Kevles’s 1985 book In the Name of Eugenics. (I do not wish to repeat what I have written elsewhere, but for an alternate view I suggest my own Future Human Evolution: Eugenics in the Twenty-First Century, available free online at www.whatwemaybe.org, preface by Seymour Itzkoff).

The psychological motivation for the suppression of eugenics, beginning in the late 1960s, is not difficult to understand. The memory of the tragic deaths of so many Jews during World War II had been largely suppressed from Jewish publications prior to 1967, but after the Israeli 1967 military victory over the Arabs, a militant “never again” mentality arose, and it required an integrated image of the enemy. As we all know, the 1960s were marked by leftist thinking, and Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter in their 1982 book Roots of Radicalism: Jews, Christians, and the New Left (Oxford University Press) convincingly traced the preeminence of Jewish thinkers in the process. Genetics and biology, with such figures as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, were no exception.

But precisely as eugenics was being driven underground, genetics was undergoing a knowledge revolution in which Jewish geneticists were playing a central role. Carmen quotes Lewontin:

Molecular biology is now a religion, and molecular biologists are its prophets. Scientists now speak of the “Central Dogma” of molecular biology, and Walter Gilbert’s contribution to the collection The Code of Codes is entitled a vision of the grail. It is a sure sign of the alienation from revealed religion that a scientific community with a high concentration of Eastern European Jews and atheists has chosen for its central metaphor the most mystery-laden object of medieval Christianity.

Carmen, who discloses in the endnotes that he himself is Jewish, responds:

What we have here is a classic case of Jewish self-hatred projection. It is too easy to counter Lewontin by pointing out that Watson, Crick, and Venter aren’t Jewish. It is also too easy to simply point out that [Sheldon] Krimsky and [Jon] Beckwith are Jewish. The essential point is that Lewontin, the Jewish Marxist who is infinitely more Marxist than he is Jewish in his role as a public intellectual, is accusing Gilbert of selling his Jewish identity to the God of Genomics.

Superimposed on the Jewish topic was that of race. In the wake of The Bell Curve lawyer Lori Andrews and sociologist Dorothy Nelkin wrote a letter to Science condemning the book:

[T]he lessons of genetics… do not provide useful information on deciding whether or not to pursue various programs to enhance the capabilities of different members of society.

Andrews was a member of ELSI (ethical, legal, and social implications [of genomics]) at the National Institutes of Health., headed by Francis Collins. Certain members of ELSI believed that the only proper study of DNA had to be focused on ferreting out “disease genes” and not on social issues. Carmen comments dryly:

Undoubtedly, Collins was dismayed to have on his payroll ELSI commentators who had decided all scientific questions involving behavioral genetics a priori. Lori Andrews resigned her post having served only one year of her five-year term.

Carmen comes out unambiguously in favor of academic freedom. In response to the National Bioethics Advisory Committee’s proposal to forbid human cloning via somatic cell nuclear transfer, he writes:

Let’s be clear about one thing: never before in American legal or political history had an independent, blue-ribbon panel operating under federal governmental auspices recommended legislation in the form of penal law declaring that the content of biological investigation was so beyond the pale that it could not be done anywhere, by anyone, for any reason whatever…. I respectfully dissent.

Carmen, who in 1986 authored Cloning and the Constitution, was appointed a member of the Human Genome Organization (HUGO). He complains that other HUGO members were alarmed that the Dolly cloning would rekindle anti-cloning regulations and were willing to snuff out public discussion of the topic. The really taboo topic, however, is human reproductive cloning. When the physicist Richard Seen proposed cloning himself, Carmen did not support him, but supported his right to a place in the “marketplace of ideas.” One of Carmen’s subchapters is even entitled “The Constitution of Forbidden Biological Knowledge”:

The business of imposing a gag order on any subject-matter segment of the free expression marketplace is not sound public or private policy… I am inveighing against a total stoppage in dialogue.

Once again, I would argue that this position is overly timid. Academic freedom should be a given. Eisenhower once commented that he needed one-armed advisors and not experts who knew only “on the one hand this, on the other hand that.” Why not use academic freedom to move on to the actual topic? Human reproductive cloning for eugenic purposes offers great potential for enhancing the overall qualitative level of our species. What is reprehensible about producing identical twins (clones) in vitro? Is it not tragic that society explicitly rejects preserving its da Vincis, Bachs, and Einsteins?

Genomic research efforts are complex and many-pronged, but at the same time it is dismaying that not only has our newly found genetic knowledge not made for significant improvement in the human genome, but geneticists have been largely forbidden even to make the attempt. An encouraging exception has been the already quite successful Jewish eugenics campaign against BRCA1 and BRCA2 pathologies, Tay-Sachs, cystic fibrosis and breast cancer pathologies, and Carmen lists other heavily Ashkenazim diseases such as Canavan, Gaucher, and Fanconi disorders as targeted for future eradication.

Carmen meanders on occasion and sometimes chooses not to evade the debris of political science jargon, so that it is a relief that he provides a table deciphering the various acronyms. But the topic is a broad one and the book is aimed at once at the political scientist and the general reader. Certainly, a second reading is advisable to best grasp all the topics that he discusses. It is a carefully written work that documents much of the current give-and-take in the burgeoning field of biopolitics.

John Glad

This review was published in Mankind Quarterly, vol. XLVI, No. 4, Summer 2006, 513-517.