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Genetic Revolution: Shaping Life for Tomorrow

reviewed by Dorothy Warburton & Frederick W. Warburton - 1974

coverTitle: Genetic Revolution: Shaping Life for Tomorrow
Author(s): D. S. Jr. Halacy
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: , Pages: , Year:
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D.S. Halacy, Jr., is a prolific professional author. Books in Print lists thirty-nine titles under his name, excluding this one; like this book, many are discussions of modern science and its relevance to human welfare for the general reader. Edward Edelson, reviewing an earlier book, wrote:

Halacy has done his research thoroughly, as one would expect of a professional. He has organized his material logically, as one would also expect. But then the bad side of the professional writer comes out, and the book often degenerates into a mere shoveling of facts toward the reader.1

In this book Halacy has not done his research thoroughly; he has not organized his material logically; and the stuff he shovels toward the reader is not facts. If chapters of this book had been submitted to us as term papers by high school students, we would grade none better than C, and several would be rated F.

Chapter 2 is basic. In it Halacy trys to explain the structure and chemistry of the genetic material and how it controls development. This information can be found in any modern textbook of biology. Incredibly, Halacy gets most of it wrong. The errors we found in Chapter 2 are:

1. Page 19—Halacy advances the astonishing idea that the genetic material of the "original living thing" must have encompassed all the capabilities of later beings, such as the ability to live in deserts, on mountains, and on the moon.

2. Page 20—He says proteins are made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, (true so far)  and phosphorus (false).

3. Page 22—-Halacy completely misunderstands one of Bridges' classic experiments with drosophila. From his description we cannot even tell which one.

4. Page 23—He says, "A decade ago Linus Pauling guessed brilliantly that the gene was actually a giant organic molecule in the shape of a helix, or corkscrew." A decade ago? Watson and Crick described it in detail twenty-one years ago. Pauling's famous work, years before that, was on the helical structure of proteins, not genes.

5. Page 23—Halacy thinks DNA contains amino acids; it does not.

6. Page 23—Halacy says twenty-two amino acids are known in living things. Twenty are coded for by DNA; a large but ill-defined number of others occur in various biochemical reactions.

7. Page 24—The bacteriophage called XI74 by Halacy is correctly called ø XI74.

8. Page 24—Halacy analogizes the sperm and ø XI74 in a way which suggests that sperm DNA is single-stranded. It is not. He has confused being haploid with having single-stranded DNA.

9. Page 25—He suggests that genes replicate "like a pair of hoops rotating at right angles to each other." This is not an adequate or accurate description of any biological process known to us.

10. Page 26—"An alphabet of twenty amino acids would yield 2 billion times as many 'words' as an alphabet of only four aminos." This is nonsense; it depends, of course, on how long the "words" are.

11. Page 26—Halacy implies that RNA makes enzymes and each enzyme then makes a protein. RNA makes proteins; enzymes are a large and important class of proteins so made.

12. Page 26—He implies that the genetic code has not yet been worked out and may never be. In fact, it has been a routine inclusion in genetics textbooks since about 1968.

13. Halacy's discussion of DNA and its activities (pages 23-26) is so completely confused that we have had trouble extracting individual errors.

14. Page 27—Halacy's statement ". . . joint-acting genes are known as alleles" is ambiguous; his example, with both genes on the same chromosome, makes it wrong.

15. Page 28—Halacy does not understand what "dominant" and "recessive" mean and uses the words in a nonsensical way.

16. Page 29—Darwin was not aware that "most mutations are not beneficial but harmful and often fatal."

17. Page 29—No one who has studied the effects of thalidomide thinks it damaged chromosomes or caused genetic changes, as Halacy states.

This would be an appalling list of errors for a student writing a closed-book examination. For a professional writer, free to use a library, it is inexcusable. Much of the rest of the book is equally bad, and none of it is good. We could list several instances to show that Halacy cannot reliably transcribe the simplest data, such as numbers, from other books.

The book's style is as unsatisfactory as its content. Halacy gives his reader the impression that modern genetics is a product of guesswork and speculation, occasionally enlightened by a chance observation or a lucky experiment. He shows no insight into the vivid imagination, restrained by rigorous logic, by which geneticists make their "guesses." He describes none of the ingenious, precise, and skillful experiments used to verify them. He conveys none of the admiration and excitement aroused among scientists in the last few decades by our growing knowledge of the structure and action of genes; in fact, he scoffs at it by calling DNA "the Cinderella compound that confers prestige in the life sciences, and produces the most Nobel prizes . . ." (page 23). Halacy's idea of how to make genetics interesting is to list odd facts, like the fact (which he finds surprising) that cows have more chromosomes than people (page 21).

