"In the Light of Context"

A review of: Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context by Craig Holdrege

1996, Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 192 pp., ISBN 0-94026-77-0, $14.95.

Reviewed by John Armstrong

In the United Kingdom, the book appears as A Question of Genes: Understanding Life in Context (Floris Books, 1996, ISBN 0-86315-239-2, 9.99, 190pp, p/b)

This review first appeared in the Ifgene newspaper published for the Ifgene conference on "The Future of DNA" (Dornach, Switzerland, October, 1996).

When we think about the world, we cannot help but notice the complicated interweavings of qualities and living beings. To help understand this experience, scientists use a method called "reductionism." With reductionistic thinking, they study and analyze the specific facts in the world--to look at the larger view merely clouds the process.

But, according to Holdrege in Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context, such "object-thinking" is misleading. He suggests the observer must hold to the context of the large view in which a phenomenon occurs, if there is to be true understanding. More specifically, he believes reductionistic thoughts about heredity and the uses of gene manipulation are charged with problems unless people use "contextual thinking." What concerns him is how "any purely genetic consideration of the human being becomes inhuman by virtue of its narrowness."

Indeed, from the very beginning, Holdrege takes the question of context very seriously. To clarify what is meant by the context, he uses fascinating examples from the plant kingdom and shows how the environment affects development. Organisms are not static objects. They exhibit plasticity and live as processes in space and time--to keep the process in mind is the basis of contextual thinking.

Next he takes the reader on a narrowing path that moves into the realm of genetics. Here he tells the story of Mendel's skill with object-thinking and his studies of heredity, which finally lead to the present-day concept of the gene. Though Holdrege admits to being impressed by what the geneticists and the molecular biologist have discovered, he also adds the reminder that "substances in organisms are processes, not entities." Typically, DNA research is not in the context of life. After all, the scientist must kill the organism to obtain its DNA.

With examples, ranging from ants blocking burrows with their head to the footprints of growing children, Holdrege suggests heredity can be rescued from strict object-thinking by considering the DNA in relation to the whole setting and process of an organism's life--in a sense, by putting the life back into the thinking. Plants have their plasticity. In addition to plasticity, animals also have their behaviors. And as for humans, we must include our thinking and the qualities of the actions performed out of this thinking. To Holdrege:

This is a powerful statement. For if our humanity is not to be found entirely in the genes, it means we create it through our influence on one another--perhaps even more importantly, we create it through how we influence the maturation of our children. Holdrege recognizes the effects of genes and heredity on what it is to be human. But, he emphasizes the role imagination plays as an "environmental influence" which affects human development. As he puts it, "The handicapped person has a handicap, but he or she is not the handicap." We must learn to think always about the potential that is there and help bring it out:

By its nature, a book review must be an out-of-context, reductionized version of the author's subtle thinking. Thus, I suggest that people read the original book, for only then may they discover the inspiration Holdrege offers in reminding us to remember the forgotten factor of context as we cross the threshold into the coming age of biotechnology.

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