Assembling Knowledge

Genetics suggests a set of ideas about the nature, goal, and purpose of human life. It suggests, then, a definition of the self relative to the human location in the phenomenological universe. Like all science, genetic science suggests a method— not only a set of facts, but a way of ordering, framing, and using the facts. Genetics—with the goal of understanding a large and complex phenomena, organism, or mechanism— seems to demand understanding, defining, and naming all the parts of the thing, knowing the smallest discreet part of the whole, and knowing how the activities of each part connect. Hence, the task is to define the parts list and the function of each part, as a way of describing the activities of the phenomena. What genetic science threatens are not only the ideal forms, but the relationships and activities of phenomena in the actual, moving, and existing world.

The search for atoms and wave particles in physics parallels the search for genes and chromosomes in biology. Genetics functions on the basic idea that pieces of the whole need to be fully understood, and that a reconstruction of both the structure and functional pathways of each event within the whole is critical to the organizing principle itself: Parts determine the whole. Further, like all knowledge, the fulcrum of genetics lies against the notion that naming and defining creates being and allows for possession: Names determine relationships. To name a thing is to define its identity, and hence to identify it as a thing that can be owned, exchanged, used, bought, and sold.

Finally, like all knowledge, genetics is also about power and control (of the unknowable future, of the unknowable body, and of the unknowable other). Genetics understands itself by disassembly, through the knowing and naming activity, done primarily by mapping in the lab and testing in the clinic. It is a critical Hellenistic notion that making is knowing and in the creation of a "working parts list" and a "manual," one can know the essence of the thing (Peters, 2002). The idea that having a parts list then assumes assembly is both what is intriguing and troubling about the meaning of genetics (Fleishacker). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the hopes for the next logical stage— reassembly—were merely theoretical, yet the prospect of manufacture seems inevitable and troubling to many critics.

The result of such reassembly—a commodity without human connection, named as a clone or as a designer baby— haunts the field, and this specter transforms the debates about genetic testing into something far larger. It becomes a debate in which knowing which one am I? becomes a kind of knowing who could I be? In this scenario, if one creates an object rather than a human person, one could have an unjust power over the production. Hence, genetic knowledge, testing, and even basic research stands in for the clinical results of the research at its farthest reach. Meaning and mythos overcome actual science, as ethicists and society look at the next stage. The sense of the power behind the discourse has driven both the enthusiasts of genetic science and the catastrophists.

The concerns about the meaning of genetic knowledge center around five topical areas: issues of identity; issues of relationships and kinship; issues of health/illness, ability/ disability; and issues of justice. Identity is at the core of reflections on human meaning. Of all the answers to this question of identity, it is perhaps the emerging research and applications of genetic information that offer a definitive response. After the human genome has been fully charted, it will be possible to answer the identity question with a set of mathematical coordinates, an identity bar code that would be distinctly individual. Genetics is, among many other things, a way to name and to describe the processes that make one distinctive and particular. An understanding of how DNA shapes the self unfolds within older contextual ideas about identity. In the words of many that describe the genetic mapping projects, knowing and naming can help us "crack the code of Life," or "tell us who we are and why we behave the way we do," or "explain our traits." The genetic explanation—not the reductionist causality of one gene making one behavior—allows an understanding that genes, proteins, and the environment complexly and intricately signal one another and hence "write" the narrative of human action. If genes and proteins and signals allow for differing levels of biological products in our bodies, and if we react with pleasure, anxiety, or disease to these products, then the horizon of possibilities against which all action is taken is in part suggested by the limits of our creaturely, molecular selves.

The idea that inheritable characteristics determine family ties is an old notion, but the idea that membership in a class of people is similarly determined is an idea that gained ground only in the eighteenth century, when colonial expansion raised the problem of inclusion of others into categories of science. Membership, and hence moral status and social privilege, became linked not to narratives of place, dress, or speech, but rather to something more tangible: the phenotype of persons. This physicality of how one knew what was valid, the linking of truth with the observation of physical facticity, transformed both the science and the polity of modernity.

Identity is paradoxical for Americans. It is a country premised on the idea that who you were does not matter; who your parents were was not the determinant factor in this new land. For many, the radical change in heritage would be the interruption of centuries of closed familial possibilities, and the possibilities of shifting identity that urban and industrial concentrations required. Yet the mutable, spontaneous and creative re-imagining of the self has collided with another narrative, that of a deeply pre-organized and highly structured internal code, a code which, for better or for worse, is passed between generations. Hence, Americans hold two things in tension—that we are free of all previous and unchosen commitments, and that we are increasingly to be understood as having our fate scripted into our very cells.

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Conquering Fear In The 21th Century

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