Two chapters of Genetic Revolution may be of special interest to readers of this journal Chapter 7 deals with genetic counseling. In it, Halacy gives the misimpression that genetic counseling always involves amniocentesis, drawing fluid from the pregnant uterus for chromosomal or biochemical studies of the fetal cells in it. Rather few kinds of birth defects can be diagnosed with such cells, and, of course, if an unfavorable diagnosis is made, the only possible preventive treatment is abortion. Most of the work of genetic counselors is to find ways to predict the risks of abnormalities before pregnancy occurs and to give the prospective parents as full an understanding of those risks as possible, letting them make an informed decision about whether to have a child. Most couples seek such information because they have had an abnormal child, or have seen the effects of one in their own families, and wish to avoid a tragic recurrence. In our opinion, it is reprehensible to withhold information from them, or to forbid any option to them, or to tell them (as Halacy quotes with apparent approval) that a 25 percent chance of an abnormality is "pretty good odds." Genetic counselors have helped thousands of couples to avoid tragic birth defects. One must also remember that they frequently bear good news, that a birth defect may be nongenetic and unlikely to recur. Halacy ends the chapter thus:". . . the outlook is not bright, and . . . a cure is far in the future. This same judgment would seem to apply to any general acceptance of the whole concept of genetic counseling!" To us, this judgment seems inhumane, and it is not the prevailing opinion of physicians or social workers. Their opinion is freely available in any textbook of human or medical genetics, or in several pamphlets for laymen published by the National Foundation (March of Dimes). Halacy seems not to have read any such works.

Seven pages of this chapter, by the way, describe efforts to devise methods to ensure that a baby will be of a desired sex. Most of the cited work is of widely doubted reliability, and the topic seems out of place in an otherwise serious chapter.

Chapter 4, "Nature and Nurture," deals with the effects of heredity and environment on human intelligence and the causes of racial differences in average IQ. At an elementary level it says nothing new; some writers think that differences in IQ reflect chiefly genetic differences, others think they are caused chiefly by environmental differences, and others think they reflect fallacies in IQ testing. Halacy cites Herrnstein, Eysenck, Jensen, and Shockley in support of the first view, but cites almost no one authoritative (like Lewontin or Crow) in rebuttal. If this argument is not to degenerate into emotional name-calling, it must be conducted on a scientific level, but Halacy lacks competence to discuss its technical aspects. For example, he reports a correlation of .09 in the IQs of unrelated children reared apart (page 56). We cannot imagine what this number means. He fails to understand the profound distinction between the contribution of genes to intelligence and the contribution of genetic differences to the variance of intelligence (page 68). Halacy's chapter is a hodgepodge of citations. He makes no real effort to weigh them, to judge the merits of the arguments, to summarize them, to seek a concensus, or to state his own conclusion. We believe the general reader would obtain a clearer idea of the arguments on both sides by reading the work of any honest man on one side of the argument (like Jensen, a hereditarian, or Lewontin, an environmentalist).

In summary, this book is trash. It discredits its publisher, Harper & Row, as much as its author. We have devoted more space to its review than it deserves because of the serious ethical question it poses for publishers.

Publishers have always published trash, and presumably always will, and they should not always be rebuked for it. Harper & Row recently published The Secret Life of Plants, which we also consider trash; it is an unscientific account of the emotional and intellectual life of plants, the ways they communicate with each other and with favored human beings, etc. We would not rebuke Harper & Row for publishing it (though we would have advised them not to), simply because the ideas in it are seriously believed by some people who have a right to be heard. Nobody seriously believes the kind of stuff Halacy has written in Genetic Revolution, not even Halacy; it is filled with errors which reflect only carelessness, ignorance, and haste, not seriously proposed dissident opinions. Teachers, young students, and the general reader are at the mercy of publishers who are morally obliged to make their authors meet minimal standards of reliability and craftsmanship. Halacy has not met those standards in this book; Harper & Row should be ashamed of it.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 76 Number 2, 1974, p. 360-362
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1383, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 11:13:06 PM

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