Gaymon Bennett. Science, Religion, and Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy. Editor: Arri Eisen & Gary Laderman. Volume 1. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.
Outfitted with supercomputers and new research strategies, the sciences of life—genetics first among them—are generating voluminous and increasingly complex catalogues of data concerning virtually all life processes. With the mapping of the human genome, few doubt that this knowledge brings with it new capacities to deliberately reform those processes. Indeed, pursuit of genetic knowledge is often predicated on the possibility that it will beget technologies of transformation. For genetics has taught us that DNA is fundamental to all life, and that DNA is extremely malleable.
Calling variously for caution and courage, heralds of this new biological century proclaim the arrival of an unprecedented age of knowledge and intervention. Whether contemporary advances in genetics warrant such epochal representation—either of luminosity or of danger—remains to be seen. Nevertheless, despite the discord, to summarize the diagnosis of anthropologist Paul Rabinow, all parties seem to agree that something about the future is at stake and that there is a pressing obligation to do something about it. What kind of future is at stake and what we are obliged to do, however, remain far from clear.
Genetics: Knowledge of Life
Since at least the end of the eighteenth century, models of reality drawn from science have shaped the imagination of the modern industrial West. These models have been prized for their explanatory and predictive power. Methodologically simplifying complex arrangements into conceptually manageable parts, these models—through the knowledge and the technologies they have generated—have described how the world works and how it might be made to work differently.
No biological model of reality has offered more explanatory and predictive power than the gene. For more than a century, the gene, to quote philosopher of science Evelyn Fox-Keller, has performed tasks that are “veritably Herculean.” For scientists, Fox-Keller continues, this single entity has served as “the guarantor of intergenerational stability, the factor responsible for individual traits, and at the same time, the agent directing the organism’s development.” The social significance of this concept has been equally remarkable. For the modern public, the idea of the gene has increasingly served to explain the nature of embodied existence. As Rabinow puts it, more and more people around the world conceive of genes as containing “precious information that tells the truth about who they, and their pets and plants and food, really are and provides clues to what their future holds.” Theologian Ted Peters offers a similar assessment: people are turning to genetics as they ponder the very nature of nature, asking if DNA answers the age-old question: “Who am I?”
In 1905, British scientist William Bateson proposed that the biological study of heredity be denoted “genetics” (from the Latin for “origin” or “generation”). In reproducing, parents pass to their progeny biological factors—genes—which provide instructions for an organism’s most basic structure and functions, thereby affecting the progeny’s development. The sum total of an organism’s genetic content is thought of as its genome or genotype. The genotype is conceptually distinct from the phenotype, which is the sum total of an organism’s observable traits. Since its inception, genetics has been oriented by two questions. What is the nature of the relationship between an organism’s genotype and phenotype? How can that relationship be made different?
Every living cell contains DNA—deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA consists of a long array of nucleotide base pairs. While nucleotide pairings are always the same—adenine (A) always bonds with thymine (T), and guanine (G) always bonds with cytosine (C)—the sequence of these pairs varies tremendously. Linear segments of these base pairs—genes—constitute a set of instructions for the production of the most basic parts and processes in an organism’s body. Perhaps the most vital genetic functions concern the production of proteins. Genes specify the sequence in which chains of amino acids are produced. Amino acids, in turn, constitute the basic building blocks of proteins. Genes also specify the timing and quantity of protein production, thereby coordinating protein interaction. As Michel Morange puts it, genes are the body’s “memory” for protein production and interaction.
Why is this process so significant? Proteins constitute the basic stuff of which organisms are made (cells, tissues, organs, etc.), and they are involved in most processes that take place within an organism. The gene-protein relationship is the foundation of much of contemporary genetics. Two vital principles follow from this relationship. First, if we can sequence the linear array of base pairs in the genome of a given organism, and if we can decipher which proteins these base pairs code for, then we will know the organism’s basic “blueprint.” Second, as we learn how to manipulate an organism’s DNA, we will be able to alter the organism. Thus understanding how genes produce and coordinate proteins will enable us to intervene in an organism’s bodily traits.
Despite its current worldwide impact, modern genetics had inauspicious beginnings. The story begins in nineteenth-century Moravia with the work of Gregor Mendel. Born into a world of peasant farming, he was surrounded by the concerns of agriculture and plant breeding. Mendel had an appetite for science; his university studies included physics, chemistry, botany, and mathematics. In particular he had a penchant for the rigor and precision of mathematics and physics. This concern for agriculture and affinity for scientific precision would prove a scientifically fortuitous combination.
