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Stephen S. Hall

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Stephen Hall that took place at the "Winding Your Way through DNA" symposium at the University of California San Francisco in 1992. Stephen S. Hall is a science writer based in N.Y. He has authored Invisible Frontiers, a book that describes the origins of biotechnology, and Mapping the Next Millennium, published in 1992, describing cartographic approaches to scientific knowledge and how so much scientific knowledge is now being displayed in the form of maps.

Excerpted from the symposium transcripts with permission of the University of California, San Francisco.

Q. In terms of major scientific projects-- The Space Race, The Manhattan Project--how important is the Human Genome Project?

SH. I think it is very important, perhaps not in the same sense as going to the moon which I think was a highly visible highly public kind of project, the culmination of which you could watch on TV. You're not going to be able to watch the culmination of the genome project on television. In fact there will not be a culmination-- it will the steady increase of more and more knowledge. I think why it is valuable is that it is a dedicated effort to gather a lot of information in the most efficient and I think economical way....

The completion of the human map of genes will not in any way be an end point--rather it will get us to a new starting point sooner is a better way of thinking about it. I think the technology is sufficiently advanced now that it makes sense to do it. There are obviously a lot of other considerations that go into it. So, I think it is a very important project if it is well managed and if all the considerations non-scientific, by which I mean ethical and social considerations as well, are considered and are an integral part of the program.

I think we need, and I'm not always sure that it's there, but we need wisdom in the application of some of the technology and some of the instruments, summoning a certain foresight, being able to imagine potential dilemmas, potential problems, and dealing with them, addressing them. I think it is important to incorporate both and I think it is like a sack race. One has to pull the other along. I don't think you can have one society clamp its hands on the leg of technology and hold it in place because I don't think that is realistic to begin with. I think it is much more pragmatic to try and address ways in which they can move forward together and enhancing each other's effect as opposed to being adversarial. Having said that, I also think it is necessary to have an adversarial quality to the relationship, because it is what keeps each part honest.

Q. So do you support Jeremy Rifkin's efforts in terms of building an argument?

SH. I don't support Rifkin's arguments because I've always found them to be not terribly sophisticated. I think they play more on fears than on dealing with I guess what I call helplessness--this knowledge has gotten you no further than a sense of helplessness--and I think that is a dilemma that really needs to be addressed. I'm not quite sure how it is going to be handled. As to your question about whether it is actually being addressed or discussed, I don't know. I suspect things like this actually are very useful in that regard. But it is also my sense that there is not that many things like this. In the vast orbit of things that we all have to do each day, you know, talking about the genetic future probably does not rank high for many people for all the obvious reasons: there are just more pressing issues to take care of. I don't know if we are going to be wise enough to really come to grips with it and discuss it. But I do think we need to do so and I would like to see more discussion along those lines.

Q. How much of a problem is it going to be that people are going to be able to identify genetic dispositions but not be able to do anything about it?

SH. Well, there is obviously going to be a time lag and it is probably going to be something on the order of 10 or 15 years where we have a great ability to diagnose these diseases but nothing to offer the people who are so diagnosed. I think creating that sense of helplessness ... I think if anyone of us thought about being told that we have a predisposition for a disease that is possibly fatal but we can't do anything for you--I think that would leave you feeling like less than half a loaf. I think that is a danger that medical genetics is trying to address, and I think it is important that they try to address it.

It brings up a very interesting question which goes to the heart of technology and has been raised in a more philosophical content on occasion, which is, "Are there certain forms of knowledge that we are better off not having?" Now, that is a question that science generally answers, "No, we should try to obtain every form of knowledge that we can, there should be no limitation on that." From the point of view of the individual who may be told that he has a genetic predisposition to disease but nothing that can be done for it, it may well be that not knowing is a better philosophical state and emotional state to be in.

I think these are going to be battles that people deal with literally on the individual level. Everyone is going to have to make a decision on that, and I think educating themselves to the possibility makes it incumbent upon medical doctors, for example, to really communicate choice, communicate the potential dilemma. I think the practice of medicine will be changed by this. It has to be.

Q. Talking about mapping, how massive is the human genome project in terms of trying to build a genetic map? Have you come up with a clever way of describing the genetic vs. physical map? Just what is the magnitude of what is being attempted?

SH. As for the magnitude of what is being attempted is, I used this example in my first book, Invisible Frontiers. If you look at your freckle there is about, I don't know, 3,000 cells in a freckle. And each one of those cells is a 5 foot molecule of DNA if you unfurl it. Three billion dollars at least will be spent on discerning every letter, 3 billion of them, on that particular length of DNA. It is a kind of an interior atlas, this biological atlas--the term has been used before--but it is the microscopic atlas that we are blowing up both with budget but also with ambition into something that I think really is almost going to be like spending 10 or 15 years to create a ground plan. I really think of it more as at the end of it you will be left with a ground plan with ideas of how things fit much more, where parts of biology can develop further. So in that sense it sounds less exciting than arriving on the moon, for example, even though it has been called biology's "Moon Shot."

