The Meanings of the Gene is a compelling look at societal hopes and fears about genetics in the course of the twentieth century. The work of scientists and doctors in advancing genetic research and its applications has been accompanied by plenty of discussion in the popular press—from Good Housekeeping and Forbes to Ms. and the Congressional Record—about such topics as eugenics, sterilization, DNA, genetic counseling, and sex selection. By demonstrating the role of rhetoric and ideology in public discussions about genetics, Condit raises the controversial question, Who shapes decisions about genetic research and its consequences for humans—scientists, or the public?
Analyzing hundreds of stories from American magazines—and, later, television news—from the 1910s to the 1990s, Condit identifies three central and enduring public worries about genetics: that genes are deterministic arbiters of human fate; that genetics research can be used for discriminatory ends; and that advances in genetics encourage perfectionistic thinking about our children. Other key public concerns that Condit highlights are the complexity of genetic decision-making and potential for invasion of privacy; conflict over the human genetic code and experimentation with DNA; and family genetics and reproductive decisions. Her analysis reveals a persistent debate in the popular media between themes of genetic determinism (such as eugenics) and more egalitarian views that place genes within the complexity of biological and social life. The Meanings of the Gene offers an insightful view of our continuing efforts to grapple with our biological natures and to define what it means, and will mean in the future, to be human.