In 1843, Mendel joined the Augustinian monastery of St. Thomas in Brno, which at the time functioned much like a modern scientific research institute. Mendel was given a plot of garden and assigned the duty of conducting agricultural experiments. Here Mendel conducted his now famous experiments on the hereditary development of garden peas. From about 1854 to 1864, Mendel studied over 10,000 pea plants, tracking and analyzing the distribution of characteristics such as height, color, and seed texture. In 1865, with a note of triumph, Mendel announced through publication and lectures the astonishingly simple and scientifically significant results of that study. His findings, however, would go unappreciated for almost half a century.
Through carefully controlled breeding and detailed observation of how particular traits changed as a result of selected fertilization crosses, Mendel hypothesized that characteristics must be passed from one generation to the next by way of hereditarily transmitted entities, which he called “factors.” Mendel’s conclusions about the nature of these hereditary factors would establish the foundational laws of modern genetics. First, hereditary factors, or genes as they would eventually be denoted, determine something about how an organism is structured and how it functions. Today we would say that an organism’s genotype determines something about the organism’s phenotype. Second, organisms of the same species carry different versions of the same hereditary factors (e.g., factors for purple versus white flowers). Third, progeny receive a combination of different genes from the preceding generation in a statistically regular fashion.
With the rediscovery of his work at the beginning of the twentieth century, Mendel’s insights refashioned the science of heredity. Alfred Sturtevant established that genes were located on chromosomes in the nucleus of cells, allowing him and his colleagues to “map” the location of genes on the salivary gland chromosomes of fruit flies whose genetic mutations they had been tracking. Within a few decades, geneticists had taken up the resources of biochemistry and had begun to fashion the conceptual tools needed for an understanding of the molecular constitution and function of genes. The conceptual tools of biochemistry established with certainty what had been suspected since the beginning of the twentieth century, namely that genes were fundamental to the metabolic pathway. In what is often referred to as the “one-gene/one-enzyme” hypothesis, midcentury geneticists discovered that genes are crucial to the production of proteins. What had been for Mendel a purely theoretical construct useful for interpreting his observations could now be modeled as a physiochemical entity.
In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick, studying Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction images of DNA, discovered the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule. This was a crucial step in the molecular analysis of genes. Watson and Crick’s discovery in combination with the one-gene/one-enzyme hypothesis helped establish what has since been called the central dogma of genetics, namely, that DNA functions as foundational biological information, which, through processes of transcription into RNA and translation into proteins, serves as the blueprint of life itself. These steps in molecular biology allowed genetics, which began as a largely statistical science tracking the likelihood of inherited factors, to become an enterprise capable of describing the most fundamental biochemical processes involved in the generation of life.
Since the 1950s, the expansion of the genetic sciences has been remarkable. With the development of computational technology and the transformation of that technology into tools for automated genetic research, detailed knowledge of how DNA is put together and how it works has accumulated at a tremendous rate. Since the 1960s, new technologies have been developed for gene sequencing, gene mapping, gene splicing, and gene amplification. Perhaps the most significant work has been the projects to map the human genome pursued by an international consortium of publicly funded labs, known as the “Human Genome Project,” and by a private corporation, Celera Genomics. Completed in 2001, these projects set out to determine two things: (1) the order of the four base pairs (nucleotides) that make up human DNA molecules, and (2) the position and spacing of the “expressed” genes in the human body.
We are years from interpreting everything about this sequence and this map. For example, how are specific genes and base pairs involved in the body’s development? How do the relations among genes affect that involvement? Nevertheless, maps of the human genome represent the most meticulous technical knowledge of the human body in biomedical history.
Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, offers several metaphors for the map of the human genome: “It’s a history book—a narrative of the journey of our species through time. It’s a shop manual, with an incredibly detailed blueprint for building every human cell. And it’s a transformative textbook of medicine, with insights that will give health care providers immense new powers to treat, prevent and cure disease.”
From Genes to Networks
One might assume that with the completion of genomic mapping projects, we are closer to discovering the nature of the genotype-phenotype relation, and being able to alter that relation. As it turns out, the genomic world is far more complex than we had imagined. The map of the human genome, to offer a more modest quote from Francis Collins, turns out to be only “the end of the beginning” of our biological self-understanding.
