MAKING PCR: A STORY OF BIOTECHNOLOGY.
The more complex science gets, it seems, the more it affects us. We need skillful analysts. But what tools shall they use? With the decline of letter writing, the historian, sociologist, or anthropologist of recent science increasingly must turn to interviews, memoirs, and firsthand participant observation. More and more, such studies will shape the way we view the ever greater influence of science on everyday life.
One welcomes, then, the arrival of two anthropologists' contributions to the growing scholarship on recent science. Margaret Mead had her Samoans, Jane Goodall her chimps; Paul Rabinow and Joan Fujimura have their molecular biologists. Both authors rely on interviews to provide shop-floor views of commercial biotechnology research and academic biomedicine. Fujimura, in addition, spent many hours in laboratories observing the social structure and dynamics of several laboratory populations. Both books build on the work of social constructivists such as Steven Shapin, Bruno Latour, Steve Woolgar, Karin Knorr-Cetina, and others. As the books' titles show, the actors in them are not discovering things; they are "making" and "crafting." In these books, then, postmodernism confronts oral history. The results are sometimes awkward, often illuminating.
Rabinow uses the history of an invention called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) as a wedge into the world of biotechnology. PCR is a gene-copying system. It harnesses the cell's natural mechanism for duplicating the chromosomes--a process that occurs every time a cell divides--and focuses the copying process on a particular gene sequence of interest. The copies are then copied, and those copies are copied, leading to an exponential chain reaction. Having a million or more copies of your gene immeasurably speeds analysis, purification, and ultimately understanding and the development of biomedical applications. Simple though it is, PCR is one of those inventions that defines an era in molecular biology: life in the lab has been different "after PCR." Kary Mullis, who first conceived PCR in 1983, won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1993.
The history of PCR is a scientific and legal soap opera of strong personalities, jealousy, and priority and patent disputes. Rabinow takes the story back to the founding of Mullis's employer, Cetus, in 1971. Cetus was one of the first modern start-up biotech companies. Its early research was in non-genetic biochemistry, but in the late 1970s, Cetus went recombinant, pushing into new frontiers of genetically engineered drugs and cancer therapies. Mullis, a brilliant, eccentric biochemist with a taste for surfing and psychedelics, signed on with Cetus in 1979. He became known as the boy who cried "Eureka!" as he trumpeted one wacky idea after another. So few listened seriously when he told colleagues about his idea for PCR.
Hot-tempered Mullis nearly got into a fistfight at a Cetus retreat in 1983. Rather than fire him immediately, the head of the company took Mullis off his assigned projects and gave him one technician and six months to make PCR work. He did; Cetus then established a PCR group to refine the technology and develop protocols and instruments to carry it out. The PCR patents were approved in 1987 and by 1988 the first PCR machine was commercially available. Patent disputes, internal dissent, and failed strategy then tore Cetus apart. In 1991 Cetus sold PCR to Swiss pharmaceutical giant Hoffman-La Roche and was bought out by another Bay Area company, Chiron.
Rabinow tells this story ably. Mullis, however, is but one Samoan in this study. Rabinow is more interested in the group dynamics of the whole Cetus population. He shows nicely how PCR was not the independent creation of a single man. Like insulin or penicillin, PCR was both a discovery and an invention; originating in a solitary insight, it became a useful tool after a tag team of pragmatic and skilled workers refined and standardized it. Unlike those earlier inventions, however, PCR was developed in a start-up biotechnology company, where powerful intellects and economic make-or-break zeal create extraordinary pressure.
Rabinow employs interviews in innovative ways. He does not rely on them as historical sources--indeed, some key events are related without evidentiary support--but instead uses them to create a context for his narrative. He interleaves large sections of interview transcripts with narrative, rather than using the more conventional method of weaving quotes into the story. This technique has an appealing empiricism but stylistically is difficult to pull off. Inserting a transcript produces not only a break in the narrative but a shift in voice, which, if not handled deftly, can leave the reader feeling unmoored. In this case, regular alternation of narrative and transcript early on gives way to a less systematic structure, leaving the reader groping for a pattern.
Late in the book, Rabinow juxtaposes transcripts on the same topic, allowing the reader to compare several interview subjects' views. This approach could make a clever demonstration of the personal way in which each observer interprets a given event. Rabinow does this most strikingly in the conclusion, in which he has several subjects give a post-mortem on Mullis and PCR--but he leaves out Mullis. He did so, he says, because Mullis was by the 1990s "telling the same stories with the same details regardless of context" (177, n. 6)--which would have been interesting in itself to illustrate this way--and for "legal simplification." Each of the postmortems, though, refers to the way Mullis had made up his own version of history. Not to present Mullis's version renders the conclusion hollow and nearly pointless.
