Barbara Katz Rothman, W.W. Norton & Co., 1998

Reviewed by Karen-Sue Taussig

This intensely personal foray into social aspects of genetics is alternately fascinating and frustrating. Barbara Katz Rothman tells us that “[a]ll knowledge is knowledge from somewhere. Every way of knowing the world is grounded, placed, located” (13). She is concerned, in this book, to explore how genetics is grounded, placed, located in contemporary society, specifically (and more implicitly than an anthropologist might like) the United States. Clearing the ground for a feminist perspective, she argues that genetics “isn’t just a science; it is a way of thinking. . . . Genetic thinking . . . [is] an ideology for our time, [it] is about seeds. Genetics is the most obvious and direct scientific descendent of this traditional, father-based worldview, an attempt to understand the very meaning of life by understanding genes, bits of DNA, the updated version of seeds” (p. 18). For Katz Rothman, this masculinist science has a significant and less than positive influence on three aspects of social life of particular concern and around which she organizes her book: race, illness, and procreation.

Katz Rothman devotes a section of her book to each of these three areas of social life. Her discussions range widely, drawing on eloquent descriptions of a wide array of personal experiences and others’ scholarship. In the section on race Katz Rothman argues that recent developments in molecular biology serve to shore up already existing social inequalities based on race by appearing to provide scientific evidence for genetic determinism. In the section on illness she focuses on the problem of thinking genetically when it comes to diseases, such as cancer, which have a genetic component but are not simply genetic. She argues that thinking genetically elides social factors such as demography that also affect whether a given individual gets cancer at a given time. Finally, in the section on procreation Katz Rothman interrogates the notion of choice that underlies pre-natal diagnosis for genetic conditions. She questions the distinction many, particularly bioethicists, seek to make between acceptable and unacceptable uses of technology by examining the construction of medical conditions as opposed to non-medical ones. She argues that the choices individuals make in regard to these new reproductive technologies should be examined not at the level of the individual but at the level of “the social context, the world in which that decision is made” (p. 201) as a means of illustrating the range of genetic “conditions” that may come to be considered appropriate for interventions such as pre-natal diagnosis.
Katz Rothman makes some important points regarding genetics and contemporary social life in this book and her prose makes it quite accessible to a general audience. This accessibility is also the book’s weakness as the arguments Katz Rothman makes do not seem to offer significantly new insights for those attuned to the literature on gender, race, and science. In addition, I suspect that a scholarly audience also will find the casual tone and unsystematic style of citation somewhat frustrating.

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