RECOMBINANT DNA: The Genetic Time Bomb by John Lear

RECOMBINANT DNA: The Genetic Time Bomb

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John Lear, former science editor of Saturday Review, is a seasoned science writer and an old hand at lucid explication of the new genetics. One wishes, therefore, that he had chosen a less polemical stance in this updating of a more than twice-told tale. His history goes back to an earlier Asilomar meeting of concerned biologists (before the celebrated 1975 gathering) and carries through to spring 1978 and the proposal to relax the National Institutes of Health guidelines for conducting recombinant DNA experiments. He is adamant in his belief that this would be folly. Expressing great sympathy for the Chargaffs and Sinsheimers, he shares their feeling that scientists know not what they do. With a few heroic exceptions he accuses them of arrogance, contempt for the public, and in some cases outright venality, self-seeking secretiveness, and deception. Sometimes he is right. NIH guidelines have been disregarded, and some scientists testifying before Congress reveal a mealy-mouthed amnesia all too familiar. But in choosing an adversary posture Lear may only polarize opinions further. What is needed is the recognition that events in DNA research happen, confusingly, at fast and slow rates. The very scientists who agreed with Norton Zinder (one of the original proponents of a voluntary moratorium) that ""If we had any guts. . . we'd tell people not to do these experiments,"" now, like Zinder, feel that the alarms were exaggerated; that nothing evil has happened or is likely to happen, while we still have enormous amounts to learn about the structure of even the E. coli genome. Lear's conclusion that federal control is necessary along with clear reinforcement is not unreasonable, and his reminder of the need to include private industry and achieve comparable standards in labs outside the U.S. is well taken. Had he tempered his indignation and deleted such excesses as ""(x) is an artist and sees the truth with uncompromising eyes,"" his words might have had far greater impact.

Pub Date: July 27th, 1978
Publisher: Crown