University of Chicago Press, 2017, 304 pages.
Genetics: A Situated View
How enduring is the love affair between our societies and genetics (today genomics)? And what is the role of critical social science in undermining or, rather, mirroring the power of this romance? And what do we mean today, in 2018, when we say ‘genes’, in the so-called postgenomic era? What is the post in postgenomics, just an ornament to an already known term (genomics)?
Born as a reductionist wing of biological research, with the aim to make heredity amenable to experimentation, genetics rapidly conquered Northern Europe and the US. Historical contingencies—the destruction of Soviet genetics, the complex legacy of Nazism for German genetics, a tenacious Lamarckism in France—-gave Anglo-American genetics an early advantage that has proven durable. On American soil, the operational pragmatism of genetics apparently found its perfect milieu. The success of hard hereditarian eugenics in Protestant countries was also symptomatic of a further congruence between genetics and local views of bodies, responsibility and heredity in certain contexts. Outside of the Northern European and American citadel, enthusiasm towards a genetic view of life in its strongest sense—sequestration of genetic material from the environment, the Central Dogma and so on — was more mixed. Strong in some areas and cultures, frankly resisted in others: the universalism of the genetic view of life, which culminate in the Human Genome Project (HGP), can be seriously questioned. To paraphrase Walter Mignolo, it is “a spectacular case of a global design built upon a local history” (2000: 22).
Over the last century, genetics also captured the imagination of social scientists, becoming for many a placeholder for the whole of biology, and a synonym for broad terms like nature, innateness, fate, life’s lottery, and other related metaphysical ideas. The gene as “the basis of life” was written in the spirit of intellectual defiance by H. J. Muller in 1926 (Muller, 1929). At that time, it was a revolutionary provocation; in the past few decades, it has become commonsensical. Aren’t genes what really lay at the grounds of all things? Or are they instead a source of anxiety for the integrity of ‘what is human’? In both cases aren’t we attributing to them an immense power to define or threaten our humanity? What if this power is undeserved and unnecessary? And when we say genes, don’t we mean protein-coding sequences (ca. 1% of human DNA)? And when we say coding, don’t we mean DNA that can produce information and, hence, virtual data on a screen? Where is biology as life process in all this? And what of its material side? What about the vast non-coding sections of DNA? And, chromatin as the complex scaffolding of DNA, whose physical alteration enables DNA functioning? And, epigenetics as the complex machinery that spatially rearranges and regulates chromatin, often via environmental inputs? Are humans really all sequenceable these days? Or do genes not really work that way and do we need a different language to render this emerging complexity?
The Postgenomic Condition
I have mentioned a few facts about the situated origin of genetics, and the way in which certain questions have come to be seen as imperative in recent decades’ debates on biology and society, because contingent genealogies help relax grand narratives about the alleged impact of scientific programs on notions of humanity, justice, democracy. Some of these questions have been stimulated by reading Jenny Reardon’s recent book The Postgenomic Condition (Chicago 2017). Reardon is a leading figure in the social study of human genomics, especially in relations to debates on justice. Her previous book on the Human Genome Diversity Project (Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics 2004) has been a very important contribution in the area, and an excellent guide to the coproduction of societal and scientific facts at the peak of the HGP. The Postgenomic Condition is also very solid, albeit not conceptually new compared to her 2004 publication. It is very much in continuity with her previous book, with similar questions bubbling around (life as information; can genomics be antiracist?; who represents the human genome?; the return of race etc.). However, continuity does not really work in a biological landscape that is moving very fast and that, since her early book, has witnessed the booming entrance of new research programs and a significant shift in focus away from the centrality of naked DNA, as I will try to illustrate in my review.
