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Book Review: Generosity

20 September 2010
Appeared in BioNews 576

Generosity: An Enhancement

By Richard Powers

Published by Atlantic Books

ISBN-10: 1848871252, ISBN-13: 978-1848871250

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Generosity: An Enhancement' by Richard Powers

What can genetic science tell us about the human psyche? Scientists have already pinpointed a handful of genes that contribute small, but significant, amounts to the happiness of some individuals. For example, different versions of a gene that affects levels of the mood-altering brain chemical serotonin have been linked to whether or not individuals are drawn to the positive or negative aspects of life.

This propensity for optimism may seem too simple for the complexity of human emotion - people's personalities are complex and it's likely the environment plays as much a role in shaping our emotional and mental state as does our genetic makeup. But is there some truth in the idea that our genes somehow limit our capacity for happiness?

This is the backdrop for American author Richard Powers' latest novel Generosity. The story centres on an Algerian woman - Thassa Amzwar - whose positive influence on the other members of her creative writing class intrigues her teacher, Russell Stone. Stone is a failed writer who has turned to teaching to make ends meet. He is baffled by his pupil's radiant personality, which enables her to strike a chord with everyone she meets and doesn't even falter when she's describing the atrocities of the Algerian war of which she is a victim.

Ultimately, he is so intrigued he convinces himself that she must be mentally 'ill', so disproportionate and unusual is her attitude to life. Turning to the Internet, he self diagnoses the woman with 'hyperthymia' - a state of unadulterated joy - and, after consulting Candace Weld, the college psychiatrist (I presume all US educational establishments have one), he is convinced.

Meanwhile, an entrepreneurial genomics scientist named Thomas Kurton, with uncanny resemblance to genome pioneer Craig Venter, is on a mission to harness cutting edge genomic technology to create a happier, healthier, smarter and more beautiful human race. For someone close to the subject of genetics, the premise probably comes across as rather cliché, but - for the man on the street - it may be a little less jarring.

Through a series of subtly interconnected events, Thassa's genome ends up in the hands of Kurton who sequences it, analyses it and publishes a peer-reviewed scientific paper on it that lays claim to the optimum genetic configuration for congenital happiness.

The findings trigger a media firestorm, epitomising everything that can go wrong with science journalism today. Headlines such as 'Better than sex, stronger than money, more lasting than prestige… The secret of happiness? Be born happy' precede media reports 'reaching a whole rainbow of conclusions about what, if anything, the new findings mean'.

A 'temperament analysis' test is marketed by Kurton's biotech company 'Trucyte' claims to measure customers' capacity for happiness, according to their genes. But the long-term applications are, allegedly, that these genes could one day be manipulated with drugs, or even prenatally, to enhance human happiness.

The plot culminates with Thassa agreeing to appear on an Oprah-style chat show - evidently the means by which all celebrity Americans air their skeletons. In an attempt to curb her unsolicited rise to fame and counter any belief that she somehow enjoys unmatched levels of happiness, she delivers a myth-busting speech explaining, in no uncertain terms, why we are all purveyors of our own happiness. It's a YouTube hit, of course.

Although occasionally sensationalist and at times scientifically dubious, overall I admire Richard Power's attempt at making the wide range of issues raised by modern genetic technologies accessible to a wider audience. Many are currently the focus of scientists, ethicists, politicians and science communicators worldwide and any attempt at expanding this to the broader public can only act to enhance the debate.

But one word of warning: those of you whose work involves creating a forum for informed debate in relation to modern day genomics be prepared to have your greatest bugbears antagonised by the plotline of this book.

Buy Generosity: An Enhancement from Amazon UK.

1 March 2009 - by Sarah Pritchard 
Whether a person looks on the brighter side of life may be the result of a gene variation, claims a study published last week. Published in the journal 'Proceedings of the Royal Society B', the study claims that different versions of a particular gene, which affects levels...
10 March 2008 - by Dr Rebecca Robey 
British and Australian scientists have found that a person's genes can predispose them towards happiness. Reporting in the journal Psychological Science, the researchers found that genes account for 50 per cent of the factors contributing to an individual's satisfaction with life, with external influences such as health...
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