We often frame the relation between an organism’s genotype and pheno-type in terms of “the gene for” (e.g., the gene for eye color). The “gene for” language implies a simple one-to-one correspondence between genes and observable traits. But such language vastly oversimplifies an extraordinarily complex relation. Multiple genes are involved in the production of even the most simple proteins. Moreover, innumerable nongenetic, environmental factors impact the long developmental road from the gene to the organism.
While recognizing this complexity in principle, in practice genetics has frequently operated according to a straightforward model of the informational pathway from genes to proteins to cells to tissues to organisms. This approach is referred to as methodological reductionism, the idea that in order to understand a complex system, we must isolate its most basic parts. So to understand the genotype-phenotype pathway, we track that pathway back to its most basic elements—the molecular operations of individual genes. Once this molecular bedrock is reached, it can serve as a foundation for all other biological explanations. As molecular biology continues to mature, however, methodological reductionism, while still necessary, appears insufficient. Genomics is encountering problems it cannot solve. Having reduced living systems—phenotypic traits—to their most basic parts—linear sequences of nucleotides —genetics is finding it difficult to work its way back up again. The complex systems that methodological reductionism helped simplify exhibit properties that cannot be accounted for by an analysis of their basic parts.
Prior to the completion of the map of the human genome, it was assumed that the biological complexity of humans relative to other living organisms would be reflected in a proportionally greater number of genes—more complexity, more genes. But we now know that the human genome contains roughly 30,000 genes; a far cry from early estimates of a hundred thousand. The genome of the worm Caenorhabditis elegans contains 20,000 genes. Network scientist Albert-László Barabási notes that those 20,000 genes provide information for the encoding of only 300 neurons, whereas “our extra 10,000 genes have to account for the billion nerve cells present in our brain.”
How are we to account for the biological complexity of the human animal? Barabási and many others have suggested that biological complexity must be accounted for not simply by a study of the individual entities that constitute an organism (genes, proteins, cells, etc.), but by a study of the networks of interactive relationships among these entities. Reconceptualizing the question of genes and complexity in terms of “network thinking,” Barabási emphasizes that the potential number of interactions between entities in a system far outstrips the number of entities themselves. When network complexity is taken into account, Barabási tells us, we are potentially “103,000 times more complex than our wormy relatives!”
More important than the quantitative complexity of connections in networks are the qualitatively complex properties they exhibit. Networks function in ways that cannot be explained by the properties of any single part, or “node,” in that network. Functions result from particular nodal arrangements. These properties, often referred to as “emergent properties,” confirm that systems must be studied not only through the nodes that make up those systems, but through the relationships or connections among those nodes. The significance of a given node in a system will be understood not only by the properties intrinsic to that node, but also by the relationships within which that node persists.
Network thinking suggests that in order to understand the observable characteristics of an organism—from its protein structures to its social interactions —we need to study much more than the organism’s genes. To understand the genotype-phenotype relation, we need to map out not only the sequence of genes but also the network of interactions among genes, among genes and the proteins they produce, among proteins, among proteins and cells, among cells, and so on. At each network level, we will likely discover that the systems of interactions taken as interconnected wholes exhibit characteristics that could not have been anticipated simply by an analysis of the parts that make up those systems, and that the meaning of each map is dependent on the meaning of the others.
The relationship between an organism’s genotype and phenotype might be thought of as a series of highly interconnected concentric networks, in which microcosmic systems—such as the genomic system—are contained within macrocosmic systems. In this view, we become aware that the pathway between a given gene and those phenotypic traits with which the gene is involved is a winding way through a system of systems. We find that genes are only one—even if essential—part of a much larger whole. Having carried the explanatory weight of the biology world on its shoulders, the gene may be ready to share the load.
Society: The Rationalization of Life
A significant biological threshold was crossed in Western Europe late in the eighteenth century when the interminable cycle of famine and epidemic was interrupted; death ceased to menace life so directly. Economic, particularly agricultural, development allowed the production of resources to outpace demographic growth. Advances in fields of knowledge concerning human life allowed increasing control over the most immanent forms of death. As a space of relief was secured for human biological existence, a new political rationality emerged: in the name of health, well-being, and security, scientific knowledge and political power were conjoined, allowing modern society to take responsibility for organizing and optimizing life. Life—to borrow a term from Max Weber—was “rationalized”; knowledge and techniques of control were brought together and applied in order to improve existence. This process of rationalization increasingly became the aim of social and political strategies. Thus the science of life took on new social and political functions.
Nature or Nurture?
