Mickey Z. -- World News Trust
“Activists for social justice need to look critically at who stands to gain, and who stands to lose, from each specific technical innovation, and to spread that information.”
- Ruth Hubbard
Roughly two decades ago, Ruth Hubbard wrote a book that broadened my perspective on a wide range of issues. Called Profitable Promises: Essays on Women, Science, and Health, it was published by Common Courage Press (full disclosure: Common Courage Press published my 2004 book, Seven Deadly Spins: Exposing the Lies Behind War Propaganda).
I reviewed Profitable Promises upon its release and thought it would be interesting to re-publish that review. (Those unfamiliar with the Bell Curve and Charles Murray references are strongly advised to consult your nearest search engine.)
So, while I’d certainly phrase some sentences differently today, here’s what I had to say in 1995:
Context. Whatever happened to putting science- and health-related issues into context? Amid all the health care reform rhetoric, anti-Medicaid madness, and Bell Curve-inspired designer genes, who will step forward and discuss such issues within the context of the world they are being debated in?
Answer: Ruth Hubbard, professor emerita of biology at Harvard, and author of Profitable Promises -- a veritable earthquake of enlightenment.
Mocking the scientific field’s claim to pure objectivity, Hubbard demystifies much of what corporate America and its loyal laboratory lapdogs would like us plebeians to entrust to the benevolent realm of so-called experts. Characterizing scientists as “a rather homogeneous group ... [that has] passed through an educational process that has taught them to look at the world in specific ways,” Hubbard recognizes that objectivity under such conditions can only be “enclosed within their shared commitments.”
For example, Hubbard cites a Harvard colleague, sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, who once proposed: “Let us now consider man in the free spirit of natural history, as though we were zoologists from another planet completing a catalog of social species on earth.”
Surely, even a Charles Murray fan can recognize the naiveté in first assuming there is a “free spirit of natural history” and then allowing the unspoken presupposition that alien zoologists have the identical scientific sensibilities as an earth-bound Western society.
“Small wonder,” Hubbard says, “that the ‘human nature’ Wilson projects is characterized by personality traits that make for success in modern capitalist societies and by gender differences that can provide achievement-oriented men with stay-at-home wives to care for their men and their children.”
Hubbard also takes aim at the predictive tests being trumpeted by the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries; especially moving is her take on the movement towards terminating pregnancies when the baby is predicted to born with a disability:
“In retrospect, most people would admit that the world would not have been a better place without Woody Guthrie or Stephen Hawking, even though Guthrie had Huntington disease and Hawking has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. And it would not be better without the people I know who are blind or deaf or have spina bifida, osteogenesis imperfecta, or some other disability. All of them contribute to society and are who they are both because, and in spite, of their health conditions. Who can say that they would be a more complete and effective human being without these health conditions? No one has the foreknowledge to decide who should or should not be part of the range of human diversity, and we do not want genetic commissars to deliver judgments about who should and who should not inhabit this world.”
Not to mention that such genetic tests may be more motivated by economics than medicine: “... predictive tests are much more profitable than therapies,” Hubbard explains, “since therapies are of use only to people who have the condition that the therapy is intended to improve or cure, whereas entire populations can be turned into consumers of predictive or screening tests.”
However, as demonstrated by The Bell Curve, the profit-driven elite have not completely cornered the market on dubious motives for supposed medical advances. Political discourse is often peppered with misguided genetic references; references Hubbard angrily and deftly dismisses.
“We are not the expression of our genes,” she declares, “and knowing their location on the chromosomes, or their composition, does not enable someone to predict what we will look or be like ... It is a mistake to put too much weight on genes or DNA.”
In her decidedly demystifying style, Hubbard also disproves any genetic differences from race to race. “... as a biological concept [race] has no meaning,” she says. “Human beings are genetically a relatively homogeneous species. If Europeans were to disappear overnight, the genetic composition of the species would hardly change.”
A somewhat related subject is the much-publicized search for a gay gene, an effort that Hubbard derides because the term “sexual orientation” is used only to describe a person attracted to members of the same sex. Once again, Hubbard breaks past the prevalent tabloid-headline mentality, facetiously asking why a similar genetic search is not done for those who consistently prefer “certain hair colors, body shapes, [or] racial types.”
Despite her intolerance for corporate, political, economic, cultural, and scientific abuse, Ruth Hubbard remains an optimistic provocateur, seeking to incite herself and others to action.
“We keep hearing that socialism doesn’t work,” Hubbard states. “But capitalism surely doesn’t work, when companies can make profits by marketing expensive, and sometimes health-damaging, technologies that skew our needs and priorities ... Activists for social justice need to look critically at who stands to gain, and who stands to lose, from each specific technical innovation, and to spread that information. We must help question the decisions to develop specific technologies ... We [must] become responsible teachers and advocates for fairness and justice.”
Surely, this illuminating book can serve as a catalyst in that noble mission. Profitable Promises is an indispensable collection of provocative essays essential for any progressive thinker’s repertoire. Ruth Hubbard has indeed put it all into “context.” The next move, comrades, appears to be ours.
Mickey Z. is the author of 12 books, most recently Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on the Web here. Anyone wishing to support his activist efforts can do so by making a donation here.
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