Life in the Imagined Future

Can one, with the human genome mapped, the "parts list" on ready file—not only for humans, but for an increasing range of our favorite or feared animals, plants, and viruses— go beyond the familiar critiques? What does genetic knowledge mean for us now, that we in fact have lived through the calamitous times so feared by critics in the 1990s? What does it mean to think genetically? Is it different than how a philosopher would think in 1955, 1925, 1825, or 1155? What part of this is knowing that human genes make a series of proteins that control pathways of more protein-protein chemical reactions, allowing this author to create and the reader to read these words and allowing them to be seen and stored by other proteins in the neurons? Does it become merely another metaphor, akin to, for example, the culturally ubiquitous metaphor of the body that is formed of clay by a Master Potter's hand? Or does, it, as was predicted in 1995, "make us rethink many of our moral concepts and theories."

In part, moral concepts and theories have been revised with the acquisition of genetic knowledge. Parents and physicians are willing to understand and act on behalf of an embryo on the basis of genetic information alone: they terminate, complete, or choose a particular pregnancy based on prenatal genetic diagnosis. Courts and police find completely credible the notion that samples of DNA at a crime scene can prove that a particular suspect was there and use this to arrest and convict one person, or to free others.

But remarkably, given the level of concern, moral concepts appear to be remarkably resilient. While it is true that new reproductive techniques did change the variety of ways that pregnancies could be begun, the years around the turn of the twenty-first century also saw significant increases in adoption, including interracial and international adoptions, and the evidence that genetic material mattered more than other familial bonds was conflicted. Some of the advanced reproductive technology stressed genetic ties, but others (as in the use of surrogate eggs from young women implanted in older women, or the use of sperm banks) stressed gestational or non-genetic bonds as increasingly important. The last half of the twentieth century was notable both for a deepening sense of ourselves as driven by genetic coding, and for a deepening sense of fundamentalist religious fervor, spirituality, and attention to alternative medicine—quite an unexpected paradox. Genetic rhetoric in the period just after the mapping of the human genome, rather than accentuating perceived racialized divisions, steadily and officially proclaimed our unity as a remarkably coherent human species with highly conserved genetic similarities to other organisms. It has became commonplace to understand that genetic codes matter a great deal, at the same time that it has become commonplace to add that the complexities of environment and epigenetic factors, chaos theory, and randomness also play significant roles.

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