Gunslinger science

BEHIND ALL THE condoling voices last week mourning the death of Steven Jay Gould, you could sense a certain relief. Gould was a maverick, never content unless embroiled in a bitter quarrel, usually with fellow scientists. Most of his popular-science writing, originally appearing as monthly essays in the magazine Natural History, was devoted to illustrating the wayward history of life on Earth in line with mainstream Darwinian evolutionary theory. But it was his heretical notions about how evolution works in detail that generated the most noise and heat in professional circles.

Gould's take-no-prisoners approach to scientific argument deeply offended many of his colleagues. But they were even more upset by the way his notions of "punctuated equilibrium" and "developmental spandrels" began to get about outside the scientific establishment, where they were taken as challenging the very foundations of evolutionary theory—music to the ears of creationists and other enemies of Darwin, who took to saying that evolution must be a flawed concept ("Why, even Steven Jay Gould thinks it's full of holes!").

Ironically, Gould was in complete agreement with his mainstream critics about one thing: He never really bothered to object to the ways anti-evolutionists used—misused—his ideas. Like more conventional scientific brethren, he felt that responding to nonscientific critics of science merely dignifies them. Ignore them. Deprived of your august attention, they will wither like weeds in a sequoia's shadow.

Unfortunately, this tactic demonstrably has not worked. Deprived of the attention of the lofty establishment, the ideological understory has developed its own ecosystem. Down in the shadows where the searing rays of peer review and criticism never penetrate, strange new plants have evolved, adapted to the shade and adept at supporting their own frail physiques by twining unnoticed round such support as the dominant vegetation affords.

Fifty years ago, it took a Nobel Prize to get the press and public to pay attention to a crank theory like Linus Pauling's notion that vitamin C could prevent the common cold. But, increasingly, all it seems to require is a degree in some field related to science and an idea off-the-wall enough to make a good headline—and get the attention of well-heeled backers who find your ideas attractive.

One of the pioneers of this branch of gunslinger science was Barry Commoner. Though trained as a cellular biologist (Ph.D. Harvard, class of '41), Commoner spent most of his life not in the lab but on the street, first as an opponent of nuclear testing in the 1950s, then broadening his interest to all forms of environmental pollution and degradation.

Commoner's passionate condemnation of dioxins and pesticides and his advocacy of recycling and renewable energy sources have unquestionably helped shape the national debate on these subjects. It is equally unquestionable that in speaking out in so many complex areas, he has fallen seriously behind on the progress of research in his own youthful area of expertise. But that did not stop him, pushing age 85, from holding forth in the February issue of Harper's Magazine on "Unraveling the DNA Myth."

The bulk of Commoner's densely written nine-page "report" is devoted to a typically passionate and wholly appropriate tirade against the indiscriminate use of untested and risky forms of genetic engineering in agriculture. But to lend his fulminations scientific cred, Commoner leaves out countervailing evidence and lards his attack with half-truths and misstatements suggesting that the entire genetic enterprise—from Crick and Watson's DNA studies to the Human Genome Project—is a house of cards without sound theoretical underpinnings.

This, of course, is exactly what a great many people frightened by the unknown possibilities of genetic research want to hear. Fortunately, not all of them read Harper's, and even more fortunately, Harper's didn't post Commoner's article on its Web site. [Two critical evaluations of the piece are available on line. Jay Lehr of the conservative Heartland Institute dissects Commoner's argument in http://www.heartland.org/environment/apr02/dna.htm. The libertarian website reasononline suggests that Commoner's attack on "the central dogma" of genetics springs from personal as well as ideological animus on http://reason.com/rb/rb013002.shtml. Our thanks to Cameron Woodworth of The Campaign to Label Genetically Modified Foods (http://www.thecampaign.org/) for pointing out these links.] And, as so often before, not one spokesperson for mainline genetics, let alone the biotech industry, stepped forward to criticize the piece in public. Unfortunately, like information, misinformation wants to be free, and thanks to Puget Consumer Co-op's monthly newsletter, 100,000 or so Puget Sound-area residents now know that Barry Commoner, "a well-known name in biology . . . has set off a contentious debate" by arguing that "the central scientific philosophy used to justify genetic engineering is wrong."

If a contentious debate had come about as a result of Commoner's article, an issue of pressing national importance would have been aired. But none did. Yet readers of Sound Consumer now "know" that an eminent scientist has disclosed genetics' feet of clay, and nobody who knows better seems likely to try to tell them otherwise. Yeats' rude beast has taken one more lurching step toward Bethlehem.

rdowney@seattleweekly.com

Roger Downey's science column appears every other week.

 
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