Genetics as Science and as Ontology A Simultaneous Debate in Bioethics

Bioethics as a field grew contemporaneously and concordantly with genetics; bioethics began with speculation about the meaning of gene research (Jonson). Nothing has concerned the field of bioethics, a field largely marked by concern for the unknowable and speculative future implications of activities in the biological sciences and medicine, more profoundly than genetics. Genetics is a metaphor and a medical hope. It is at once a final cure for diseases, a prophecy for illness and for abilities, and perhaps a harbinger of troubling injustice when used as definitive of moral status. Genetic knowledge in the late twentieth century became the central way to make meaning of the single most contentious and heavily freighted problem in human self understanding, that of origins and kinship and the way that birth circumstance was or was not determinate of fate. As philosophy and theology has much to say about kinship, fate, and family, bioethics has much to say about genetic knowledge of the same issues.

There is long history of moral advice directed toward genetic science, stressing the profound dangers attendant upon the kind of knowledge that genetics presents. Genetic knowledge represents a powerful and new understanding of how basic biological processes can be expected to unfold relative to older systems of human understanding as presented in religious or moral traditions, and genetic knowledge can be destabilizing to these systems. Since the relationship between present states of being and the unknown future had, up until the late nineteenth century, been in the purview of magic, philosophy, or religion, the unease surrounding genetic knowledge is understandable—fate, behavior, and character are powerful grounds of contention in any case. Yet by the first years of the twenty-first century, the relationship between the science of genetics and the critique of this science began to be shaped by its own dynamics as well. Genetic knowledge itself began to stand in for modern scientific knowledge, for scientism, and for instrumentality. Bioethicists found a belief in genetic causation vexing, perhaps reductionist; this critique became a stable feature of the literature of bioethics. It was a hallmark of the debate: Researchers would describe new discoveries in genetic science, and bioethicists would describe the attendant dangers. This can be illustrated well in the first (1995) edition of the Encyclopedia of Bioethics, in which researchers (Whitney, Anderson and Friedman) delineate, with clear enthusiasm, the emerging science of the mapping of the human genome— at that point just begun as a project, and philosophers, (Flew, Shweder, Juengst and Walters) raise the specter of Nazis, insurance company misuse of information, "playing God," and making "designer babies."

Nearly a decade has passed since that edition, five decades from the first discoveries that lead to modern DNA research (Watson, Crick, 1953, Franklin) and three decades from the Asilomar conference on recombinant genetic methodology, in which ethical issues took center stage in genetic research (Soll and Singer, 1973.).

Despite dramatic changes in the scientific knowledge base over the last several decades of the twentieth century, and despite an emerging praxis of medical and agricultural genetics, many of the identical concerns about hubris and post-human futures are persistently raised in bioethical discussions of genetics, and little of the original choreography of the debate has altered. Why this might be the case, and why bioethicists might find genetic knowledge to be fraught with a particular sort of meaning, is the subject of this article.

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