The rationalization of life characteristic of the modern industrial state developed around two poles: the individual and the population. The success of social mechanisms such as criminal reform, education, health care, and economics depended on understanding how individuals functioned under different arrangements and how those individuals could be made to function optimally. Population groups represented the site where the biological well-being of the human species became visible. Issues such as birth and mortality rates, public health and hygiene, old age, race, and scarcity were articulated and addressed at the level of the population. It was thought that problems could be governed through regulatory mechanisms such as taxation, immigration control, and health insurance.
The rationalization of life depended on detailed knowledge of individuals and populations under specific circumstances. This knowledge, provided by advancing scientific fields, was catalogued, interpreted, and arrayed in relation to norms against which deviations could be measured. These arrays could then be put to use in designing effective techniques for overcoming individual deviations and for regularizing population trends.
The logic was simple: the underlying causes for social ills (e.g., criminality or poverty) could be properly diagnosed and remedied by the methodological tools of empirical science. Once problems of governance were translated into technical terms, the tools of science could be put to use distinguishing social normality, or social health, from deviance from social normality, or social pathology. Mechanisms could be designed for the reduction of pathology and the increase of health—for the organization and optimization of life.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the rationalization of life became entangled in the nature versus nurture debate. While many believed that empirical science could be put to use in the diagnosis of social ills, there was disagreement concerning which science should be put to use. The question hinged on the nature of the underlying causes of social pathology. Some argued that the causes were biological and psychological; others argued that the causes were social in character and could not be reduced to either biology or psychology.
This debate had significant consequences for social and political policy. If the causes of social ills were biological, remediation required intervention at the level of nature. In that case, programs of social reform—social nurture—would be ineffective remedies. However, if the causes of social ills were social in character, then biological interventions would prove ineffectual.
During the nineteenth century, the study of heredity emerged as a central concern of biological investigation. According to historian of science Jean Gayon, “heredity came to be treated as the most fundamental property of living beings.” The study of heredity seemed to draw into a single conceptual framework two vital processes: (1) the biological development of individual organisms, and (2) the biological development of species. Early biological investigators formulated heredity not as simply one biological property among others characteristic of living organisms, but the matrix for the possibility of life itself. Determining whether social ills were propagated by nature or nurture seemed the purview of the hereditary sciences.
In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection was mixed with the science of heredity to form what would become an infamous concoction: eugenics. The social chemist blending this concoction was British statistician Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin. As historian Daniel Kevles points out, Galton, like others of his age, was confident that science and technology, as they had done in industry, could successfully engineer progress in human society. If the mechanism of evolution was natural selection of the “fittest,” and if science had uncovered the operation of that mechanism, then was it unreasonable to assume that humans could take charge of their own evolution? Successes in nineteenth-century breeding seemed to suggest that this was indeed possible. Plants and animals had been bred for specific traits. In 1865, the same year Mendel published his research on peas, Galton asked: “Could not the race of men be similarly improved. . . . Could not the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied?” In the nature versus nurture debate, Galton was firmly on the side of nature. Responsibility for life entailed, that in order for some to live, others would have to die. Galton coupled the rhetoric of responsibility for improving the life of the species with the rhetoric of biological safety.
From Eugenics to Racial Hygiene
In 1895, German scientist Alfred Ploetz sounded the alarm that modern society was failing to work in concert with the processes of nature. Medical care for the weak, he argued, undercut natural struggle for existence. Social welfare allowed the poor and misfits to outbreed the more “fit” classes. Evolutionary “counter selection,” warned Ploetz, was well underway. In support of race improvement, Galton and others took up the cry of Ploetz’s evolutionary racism: cultural and social practices were leading to the evolutionary degeneration of the human species. Responsibility for securing and improving the life of the species required controlling the reproduction of “unfit” populations that were driving species degeneracy.
According to Galton and others, the trends of degeneracy could be reversed. Galton proposed a new empirical science of heredity: eugenics, or “good birth.” For the benefit of the species, eugenics would investigate the factors that influence hereditary qualities and establish scientific criteria for who was fit to reproduce and who was not. By encouraging specific reproductive practices among certain categories of people, the human species could improve itself, favoring certain hereditary qualities and disfavoring others. As the Eugenics Health Foundation was to put it in 1930, “Eugenics is a new science which has as its object the betterment of the human race, and it embraces all forces and factors, whether hygienic, biologic, social, or economic, which are, or may be, influential in the uplifting and improvement of mankind.”
