Monday, October 17, 2011
A Biographical History of Science
The book, as it turns out, is in part social commentary, in part biological history, but mostly biographical. Rebecca Skloot sets out to recreate the life and personal legacy of Henrietta Lacks, to remind us that there was a person behind the HeLa cells. It's a laudable enough purpose, but not a topic of general interest (general being me, of course :)) The most compelling aspect of her personal life story was how absolutely not pretty it was. These were people with some family structure, but no education, and no money. There's jail time, infidelity, multiple forms of abuse, mental illness, STDs, and a general unpleasantness with which I do not recall coming often into such close contact. The state of the black population in the fifties was sorry indeed if the Lacks are any example (I think they probably are not). And the Lacks of today (or of the nineties) are not much better. There's still a lot of crime and a lot of anger, little education and no sophistication. I almost wonder if Rebecca Skloot means to portray the Lacks so unflattering - they seem to blow off the handle at nothing and exhibit little understanding of the complicated affairs surrounding their mother's cells.
Which is what keeps the book from getting too preachy. Yes, scientists did not treat blacks well in the fifties. But it's not like anyone really thinks they perpetrated a huge wrong against Henrietta Lacks when they cultured her abandoned tumor cells. Her family thinks they deserve monetary reward, that their mother might have suffered, but her family doesn't appear all that credible. And there is plenty of evidence on the other side that the scientists would *still* be legally mostly in the right (with the exception of exposing HeLa's identity) and that morally, they really did very little even questionable. The greater ugly story of black and other minority experimentation is explored, but not with any aim toward villifying the greater community of scientists, and particularly not condemning those involved in HeLa cultivation. It is horrifying that in the 1950s scientific research was so primitive with regards to subjects rights, but it's gratifying that we have come a long way. And regarding the moral issues that still plague research, and in particular tissue research today, The Immortal Life is quite balanced - I find myself mostlhy in agreement with Ms. Skloot, with the exception of a few bouts of scare-mongering which I think are there mostly to argue towards the book's relevance.
What I wish the book had more of is the actual science. I really know nothing about cell culture and I had never heard of HeLa cells. I (along with I'm sure everyone else who reads this book) find it fascinating that one single cell line has spread so pervasively throughout the cellular research world. And tracing the track of scientific and medical discoveries since the '50's feels miraculous - the advances of biology and genetics are made concrete through the careful timeline of HeLa through history. I don't know if I would have been able to read a book that emphasized the science more - Rebecca Skloot's talent is certainly adding human interest to the story and I can't imagine her getting enthusiastic without that angle. And I can guarantee that the book flows a lot faster because half of it is tales of the Lacks and of various other human players. I guess this book really is similar to Inutition in that there's a lot of interesting science and research methodology mixed with a human tale - but unlike Intuition, the science is the reason I read the book. And the truth is, maybe I felt it was dumbed down by all the other stuff, but I think I actually learned quite a lot - and not only that, I think it will stick in my head, and that's because of the book's vivid and sympathetic style. I have to say, there's a reason it's a bestseller - compelling, easy reading and something for quite a few folks.