However, I think it is an instrument of freedom because it will create the freedom for many researchers to pursue interesting parts of that atlas and on every map there is terra incognita, the area that is still yet to be explored. Once you map something, those areas are much more obvious and I think this will make a very lot of rich areas of "biological unknowns." We will become aware of them.

I think there is a tremendous general admiration for the ingenuity of science to develop these technologies of genetic manipulation, gene splicing, recombination, and there should be. It is a marvelous skill that has really opened lots of fabulous doors. On the other hand, I think there is something mystical or something special about life that when we talk about tampering with it a little chill may go up the spine, possibly because we don't quite understand the dimensions of it.

But I think it is almost a reaction on an emotional level, and probably a good one, that hey, this is the product of a process that is going for hundreds of millions of years, that process as we know now is scientifically understood but nonetheless it is a marvelous process and it is formed by not just science but by chance, happenstance, all the things that go into evolution. The idea of arrogating to oneself the responsibility for changing, manipulating here and there, creating mice, the famous knockout mice, mice without (certain) genes, on the one hand is a marvelous tool for the laboratory, but at another level I think it just creates questions about, "Are we going to be able to use this power wisely?"

Q. From the time we started as a species, we've had an impact on this planet. How is this any different than what we've already been doing?

SH. Well, that's actually a very interesting, it's almost a philosophical question. We are a part of nature, so what we do in nature becomes a part of nature. But is there a point where the part that we play becomes so dominant that it becomes a monologue that sort of squeezes out all of the other players on the stage? I don't foresee that in the near future. I think that's unlikely. But there is that aspect of our technology and our technical acumen of really changing the rules of the game, certainly changing the rules of evolution in the sense that now we can manipulate genes and create creatures that simply were not created by evolution, although it might have--we don't know that either.

Q. If there are none around, we won't know about them. A couple of questions about you being a writer of science. What do you see as your role as a science writer?

SH. First of all, I tend not to call myself a science writer--although I did at the beginning of this interview--so much as a writer who happens to write about science. It is a subtle distinction but I tend to think of myself as someone who is interested in an interesting topic and would try to find the best story to tell within it. I just happen to think that science offers some of the most interesting stories, not merely in terms of personalities and individuals, but it is really one of the last cultures in this century of exploration and discovery. I think more so than the arts in many respects now.

And so to write about science with the sense of describing a culture of exploration, a culture of discovery, and as an intellectual adventure, has frankly been very appealing to me. I find it just enormously interesting to follow. Now in terms of what responsibilities I feel come along with that territory, not many except to try to be accurate. I don't feel like I'm doing a public service, actually. I sometimes wonder how interested the public is in science, compared to many other things. So I'm mostly satisfying my own curiosities of interest as a writer by doing it.

Q. Do you have concerns that you, after studying a field for a while, become an advocate for that field and if so how do you balance that?

SH. I try not to become an advocate for a field, and I don't. I'm a little bit different probably than some of the other people you'll be talking to who tend to write either daily, weekly, or monthly stories, that probably have a much more immediate impact so that you make a call on things, or have to react to things almost instantly. Since I tend to write books more than magazine articles for the most part, I'm often more interested in the history of things so I don't feel like what I say about anything at the moment will have any particular impact on how it is interpreted, so any kind of advocacy role I play is not likely to have an impact on sort of an immediate debate over a particular issue. It may help people look back and understand how certain things happened in a certain way.

I do think one of things I'm always interested in is understanding the sociology of science and the culture of science. I think with an understanding of that aspect of science some of the things that scientists do become more understandable. It is essential to understand why scientists do some things that they do and how they do it and the culture that surrounds them and why certain things are okay and certain things aren't. And I think that actually can help people understand not only the information but also where the information is coming from. I think often the information is pretty well conveyed but sometimes the culture out of which it emerges--why things are important, that sort of thing--is hard to convey because it usually comes from long intellectual traditions, usually stretching back for a century or whatever.

As far as advocacy goes, I guess I would just tend to advocate more scholarship and historicism in science because I think it is really interesting: who has had ideas before? why they couldn't deliver on the idea? That sort of thing. So those are the sort of issues that interest me.

Q. In that vein, could you give me a kind of thumbnail sketch of the genetics community?

SH. Well, as a culture I would be loathe to generalize too much. But clearly, Francis Crick had a marvelous characterization about this, and it was that the definition of the word "recently" changes from field to field. He was making the point that when you use the word "recently" in neuroscience it means within the last one or two years. But in molecular biology it usually means the last one or two weeks. Things change so fast; it is really a culture that rewards people who are quick, who are aggressive, who take risks, who are on the edge because the landscape is changing so quickly, literally underneath them, so you need to react quickly and respond quickly. I think that is a particular subculture that is very identifiable.