In the 1880s, German biologist August Weismann had offered a theory of heredity that seemed to support the nature over nurture view. Weismann argued that traits were passed between generations via “germ plasm,” a hereditary substance present in the male and female gametes (reproductive cells). Germ plasm seemed to provide an entity on which selection, natural or eugenic, could act. Weismann’s theory was bolstered by the reappraisal of Mendel’s work in the early years of the twentieth century, and eugenics ideas gained scientific legitimacy. By the 1920s, particularly in the United States, eugenics ideology had spread to the mainstream.
However, eugenics reflected the racist and classist prejudices of its promoters. Characteristics of “good stock,” meaning those fit to reproduce, were associated with the white, typically Anglo, middle and upper classes. But the leading eugenicists and eugenics organizations saw themselves as fostering the public good. For the sake of health, well-being, and security, national germ plasm, or “protoplasm” as it came to be called, had to be protected.
Eugenicists promoted strategies of “positive eugenics.” They published books and pamphlets concerning eugenic public health and family planning. They offered incentives for the “fit” to have more children. Complementing these strategies were programs of “negative eugenics” that discouraged reproduction among the “unfit”: criminals, alcoholics, the mentally ill, the feeble-minded, the sexually deviant, the poor, the sick, and members of selected “racial” groups. At their most coercive, eugenics regimes took the form of public policy. Thirty U.S. states passed involuntary sterilization laws, targeting the allegedly unfit. Though the courts struck many of these laws down, several were successfully implemented. Indeed, sterilization of the mentally ill continued into the 1970s. Before the final laws were taken off the books, more than 60,000 Americans had been forcibly sterilized.
Eugenics found its pathological apex in the Nazi programs of racial hygiene. In 1930, the National Socialist Monthlypublished an article entitled “National Socialism as the Political Expression of Our Biological Knowledge.” National Socialism, the article argued, is nothing more or less than “applied biology”; its methods are “strictly scientific.” In the name of scientific care for the human race, Ploetz and other German eugenicists sought social reforms based on “principles of the optimal conditions for the maintenance and development of the race.” Chief among these reforms was the transformation of traditional medicine. Traditional medicine, Ploetz argued, may help the individual, but in doing so, it hurts the “race.” A new kind of public hygiene was needed—racial hygiene—which would allow medicine to care not only for the good of the individual, but the good of the race.
Programs were instituted for public education in eugenic health. Incentives were offered to racially “fit” individuals to marry and reproduce. Medical schools began to train thousands of doctors in racial hygiene—“sick genetic lines” needed to be identified. Only science could “legitimately” distinguish between valuable forms of life and “lives not worth living.” Nazi sterilization laws had been passed as early as 1933. Modeled largely on U.S. laws, compulsory sterilization was instituted for “the prevention of genetically diseased offspring.” By the end of the decade, it was no longer considered adequate to simply sterilize those on the growing list of the “unfit.” Genetic deviants did not merely pose a threat to the well-being of future generations; they represented a burden on current society. In 1939, designated the year of “the duty to be healthy,” Hitler commissioned doctors to grant “mercy deaths” to those judged incurably sick. By 1941, 70,000 patients had been killed in German hospitals. And as Robert Proctor soberly concludes, these hospital murders, legitimized in the name of science, were a “rehearsal for the subsequent destruction of Jews, homosexuals, communists, Gypsies, Slavs, and prisoners of war.”
By and large, mainline eugenicists were genetic fatalists. Genes, it was thought, determined intelligence, social conformity, morality, and other crucial aspects of who one was. “Blood will tell,” the eugenics mantra averred. If an individual was the child of a criminal, for example, that individual was biologically destined to the criminal life. And from the eugenicist’s point of view, bad human stock was an evolutionary pathology. The only means of “curing” this pathology was to intervene in human reproduction.
The rhetoric of biological fate provided cover for willful neglect of the socially disadvantaged. If we aid the “unfit” in this generation, we leave their offspring as a burden to future generations. Embracing social policies of “survival of the fittest” could be seen as an expression of altruism to the species.
Genetics after Eugenics
After World War II, eugenics and race biology were discredited. The newly formed United Nations declared that “any doctrine of racial differentiation or superiority is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and … there is no justification for racial division either in theory or in practice.” While continuing to operate in the name of health, well-being, and security, the rationalizing object of genetics could no longer be the life of the human species; science must focus on improving the life of the human individual.
