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Society and genetics

Updated Thursday, 3rd August 2006

Dr Gerry Mooney, staff tutor in Social Sciences at the Open University in Scotland, assesses the effect that genetic testing may have on society.

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"Firstly, we have to ask who is pushing this whole agenda. There is a strong political ideology - particularly in the United States - that there are 'genes for everything'. But the evidence does not lend credence to such a view.

Not only is this a view of science that is very liberal in a political sense but it also ignores the fact that there are multiple factors that shape who we are - history, society, environment and our genes. We have to distinguish then between the hype and the reality of scientific breakthroughs in this area.

It is important that we understand that class divisions are socially based and constructed - not biologically based. However, there is a class factor in genetic testing in that such options may only be open to those with the financial resources to afford it and in addition there may be general pressures - both individual and societal - to screen out genes that are considered (rightly or wrongly) to relate to a certain social group (e.g. working class) or to poverty or other forms of disadvantage.

But we have been here before - albeit in rather cruder ways than today's scientific breakthroughs - with the eugenics movement in the first half of the twentieth century. There is a growing moral panic that genetic testing will lead to the creation of a biologically engineered population. However, this tends to ignore the role that social factors play in shaping who we are and how we are defined. The idea that society will become more peaceful and tranquil is at best wishful thinking.

Twentieth century scientific developments have reflected the class divide in society but not directly altered the structure of class relations in relation to matters of exploitation and oppression. Clearly scientific and technological breakthroughs lead to new occupations and to new forms of managerial/workplace control. In addition medical innovations have benefited groups in the population who in the past would have been denied health care on cost grounds. Yet the relationship between class and health and between class and educational attainment is as strong as ever."






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