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Winter 1997

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 96 > Article

Transforming Genetic Lingo
Making Sense of All the Rhetoric
by Catherine Gianaro

Nobody's perfect -- yet. But with advances in genetics, parents-to-be already can screen "imperfect" genes in their offspring. Perhaps one day, critics charge, parents will choose how to construct a "perfect" child.

Each stride in genetic science brings with it new jargon and perplexing questions: Do the words we use accurately reflect the way we perceive genetics -- and will they ultimately influence the fate of the field in social policy?

To Celeste Condit, a University of Georgia rhetoric professor, one thing is clear: The vernacular already is saturated with confusion.

"People are trying to grapple with all of the new genetic information that research is coming up with," said Condit, who is examining the discourse associated with genetic medicine. "And critics, in many cases, are projecting what genetics means based on faulty assumptions about what it meant in the past and what it means to us now."

Condit conducted a survey to uncover whether our idea of genetics is more confused today, amid the new scientific verbiage, than it was years ago when such discourse was based on a simpler concept of heredity. To address both, she asked participants to read news reports from either the modern or pre-genetic era and to answer questions that explored their views.

"Today's genetic discourse didn't necessarily reflect a more dehumanizing way of thinking. In fact, it showed people to be less discriminatory. They want healthy' babies rather than perfect' ones," Condit said.

"I think today's discourse doesn't represent a worse way of talking than we used to have. It may actually be a better way to think about genetics," she said. "It seems to narrow people's focus so that we're thinking about issues of health and the individual, when before we thought about the gene pool' or what's best for humanity.'"

In the second phase of her research, currently underway, Condit is examining periodicals from 1910 to 1990 to discover what changes have occurred in genetic discourse during the 20th century. With the help of graduate assistant Melanie Williams, Condit is "coding" key words from newspapers, magazines and journals to determine the number of positive or negative genetic references.

She is finding that words and terms have changed with the times, even though the meanings may have remained basically the same. For instance, where people once used images of "stock breeding" to explain aspects of heredity, metaphors such as "blueprints" show up more often today.

"I'm really interested in what kind of metaphors show up," Condit said. "There's a big difference in what you call it. A blueprint' metaphor sounds pretty good in comparison to a stock breeding' metaphor."

To do a thorough job of research on the rhetoric, Condit began with a crash course on genetics itself. Through the UGA fellowship program, Study in a Second Discipline, she was able to devote the 1993-94 academic year to learn the field's technical aspects. "I worked in a lab doing basic [genetics] projects, learning techniques and understanding what you could do and what you couldn't," she said. "It gave me a foundation on which to build."

She also attended classes on genetics and spent the summer as a visiting investigator at the National Institutes of Health where she observed genetic counseling sessions and doctors' case conferences.

This training led Condit to realize that, while genetic discourse may be improving, the decisions surrounding it may take a turn for the worse if we fail to implement guidelines. Condit says she hopes her research on what we say about genetics will contribute to what we do about genetics -- and ultimately shape our thinking about how social policy should be formed.

"Advances in genetics will have some impact for everybody," Condit said. "But society will place limits and say we're not going to pay for this,' or we may even forbid certain kinds of tests: skin color, breast size -- who knows yet. Somehow society will set those limits, but within those limits, individuals will have a lot of choice."

Condit also envisions a fundamental problem arising from any such policy: Who should have the power to create it?

"Obviously, we're very leery about trusting that to the State," Condit said. And although the medical establishment possesses the expertise, it's not necessarily a better choice because doctors have their own biases, she said. And what about individual choice? Condit thinks there are problems with this as well.

"What if it turns out a parent wants a son to be really tall and a daughter short and petite?" she said. "And let's say everybody wants that. All of sudden you have radical gender dimorphism."

Although the science changes rapidly, the issues aren't necessarily new. Condit recalls "a classic case in the 30s" in which a mother forced her daughter to be sterilized in order to negate an inheritance clause that stated the daughter would inherit the estate if she had children. "So the mother had control, but she wasn't acting in the daughter's best interest," Condit said.

"Height is a common issue," she said. "We already have had trouble with this. There isn't a genetic screen for height, but there's a genetically produced growth hormone. And there have already been cases in which doctors were giving it to people who just had short boys even though the boys weren't deficient in the hormone. The fathers just wanted their sons to be taller."

At the crux of any decision is information, and that is where Condit's research on rhetoric proves essential. "Choice always requires responsibility," she said. "And responsibility requires that you be informed."

Her quest for information is even taking Condit to science fiction, which will be the subject of the final chapter of her book, The Meaning of the Gene, due to be published next year.

"I read science fiction, and then I read the academic scholars. They sounded an awful lot alike," Condit said. "They're projecting the same horror scenario -- genetic super races,' animal-human hybrids,' gene wars.' I am going to analyze the science fiction because that's part of what the gene means to us. It means the science; it means the science fiction fears; it means what people actually say; and it means this history of public discourse. So I think if we look at it all, we'll get a well-rounded understanding."

No one knows where all this information will take us, Condit said. But finding common ground on the meaning of the gene may help future generations make better decisions.


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