A further moral and political shift occurred when it became apparent in the late 1990s that global development was perpetuating widespread ecological crises. These crises affected the way in which nature is valued. Many industrial nations that had been dominated by an instrumental treatment of nature saw a resurgence of naturalism. This resurgence affected the way some people viewed genetics. As Ted Peters puts it: “Naturalism is the belief that nature apart from intervention by human technology is the source of value.” For the naturalist, genetic engineering conducted in the name of human purposes raises the question: “Do we have the right to manipulate nature to meet these purposes.”
These shifts in moral emphasis were aided by developments in molecular biology and computational technology. Prior to the rise of molecular genetics in the 1950s, genetic intervention was in the form of control of reproduction. With advances in molecular genetics, however, intervention could be conducted on the individual organism, bypassing the need for intergenerational manipulation of populations. Science could affect the genetic well-being of the individual directly. In the spring of 2003, Francis Collins and colleagues at the National Human Genome Research Institute published an ambitious “vision for the future of genomics research.” They wrote that “new research strategies and experimental technologies have generated a steady stream of ever-larger and more complex genomic data sets that have poured into public databases and have transformed the study of virtually all life processes.” This transformed study, they wrote, facilitated an understanding of life at “an unprecedented level of molecular detail,” thereby occasioning “the translation of genomic sequence information into health benefits.”
Another shift affecting the relationship between society and genetics was the emergence of bioethics. The discovery of Nazi “medicine” and rapid advancements in postwar research brought increased attention to the social impact of scientific work. Many now questioned the earlier view that negative social consequences of applied science and technology were the result of misapplication or underdevelopment, and that better development and application of scientific knowledge would prevent undesirable impacts. Since the 1960s, scientists, theologians, and philosophers have been meeting at bioethics conferences to discuss ways in which social and ethical questions might finally be inseparable from scientific advance.
Genetic research involves interfering with natural processes that, as one analyst put it, “could destroy or transform nearly every aspect of human life.” Thus political, social, and moral concerns coincide with scientific considerations. Bioethical analysis of genetic research means paying careful attention to the rationales in the name of which genetic knowledge and technology have been brought together and directed toward life. It has become increasingly clear that the scientific-technical question “How can the genotype-phenotype relation be known and changed?” cannot be separated from ethical questions concerning what kind of future this knowledge and change will bring.
The Material and Spiritual Future of Life
If the form of our genetic future remains unclear, this is not for want of prophets telling us what to hope for and what to fear. Scientists, sociologists, theologians, and others have long sought to imagine the contours of our genomic future. But to imagine the future, we must address the material and spiritual stakes. Material stakes involve questions of health, prosperity, and security. Spiritual stakes concern questions of identity, meaning, and value.
Those advocating expansion of genetic knowledge and technology imagine a future in which genetics makes health care predictive, preventative, and personalized. Scientists are seeking to identify alleles—particular forms of a given gene—involved in the expression of particular diseases. As these alleles are identified, scientists hope to develop techniques for calculating the probability that the presence of this allele will result in disease manifestation. Scientists might then be able to develop therapies to minimize the odds that the disease will come to expression. If each of us had our genomes sequenced, preventative therapy could be fashioned according to each of our genomic idiosyncrasies.
Advocates forecast economic benefits as well. Proponents of genetic research argue that advances in science will bolster a wide sector of the economy through developments in the biomedical industry and the technological and medical delivery industries connected to biomedicine. Other economic benefits could include inflows of capital investment to health care research; entrepreneurial ingenuity, a significant force for pragmatic and efficient problem solving; and, through the proliferation of labs, the acceleration of genetic research. Proponents of genetic research and technology also anticipate a day when the genetic engineering of crops so increases yield and resistance to blight as to virtually eradicate global scarcity. Indeed, advances in the genetic modification of food are already taking form.
In terms of security, advocates anticipate that DNA testing, DNA fingerprinting, and DNA databases will make law enforcement more effective and more just. Genetically modified plants have been developed that detect the presence of certain munitions, and military scientists are using genetics to develop microbiological antidotes to bioweapons.
Those more cautious about the expansion of genetic knowledge and technology imagine the material stakes of our genomic future in terms of unforeseen social and biological costs. The personalized medicine made possible through genomic sequencing could resuscitate biologically based social discrimination. With the end of state-sponsored eugenics, the biological sciences claimed to have left this form of social violence behind. Indeed, following the completion of the map of the human genome, scientists announced that the genetic differences between members of different population groups were no greater than among members of the same group. Genetic evidence indicates that biological differences between population groups are negligible and social categories of race have no basis in biology. In practice, however, experimental research still functions as if biological differences between population groups do indeed matter.
