Knowing and Meaning to Know

Genetic knowing long has implied a moral sense, a way in which we could come to know, utterly, and with certainty, our human selves. Thus genetic testing becomes the first issue of concern, and remains one of the most troubling ones. Genetic testing is where the process of differentiation begins, and is the most direct and immediate way that genetic knowledge inserts into the particular and individual lives of most members of society. Genetic testing leads to application as soon as it leaves the realm of the laboratory, and its rationale is only evident in application. If humans are constituted in particular and tangible physical ways, and if one comes to understand particular facts as expressing the very truth of one's being (things like gender, or size, or impulse regulation), then knowing more precisely or more clearly who one is implies that one might know more precisely what to do. One might, through knowing who one is more exactly, know the scope of possible actions. This could produce knowledge about how to live morally, how to construct the artifice of social order with compassion, wisdom, and insight. Further, the self might well be altered as humans alter other species. If humans can alter our species in the way that we can alter other parts of the natural world once thought immutable, the question emerges: how can we do so in a just and thoughtful manner?

One can argue at this juncture that it has always been the case that all science involves this sort of venture of self generation, and many have noted that genetic knowledge is a matter of more facts amassed, as opposed to a greater interpretive power (Jonson). In this argument, genetic knowledge is not unlike the new understanding of gametes that took place in the middle of the 1800s, a form of understanding of human reproduction that implicated theology as well as science. The shift from Aristotelian notions of the beginning of life to theories first developed when lenses could be ground and microscopes constructed allowed a democracy of meanings to be attached to reproduction. Large shifts in understanding occurred throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Darwinian explanations marked ontological revolutions as well as epistemic ones, disrupting and destabilizing fixed philosophical, social, and theological ways of understanding nature and moral location.

Maynard Olson argues that the understanding and interpretation of the double helix is another such leap in self understanding, and a prelude to even more potentially destabilizing—or potentially liberating—ways of organizing human societies. If humans' sense of ourselves as both free and freely choosing rests on a detachment from our bodily selves, it will be likely come to be seen as mistaken. We are, in this genomic age, as much shaped by this understanding of ourselves as genetically capacitated as we are by the understanding of ourselves as having souls and psyches.

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