Q. Kind of selects for the fighter instinct in the scientific community?

SH. A little bit. I think it is certain the rewards for being quick as opposed to slow are perhaps more obvious in that field. One of the people I interviewed in Invisible Frontiers made the point about scientific races, that if you finish second it is as if you didn't even show up at all. Whenever you are in a cutting edge technology, whenever you are in a field where there is fertile paradox, uncertainty, things still need to be discovered, and are important questions that attract a lot of researchers, it is quite natural that people get very competitive and they want to get their first. I think society benefits from that too because we likely will get answers to some things that we need answered sooner as opposed to later.

Q. Given that immense push in competition, how is the ethical and social debate going to keep up?

SH. Excellent question. I don't know. I think Jim Watson's effort to include ethicists as part of the genome project and also committing the amount of money that he was committing to that venture is somewhat more than symbolic. I think his effort to try to incorporate that is the kind of thing that can help.... The molecular biologists are talking to people outside their field as well as simply the people within their field, because I think they need to hear the concerns from the outside.

As the original recombinant DNA controversy suggested, as annoying as it sometimes can be, as time consuming as it sometimes can be, and as adversarial as it sometimes can be, when there is communication between the scientists and the public the outcome always seems to be much better. I think the scientists understand what the public is worried about and I think the public understands again where the scientists are coming from, so more as opposed to less communication I think will be very helpful and the mechanism at least initially was set in place for that. Now whether it happens will require watchdogs other than ethicists to keep track of, but I think at least the mechanism and structure was set in place.

There is always the possibility of danger in the fact that the risk takers at the edge of research are running ahead of the pack including the "ethical pack" as it were. To address that I guess I would like to see--just as medical education is changing and they are incorporating more of what used to be called bedside manner, because it is an important component of the entire process--I'd like to see more scholarship. I'd like to see more communication again between scientists and the public, just so they again know that this dialogue is maintained, possibly increased if it looks like the stakes are getting higher and higher in terms of what we're learning, all the more reason that there should be dialogue.

As for mechanisms that can insure that, I don't know, it is hard. Scientists are not fundamentally unethical, I don't think that's the issue at all. I think the work is so demanding and the focus is so intense that I just don't think they hear a broader mosaic of opinion and perhaps disagreement as all of us in our professions probably don't or can't afford to, if we wanted to proceed at greatest speed. I think it is the same thing. One hopes that there is enlightened leadership within each one of the "cells" as it were, where work like this goes on, which is the Universities. They are institutions not only of research but of teaching and I think they should be teaching their researchers some of these things as well.

Q. In terms of social impact, how are biology, biotechnology, and genetics different from other sciences such as astronomy or physics?

SH. Clearly we are all biological creatures, so we live with biology every day. We may not think of it that way, we may not think of our own biology every day, but even when we look in a mirror and examine a strange spot on our face which may have appeared overnight, that is a biological process. So we are biological creatures. It somehow strikes home in a way that going out and looking at the stars on a clear winter night, which is also awe-inspiring, but is awe-inspiring in a different way. It just lives a little bit closer to home. And for that reason it might possibly have more of an emotional impact.

Again, being biological creatures it is not an abstract principle to talk about biological change, biological revolution and changes in medicine and technology, that sort of thing. These are things that quite literally affect us in the home and in the heart, literally and figuratively, and I think that is one reason that we perhaps look at it a little bit more differently.

Q. What kind of a ride are we in for?

SH. In terms of biotechnology, I think we're in for a complex ride. I think life at least for the short term looks as if it is going to be getting more complex and complicated as opposed to simpler. I just think some of the things that have come out in the last 10 years are so phenomenally marvelous. (For example,) our ability to understand how a fertilized egg develops, unfurls....It is as awesome as any other achievement of human intellect over the ages. It is terribly exciting. I think it is going to be terribly discomforting....We are going to have lags between knowledge to diagnose and technology to treat. Things will be interesting but we won't quite know what they mean. A lot of this will have an impact with individuals because when we talk about genes we're talking about the genetic baggage that all of us carry around. So I think it will all come home in that sense. I think it is going to be an exciting roller coaster but a roller coaster also in the sense of when it goes down, you feel it in your stomach, you feel it in your throat. There may be moments like that.

I would hope that everyone does not view it as a roller coaster ride in terms of being a passive participant, though. I think it is important that it is a process that everyone engage to a greater or lesser degree, even it if means just challenging your doctor to explain things better, to spell out what options are there, that sort of thing. Because it is going to affect everyone, so you might as well play an active role in it.


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