“Well, it’s scary, isn’t it, all this genetic engineering.”
Early in the semester, I asked a rather basic question to Professor Clayton: How should I approach reading the texts for this semester? To this question, he responded that I should consider the relevance of each work to social, policy, and scientific issues. As a student of the Medicine, Health, and Society program here at Vanderbilt, I was admittedly curious as to the various ways literature contributes to our understanding of important issues of the present – particularly those relating to the relationship and interaction between humans and the science we produce. Most recently, I found Zadie Smith’s White Teeth to contain a wealth of commentary and questions.
In the arena of social commentary, Smith seems to be making a statement about the medicalization of boyhood and the pharmacological treatment of, well, just about everything. This was and is a major concern to Americans in the late 1990s and early parts of the current decade. Consider the following passage in which Millat had been missing for a few days, prior to a psychiatrist’s appointment that Joyce had scheduled for him “It’s simply essential that I talk with him if he rings. We’re so close to breakthrough. Marjorie’s almost certain it’s Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” (358) And a little later in the text: “Because if Marjorie’s right, and it is ADHD, he really needs to get a doctor and some methylphenidate. It’s a very debilitative condition.” (358) Fascinatingly, these statements can be contrasted on the very next page with the following quotation: “Its perfectly natural for well-educated middle-class children to act up at his age.” (359)
The two positions described above are still a hotly debated item today. Further complicating the issue and perhaps giving Smith more reason to comment on this subject in her novel, is work published recently by Samuel Zuvekas. He found that, when comparing 2001 to 1996, approximately 5.5 million more Americans were receiving treatment for mental health disorders. Much of this increase was related to new cases of ADHD in young children. (Zuvekas, 2005) Sadly, even infants are prescribed medications for ADHD and other conditions such as bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder, and depression. And while I am unclear if Smith meant this to be a slam against the perceptions of ADHD of that time, researchers have now discovered that it is actually the well-educated middle-class children that have been most labeled with ADHD. (Hart, Grand, and Riley, 2006) According to this work, children whose parents form the working-class are actually less likely to display characteristics of ADHD. Perhaps Smith was poking fun at this with the almost- labeling of Millat with ADHD and Joshua as the “normal” teenager.
Yet this is only one of many important issues discussed in this book. There was a section in the book that seems to drive right at the heart of what we are studying in this class as we read literature that is attempting to examine the implications of the genetics and scientific experimentation. Consider the following passage in which Marcus Chalfen is thinking about a book he had written called Time Bombs and Body Clocks, Adventures in Our Genetic Futures.
The book had been his agent’s idea: a split-level high/low culture book, whereby Marcus wrote a “hard science” chapter on one particular development in genetics and then the novelist wrote a twin chapter exploring these ideas from a futuristic, fictional, what-if-this-led-to-this point of view, and so on for eight chapters each. (344)
As the young, unnamed Asian girl conversing with Chalfen about this book says, “Well, it’s scary, isn’t it, all this genetic engineering.” (345) Exactly. It is scary. The trust we put into scientist hands is a slightly unnerving prospect. Historically, there are many examples of science being used for the good of humanity. But how do we account for the tragedies done in the name of science? Think about the Tuskegee Syphilis study or the Nazi death camps, among others. Where will genetic engineering and recombinant DNA reside? With miracle cures or human eugenics?
I found White Teeth to be a wonderful novel that explored topics ranging from ADHD to genetic engineering. There exists a wide array of useful commentary (and warnings!) for the policy makers of tomorrow. For the naysayers, I still say there is beauty in the unpredictable and the random. And to the mouse I say: Go!