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Science / Rhetoric / History / Social Issues

The Meanings of the Gene
Public Debates about Human Heredity
Celeste Michelle Condit

Rhetoric of the Human Sciences

How we talk about our genes

"Shows public debate over genetics in the course of this century has never been merely 'scientific' but rather has been a debate over public priorities, goals, and values."—John Angus Campbell, University of Memphis, author of Speak for Yourself

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.

"I read Celeste Condit's history and analysis of popular accounts of genetics with interest. This original and important book offers eye-opening documentation of what's actually been written in the popular press about genetics, including an awful lot of nonsense."—James F. Crow, University of Wisconsin–Madison, author of How Well Can We Assess Genetic Risk?

"Condit is absolutely right in asserting that what scientists say about genetics is not necessarily what the public thinks about genetics. Her effort to untangle the meaning of the concept 'gene' in twentieth-century public discourse is valuable both for its historical salience and for its relation to current ethical and policy debates. A breath of very sophisticated fresh air."—Ruth Schwartz Cowan, SUNY–Stonybrook, author of A Social History of American Technology

Celeste Condit is professor of speech communication at the University of Georgia. She is the author of several books on public discourse and social change, including Decoding Abortion Rhetoric, Crafting Equality: America's Anglo-American Word, and Evaluating Women's Health.

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cover of Condit's book is blue with a geneological diagram of simplified people shapes

October 1999
338 pp
.   6 x 9
ISBN-10: 0-299-16364-4
ISBN-13: 978-0-299-16364-8   
Paper $19.95 t


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