Two points are crucial here. First, every diagnosis of pathology is made possible by an established norm of health relative to which diseased states are recognized. In order to calculate the probability that an individual with a genetic predisposition to a particular disease will actually develop that disease, geneticists must first understand the frequency of that genotype-phenotype correlation within a larger population group. Second, different population groups have differing levels of susceptibility to different inheritable diseases. For predictive genetic medicine to calculate the probability of an individual’s susceptibility to a given disease, genetic norms have to be established for that individual’s population group.
These genomic diversity projects can be legitimated on the basis of distributive justice. In order to assure that the benefits of genetic research are equitably distributed to various population groups, it is vital to understand differences in levels of disease susceptibility and in levels of response to therapeutic regimes particular to those population groups. But these projects could be interpreted as new biological conceptualizations of race, and as providing new scientific criteria for social inclusion and exclusion. Critics also hold that the combination of profit motive, private ownership, and minimal public accountability could compromise scientific transparency, exclude research into less profitable but equally important areas of research, and exacerbate the injustices already present in the distribution of technological goods.
Drawing on the insights of network thinking, critics further warn that the genetic modification of organisms could trigger unanticipated consequences. Making certain plants genetically resistant to specific blights could eliminate native nonresistant plants. Genetic modifications intended to increase the shelf life of fruits and vegetables could adversely affect the nutritional value of food. Most significantly, genetic modifications could trigger cascading effects within ecosystems, destabilizing natural environments.
Finally, those more cautious about genetics allow us to imagine the underside of the potential benefits to security. DNA fingerprinting increases the visibility of a given member of society, counter to the right to privacy cherished in liberal societies. DNA databases in the United States consist largely of information on individuals who have been incarcerated. Interpreted outside the context of the social forces driving the disproportion of minorities in the current system, DNA databases could falsely appear to provide biological evidence of predisposition to crime among these minority populations. And any genetic technologies designed to prevent biological warfare could also be used to facilitate it. Genetic knowledge could be used to engineer new varieties of bioterrorism.
For many, the future at stake in genetic research concerns not only material risks but fundamental questions of identity, meaning, and value. Émile Durkheim defined the “sacred” as that which a given society holds to be inviolable and which places certain obligations on members of that society. Many people conceive of DNA as if it were sacred and the rhetoric used to frame the significance of the project to map the human genome often took on a religious tone. The human genome was frequently referred to as “the Book of Life.” The projects were described as quests for the “Holy Grail” of biology. These statements resonated in the public imagination. As Rabinow pointed out, people think DNA “tells the truth about who they, and their pets and plants and food, really are and provides clues to what their future holds.” Or as Peters noted, people wonder if DNA can answer the question “Who am I?” To claim that DNA holds the truth to the nature of life, to suggest that it provides clues to the future, is to give it Durkheimian (i.e., sacred) significance.
Though sometimes articulated in terms of the sanctity of nature, the spiritual stakes involved in genetic research are most often considered in terms of human dignity. Since World War II, the ethic of human dignity, with its emphasis on the sanctity of human life, has enjoyed unmatched political and social stature. But few are able to give coherent articulation to the relationship between dignity—a quality of the whole human person—and the genome —a part of the human part. This incoherence proves troublesome.
Those who grant the genome Durkheimian significance tend to conceive of DNA as the most important or essential aspect of the human person. In this “genetic essentialism,” a part of a person is taken as equivalent in value or meaning to the whole. The genome is taken to stand for the essential aspect of the morally dignified person. As Rabinow suggests, this image of the part standing for the whole is a form of “spiritual identity.” Thus manipulation of the genome could be seen as violating human dignity.
Genetic essentialism represents an archonic form of spiritual identity. Archonic, from the Greek arche, refers to both beginning and governance. The logic of archonic identity suggests that the way something originates decrees or governs its telos—its future trajectory, value, and purpose. When the human genome is referred to as the “blueprint” for human life, the language invests the genome with archonic weight. Conceived as the determiner of who an individual can become, the genome is taken to be a source of moral prescriptions. Technologies that alter the genome would be resisted because they would violate the truth about human life.
