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DNA Is Not Destiny: Challenging the Hype over Genetic Testing

Matthew C. Nisbet is professor of communication at Northeastern University and editor-in-chief of the journal Environmental Communication. He also writes at www.wealthofideas.org and can be found on Twitter @MCNisbet.

"Genetic Code of Human Life Cracked by Scientists” was the June 27, 2000, front-page headline of The New York Times. The previous day, in an event held at the White House, President Bill Clinton was joined by Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Project, and Craig Venter, president of Celera Genomics, to announce that the public-private consortium had successfully mapped roughly 90 percent of the human genome. “Today, we are learning the language in which God created life,” declared President Clinton, flanked by the two scientists. “With this profound new knowledge, humankind is on the verge of gaining immense, new power to heal” (Wade 2000).

Even though full completion of the genome map was still several years away, in a 1999 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Collins (1999) sketched out his vision for the health benefits, presenting a hypothetical scenario a decade in the future. He described a twenty-three-year-old male patient who, after meeting with his doctor, consented to a genetic test. Based on the results, the patient was told that he had an increased risk of contracting coronary artery disease, colon cancer, and lung cancer.

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