Ordinary Genomes: Science, Citizenship and Genetic Identities

February 25, 2010

Author: Karen-Sue Taussig

Edition: First

Publisher: Duke University Press

Pages: 264

Price: £60.00 and £14.99

ISBN 9780822345169 and 5343

This is a book written by an anthropologist about genetics and geneticists, an ethnological study written by an American about the interplay between science practice and local culture in a European country (the Netherlands). As such, Karen-Sue Taussig's book is solidly cross-disciplinary, although both its science content and, as far as I (a scientist) can tell, its ethnographic analysis are presented at a fairly general level. Her book is thus likely to have a limited use as a textbook in the strict sense of the word, although that is not to say that it is without interest or value.

The book is based on a deceptively simple premise: that the cultural identity of the Dutch and their historical, social and political environment has strongly influenced the nature and functioning of their approach to and practice of clinical (medical) genetics as well as the understanding and perception of this practice by the Dutch people. She concludes "genetics may transform society, but society also transforms genetics".

Central to this argument is her portrayal of the Netherlands as a deeply segmented country, historically along religious affiliations (verzuiling or pillarisation), strongly overshadowed by the legacy of the Nazi occupation and its racial hygiene policies during the Second World War and overlaid, or held together, by the Dutch sense of "tolerance" or gewoon (ordinariness). She cites the pervading influence of the war when describing a campaign against genetically modified animals by a "mainstream" animal-rights organisation (Dierenbescherming) that explicitly references Nazi eugenics policies.

Taussig's book is organised into five readable (if repetitive) chapters, the main content of which is based on fieldwork that she carried out in the Netherlands between 1993 and 1994 as an "ethnographer in residence" at one of the country's eight medical genetics centres. The book's research is thus contemporary with the Human Genome Mapping Project (HGMP). The title, Ordinary Genomes, seems to come from this fact and her idea of the Dutch ideal of "ordinariness" and "normality", and is informed by public fears in the Netherlands at the time of a "genetic passport" that, had it been implemented, could have been used (or abused) both for health and identity purposes. "It seemed such an explicit example of biopolitics," Taussig says. But despite the title, genomes are not really the subject of this book.

Genetics and medical genetics have changed vastly in the past 15 years, not least because of the HGMP. This is a book about pre-genomic medical (or clinical) genetics and genetic counselling and is noticeably out of date on the science of genetics. Taussig has a tendency to elide these separate and often quite different disciplines, and in fact the one group she does not seem to have interviewed are scientists. This is most evident, and a weakness of the book, when she discusses the medical diagnosis of genetic conditions. Although she explains well the difference between genotype (a person's genetic make-up) and phenotype (how a gene mutation manifests in an individual) she does not clearly explain this distinction when she discusses the relative merits and demerits of "laboratory tests" (often confirmation of genotype) compared with clinical assessment (phenotypic analysis), nor does she fully realise that the two approaches can be complementary and have different purposes.

Who is it for? Probably most useful for students or researchers in anthropology or similar with a specialist interest in science studies. In its current format, less useful for bioscience students, although it may interest medical students as an adjunct to their studies.

Presentation: Generally well written and well ordered but lacks depth. The first three and the fifth chapters in particular hang together well. Some confusion in describing scientific concepts and terminology and, in places, a lack of clarity over what is particularly Dutch, as opposed to European.

Would you recommend it? I would love to be able to recommend a book to bioscience undergraduates and research students on the wider political and cultural context of their subject, but because of its rather superficial treatment of the science and loose use of genetics terminology, I would recommend this only to individuals with a particular interest in researching the topic.

Highly recommended

Ecological Developmental Biology: Integrating Epigenetics, Medicine and Evolution

Authors: Scott F. Gilbert and David Epel

Edition: First

Publisher: Sinauer Associates

Pages: 375

Price: £34.99

ISBN 9780878932993

There are too few good books on developmental genetics. This one is clearly written without forsaking detail. Gilbert and Epel address all topics of the title in an informative and integrated way. I shall be recommending it to level two and three developmental genetics students and to all of my postgraduate research students.


Cell Signalling

Author: John T. Hancock

Edition: Second revised

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 316

Price: £.99

ISBN 9780199264674

This is a well-written and clear introduction to cell signalling that undergraduate bioscientists and medical students will find very useful. Accurate, up to date and with lots of detail.

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