The archonic logic of genetic essentialism is troubled by developments in network biology. Genes are vital to living systems, but as the genome mapping projects have suggested, they are far from being able to account for all aspects of these systems. While genes code for proteins, for example, those proteins form systems that function in ways quite distinct from the genomic codes. Not only are the network properties of proteins not reducible to protein-producing genes, but they actually alter the function of these genes. Insofar as network biology considers DNA to be primary, it does so not in the sense of DNA being most essential, but in the sense that DNA is the point of departure for a series of interconnected systems and processes. Genetic essentialism is scientifically incoherent. Thus the inviolability of the genome, which genetic essentialism presupposes, appears questionable.
If genetic essentialism wanes under the pressure of changing science, will the spiritual stakes of genetic research go away? Will questions of meaning, value, and identity then be ignored? Some fear that if the “do not trespass” sign of genetic essentialism is taken down, human dignity will be violated, and nature will be treated as merely instrumental. This need not be the case. The genome need not be considered sacred for us to treat as sacred those values that inform our relationships to humanity and to nonhuman nature. The spiritual significance of genetic research is not found in the DNA, but in the quality of the relationships that genetic research affects. Human dignity and the value of nature are only experienced when they are bestowed. Genetic research affords the opportunity to bestow dignity—to create desirable situations of meaning, value, and identity.
The archonic logic of genetic essentialism suggests that the future at stake is one of dangerous violations: we are obliged to defend the sanctity of the genome. This logic confines the spiritual stakes of genetic research to what we ought not do. This effort to defend the genome risks enforcing the status quo. By contrast, when framed in terms of quality of relationships, the spiritual stakes of genomic research can be understood as responsibility for making the present different and potentially better. To quote Ted Peters: “some things can be done and perhaps should be done to influence the course of our genetic future. Such things might be quite modest on a grand evolutionary scale, yet they can have an immense impact on the quality of life for certain individuals.” Peters’s statement reflects eschatological reasoning—the Greek eskatos means “final or ultimate.” Eschatology suggests that meaning and value are constituted not just by what someone was or is, but by what that person can become. Genetic essentialism constitutes an archonic form of spiritual identity, where meaning is rooted in origins. Responsibility for helping to shape the future, a situation in which dignity is fostered rather than defended, represents spiritual identity in an eschatological form.
Genetics and the Future
Contemporary molecular genetics represents a future-oriented mode of engagement. If we understand the determinants of the present situation, we can identify where, through technical intervention, change is possible. By understanding how our genotype contributes to the form of our phenotype, we become capable of technical interventions, effectively redetermining the forces that determine us. But what changes are desirable? What about the present do we want to change? What do we want that change to look like? Answering these questions involves the work of imagining future arrangements (such as improved health), and working back from those arrangements to the present situation. This future-envisioning informs a set of values and desires that, once transmuted into standards for evaluating our present situation, serve as tools of rationalization—drawing knowledge and technology together in the name of a future end. These standards of evaluation represent the power of our imagined futures operating in the present.
Rabinow’s diagnosis holds. Despite the discord with regard to the relative promise and peril of genetics, most parties seem to agree that in genetics there is something vital about the future at stake, and moreover, that we are obliged to do something about it. But what remains unclear is the kind of future at stake, and what we are obliged to do in light of that future. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that this future is taking shape in the network of relations among genetics, society, and spirituality—a complex set of relations involving events, fields of knowledge, concepts, objects, individuals, institutions, and technologies. Within this network, a conceptual space is opening up for the integration of both the material and spiritual future stakes of genomic research. As we learn to analyze this network, the contours of possible futures are made visible, inviting us to engage in the patient and difficult work of helping to transform our present situations into desirable futures.
This work involves practical difficulties. The sheer number of particular elements coalescing to form that future is overwhelming. More challenging still is the dynamic and open character of this future. As elements change (e.g., a discovery is made, regulatory legislation passed, a new moral argument articulated), configurations shift, generating new arrangements, new functions, new contexts of significance. These practical difficulties invite sensitivity toward—even a sensibility for—constant change, for the genuinely new problems posed by contemporary genomics. To echo Rabinow: a sensibility for constant change invites a certain mode of engagement, one of pleasure and obligation to work continually at grasping and participating in the transformations that constitute a world experienced as complex, contingent, malleable, and open.
Like genetics, this engagement is future oriented. It involves what Peters has described as an exercise of “future freedom,” wherein we work to understand the factors that determine the present so that we can make ourselves a determinant of the future. Future freedom, writes Peters, compels us to “imagine a future that will be different from the past and present.” For good or for ill, genetic research and technology represent an opportunity for the expression of future freedom. In the biological century, something about the future is at stake, and there is a pressing obligation to do something about it.