Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Hilary & Steven Rose: Genes, Cells and Brains [2014]

This book is on biology and society and focuses on questions such as: “Why has the promised cornucopia of health benefits failed to emerge with the completion of the Human Genome Project?” and “Why has the field of ‘bioethics’ become such a questionable enterprise?” Our group varied in our individual opinions of the book, with some quite high ratings and some fairly low. Our group average, on a scale of 0 to 10 was 5.67.

Kirby disliked the style and commented that at times it was unclear what the authors were arguing for. They have an annoying writing style, and sometimes seem biased. He felt that they didn’t seem to understand how science works, as when they criticized some things just because they haven’t proved out yet—even though they eventually may. Then Kirby changed his tone: Stylistically the book only rates a 2, but from the point of view of its important content and subject matter it rates a “14”. So on balance he rates it an 8. It’s “an amazing history book”, he said, and he would make it required reading in a college course. Stylistically it sucks; but nevertheless it’s a really great book.

Rich, however, was disappointed with the book. He was expecting more of a science book. He had a hard time getting through it, and just skimmed parts of it. He rated it a 4.

Shel also had a low opinion of it. He did not read beyond the first chapter and didn’t give the book a rating.

Ron said the book was more of a history book than science. He agreed with the previous comments, positive and negative. “The presentation of the material turned me off,” he said. He gave it a 6.

Vicki gave it a very low rating, just a 2, and didn’t really read it all. She said it seemed to her that the authors might be pushing something like a conspiracy theory.

Kevin called the book a “political diatribe”, and rated it a 4. “By the second page I was turned off.” He skipped some of the book but did jump and read the last chapter. He said that the book brings out examples of geneticists messing with things they don’t really understand. Kevin views the book as kind of a rehash of topics our group has read about before, and would not recommend it.

Rose gave it a 5. She agreed that there are much better books on these themes. She objected to the tendencies of the authors to use labels, such as various “isms”, “ists”, and so forth. Rose thinks the book has a tendency towards overstatement. The index is inadequate and omits many acronyms, for example. The chronology of the topics discussed, however, is good. And there were a lot of interesting facts. But she found the book really, really annoying.

Barbara rated the book a 7. But she thought there was too much about specific companies and government agencies. The material about biological war crimes and similar things was hard to think about, but important.

John also gave it a 7. He said that the book is more an ethics (or bioethics) book than a book on biological science. He said the style of the writing didn’t bother him, as it had some of the others in our group. John felt the book brought out how the companies in the biological industries were corrupted by the quest for profit. He felt that the authors were appropriately raising issues like this and saying “This is really bad!”

Scott thought there was a lot of valuable material in the book, and gave it an 8. There are a lot of exposures of the many sins or outright crimes of the biotechnology companies and the complicit actions of universities and government agencies. Along the way there are many interesting critiques of how the profit motive corrupts science, and how it distorts the development of biology. It justly criticizes the for-profit science journals and the effect they have in obstructing the transmission of new scientific findings to a broader audience (p. 5).

Scott says there are also many interesting things in the book that more “establishment” writers on these biological subjects feel no need to ever mention, such as Darwin’s racist views (p. 63) and his sexism (p. 64). There are appropriate discussions of things most people today are not aware of, such as the totally immoral biomedical research during World War II by Nazi Germany and Japan on prisoners of war and ordinary people. And even about the biological warfare efforts and research by Japan in particular, which was continued by the United States after the end of that war (often employing war criminals from Germany and elsewhere in the process). (See especially p. 92 and following.)

While it is true that the main themes in the book are about how in present society, biotechnology is often running rampant against the interests of the people, there is in fact some discussion of biological science concepts and developments. For example the explanation of what “exaptation” is (p. 78).

Before reading this book Scott had been under the impression that Hilary and Steven Rose were more radical than they actually are, and was disappointed to find that they are merely liberal-radicals or social-democrats. They fail to strongly and insistently connect up the problems in biotechnology with the existence of the capitalist system, let alone call for the overthrow of capitalism. Thus they oppose the “global neoliberal economy” (p. 306), but not capitalism in general. True, they speak well of the good work done in the biological sciences by Marxists and revolutionaries in the past, including the anarchist Kropotkin (p. 61), but they themselves are merely reformists, not revolutionaries.

Hilary Rose describes herself as a “feminist”, and of course that can mean many different things. (Scott also describes himself as a feminist—in the sense of strongly supporting equal rights and opportunites for women along with those of men.) But the sort of “feminism” promoted in the book is at times rather dubious. On page 108 the feminist philosophers Sara Ruddick and Carol Gilligan are commended because they “have sought to go beyond both consequentialist ethics and deontological or rule-based ethics with their emphasis on dependency and interdependency, underpinning their ethic of care.” Without additional research it is hard to know exactly what to make of this, except that it is certainly the case that these folks are quite wrong to oppose consequentialism in ethics. What is termed “feminist philosophy” in some quarters is in fact only a sub-variety of the prevailing bourgeois ideology.

Still, despite the political and literary shortcomings of the authors and their book, Scott feels there is certainly enough in the way of exposures of the crimes and problems in the biological sphere in present society to make reading this book well worth while.

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