In Crafting Science Fujimura deploys her quotes and observations less innovatively than Rabinow does, which is just as well, because her argument is subtle and complex. She uses molecular cancer genetics as a case study to show how in science theory and methods develop together and are mutually interdependent. The theory she examines is that of proto-oncogenes, developed in the 1970s and 1980s, which showed that any gene involved in cell growth or division could, if disrupted, become an oncogene, or cancer gene. The methods that developed with proto-oncogene theory are those of recombinant DNA, a catchall term that describes the cutting and pasting of gene sequences within and between organisms. In Fujimura's account, proto-oncogene theory and recombinant DNA techniques developed together, mutually reinforcing one another, as what she calls a "theory-methods package." Fujimura refers to this package as a "bandwagon," aboard which savvy scientists play the tunes of grantsmanship, publication, and prestige.
It soon became apparent that the proto-oncogene/recombinant DNA package had great power to generate new research problems. As scientists increasingly framed their experiments in its terms, ridership on the bandwagon became almost compulsory in order to obtain research funding. For those in the lab much of Fujimura's account will be self-evident, but that is one of the book's strengths. Good social science studies articulate the ordinary in ways that are clarifying, edifying, and interesting.
As social animals, molecular biologists stake out both intellectual and geographical territory, which they mark in characteristic ways. Dominance hierarchies, appeasement and competitive strategies, and grooming behavior can all be observed. Following a generally accurate historical chapter, Fujimura analyzes several research laboratories in universities and biotech companies in terms of how they define, address, and solve problems--intellectual territory. She calls this resource-gathering and chest-beating "articulation work": the daily detail of purchasing reagents, taking care of mice, dealing with competitors, and getting papers out the door for publication. She argues that this, not the headline-grabbing breakthrough, is where the real work of science goes on, and in many ways she is right.
She leaves out, however, one component of the life of scientists (as of chimps): curiosity. Even the most self-aggrandizing scientists I have known have been genuinely interested in understanding their piece of nature. To Fujimura, science is simply a set of strategies and methods pursued for their own sake. Problems are solved not by insight or cleverly designed experiments but by enrolling workers into a research program, winning commitments from other scientists, and negotiating compromises among competing interests. It is hard to imagine how so many hours in the lab could fail to impress her with the intellectual content of science.
While most historical studies of science have been interested in what makes science unique, anthropologist Fujimura seeks to show what makes science like any other social activity. She describes accurately how in science today's novel observations become tomorrow's standard tools--PCR, for example, has become an indispensable technique in molecular biology labs. She describes this process as one of standardization and articulation. Theories, model systems, techniques, and instruments begin as problematic and become less so as they are tested and proved. Scientists become increasingly dependent on them, which results in less questioning and accelerated standardization. This is one of the book's most important observations, and it invites further exploration.
One implication of this standardization, she shows, is that power and authority in science tend to be distributed rather than centralized. Science certainly has its silverbacks. But in academia, cocky graduate students quiz famous scientists in seminars and students and technicians address the lab head by first name; in industry, researchers, marketing staff, and management all have input into how a new product is handled. Though much of the book is devoted to showing how science is similar to other social milieux, here Fujimura shows nicely one way in which the scientific environment is exceptional.
Alas, the book fails to give us the view from the shop floor. We never do more than squint at the researchers through grimy binoculars. One layer of obstructive film is Fujimura's language. It is dense and obfuscatory, prickly with needless jargon and devoid of grace. Scientists do not collaborate, they enroll allies to a theory-methods package; this happens because "the proto-oncogene conceptual framework provided a metaphoric and discursive alliance between different lines of research" (7). Standardization of theory and methods are in part the result of "positioned rationalities" (234). As if to compensate for the obscurity of the prose, Fujimura often repeats herself.
The more serious barrier, however, is Fujimura's lack of compassion for her subjects. However flawed Mead's studies, her narrative remains lively because she cared about her subjects. In contrast, Fujimura detaches herself from her biologists at every turn. Annoying "irony quotes" barb paragraphs like razor wire. We never get to know anyone, never develop any feeling for what life is like in the lab. Fujimura deliberately omitted the gossipy side of life in the lab, mocking it as "the `you should have been there, there was lots of sociology going on' stories" (175). She justifies the omission by asking, "Do these experiences affect the stuff of science? Do they affect the knowledge produced?" (175) and implicitly answering in the negative, although many scholars have argued that they do.
Fujimura has jumped on a bandwagon herself: the relativist bandwagon. But can its sagging axles accept the lading of ethnographic fieldwork? Even a relativist ethnographer must take some evidence at face value. Fujimura, more than Rabinow, relies on her interviews. For all the postmodern irony of her book, she takes her subjects' statements surprisingly literally. She accepts their post hoc interpretations of experiments without checking them against laboratory notebooks. She takes as transparent a biotech researcher's loaded opinions of the marketing department. These are the touchy subjects where the anthropologist of science must be detached and skeptical. Fujimura offers little assurance that her Samoans were not, like Mead's, simply telling her what she wanted to hear.
As deeply as molecular genetics and biotechnology touch us, scholars are still groping for the right voice and analytical techniques to address them. Interviews and in-lab fieldwork are powerful tools for understanding science. The best future studies will use these intimate techniques to strike a balance between compassionate understanding and skeptical analysis.
Nathaniel Comfort The George Washington University
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|Publication:||The Oral History Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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