by Sara Shostak
University of California Press, 2013, 312 pages
“Genetics loads the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger.” This turn of phrase, from Sara Shostak’s book Exposed Science: Genes, the Environment, and the Politics of Population Health, suggests that human variability and heredity is the underlying cause for most illnesses and while the environment is involved, it is not the sole perpetrator. It suggests that for some people, environmental exposure will lead to a reduction in health, while for others—perhaps the lucky ones, or perhaps the ones with so-called “superior genes”—it will not. Alternatively, as has been the long-standing assumption in environmental health sciences, one can posit that “the dose makes the poison”, a phrase that ignores genetics by suggesting that the environment’s effect on human health depends on the amount of the exposure. So how does an individual—a scientist, a community member, a parent, or a lawmaker—reconcile these two seemingly discordant ideas? How does the human genome, exposure, the places where we live, or our familial lineage come into play? Shostak’s Exposed Science both starts and ends with the quest for answers to these questions. In Shostak’s own words, “The central argument is that scientists’ perceptions of and responses to the structural vulnerabilities of the field of environmental health sciences have both intended and unintended consequences for what we know about the somatic vulnerabilities of our bodies to environment exposures” (Shostak 2013: 8-9). Sara Shostak is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Brandeis University.