The Postgenomic Condition comprises eight chapters and an epilogue written in Berlin. Across the book, Reardon insightfully explores a number of cases through which we can follow how human genomic programs are operationalized and negotiated across different stakeholders, mostly in the US and Scotland. Her goal is to “tell a series of stories around which we might gather to understand and discuss efforts to make the human genome meaningful for a wide and diverse range of lives” (p. 21). Reardon follows public and private initiatives that reflect an early period of optimism about the creation of large databases of genomics information, such as the International HapMap (Haplotype Map) Project; a national biobank like Generation Scotland, a biobank aimed to identify the genetics of complex diseasesin Scotland; personal genomics companies like 23andMe; and the Personal Genome Project (PGP), a Harvard University–initiative “to sequence and openly share the entire genome of millions of citizens” in the United States over the age of twenty-one. Methodologically, the set of interviews on which Reardon’s book is based often reflects a period now one decade old (interviews in 2007-2008), while others were carried out in the period 2010-2013. The book is excellent when Reardon discusses the moral ambition and democratic ambiguities of contemporary genomics – how novel forms of governance are inscribed into genomics institutional design. Reardon is insightful in describing how big genomic programs are imbued with moral and political aspirations—enrolling people in genomic initiatives, promoting a cosmopolitan ethic of care, making space for community consultation, favouring citizens’ control of genomic data—that often turn out to be of limited value or just illusory. She offers interesting comments on the contemporaneity of postgenomics with the rise of major players in digital capitalism such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon.
Less convincing for me is the usage of Arendt as a helpful lens for the science and society debate, not to mention when it comes to biological matter, given her roots in the antinaturalism of Heidegger and in that gloomy European view of modern technoscience. I find it a bit curious that one needs a sentimental supplement from Arendt to criticize a world in which biology is reduced to a cold sequence of data. Would it not be better to look for a richer biology of life processes instead?
This is relatively a minor point, however. The key problem with the Postgenomic Condition is its very narrow, one-dimensional, idea of postgenomics. While I appreciate her effort to criticize the promises and democratic rhetoric in the human genomic project, it seems to me that Reardon erases all other non-genomic or postgenomic actors in the current biological landscape. In this way her “chronicling” of reality only mirrors the imbalance of power in the biosciences between heavily funded, institutionally supported programs (genomics) and emerging ones (social and environmental epigenetics, developmental origins of health and disease, microbiomics, chromatin studies). Despite this asymmetry in power and funding, these latter programs are not less significant for “the human condition”, both conceptually and practically. Unless there is a silent stipulation in the social study of science that says that programs that are heavily funded or sponsored by the US presidency have more ontological depth, I don’t see why we must pay attention to those programs and not others with perhaps more relevance to shape a post-genomic landscape (if the post is taken seriously).
What is Post in Postgenomics?
By focusing exclusively on genomic sequences, Reardon does not pay attention to all that has happened in the last decade beyond the linear logics of DNA data. In early 2000s, at the time of her previous book, it was perhaps acceptable to have such a gene-centric idea of postgenomics. Genomics was, by far, the most visible player in the field. It still is today in terms of funding, but I doubt this is the case for epistemological novelty, and implications for human health and development. I have already mentioned a few of these programs: social, environmental and nutritional epigenetics, microbiome and telomere length studies, Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD), debates on the role of junk DNA, and finally a resurgent interest in chromatin (the matter of chromosomes). This may not yet be a new paradigm but it is certainly an increasingly integrated network of research programs that significantly challenges the centrality of DNA sequences. While reductionism is far from absent, these programs tend to focus on non-linear and complex interactions between bodies, wider environmental contexts and genes (Charney, 2012; Griffiths and Stotz, 2013) with significant potential for cross-cultural collaborations with the social sciences. However, it is not just a matter of complex epigenetic landscapes versus the one-way logic of the Central Dogma (DNA makes RNA that makes proteins that make us, as the story goes). The key difference is between the flat language of DNA information and the genome as a truly material object even when “transferring information” (Barnes and Dupré, 2008). At the genomic level, what is increasingly studied in these emerging postgenomic programs is how DNA sequences are expressed within the complex scaffolding of chromatin, the macromolecule into which DNA is folded. Epigenetics is precisely a window into the wider body within which DNA is tightly wrapped – a material body that was neglected at the peak of the information genome. This has important implications.While the linear sequence of DNA does not change during a lifetime or in different cells or to respond to environmental signals, the chromatin packaging of DNA does. This shift in perspective makes the possibility of a plastic genome both theoretically and experimentally salient. “Temporal experience is being investigated in the body of chromatin (….) The study of chromatin allows quantitative measurement of the physical registration of environmental experience originating outside the body as shifts in conformation deep inside cells: changes to the three-dimensional shape of the chromatin fiber,” (Lappé and Landecker, 2015: 153).
To capture the complexity of biology as an impressionable matter rather than the mere unfolding of DNA sequences, social and anthropological theory have produced key notions such “biosocial becomings”, “local biologies”, “biological embedding”, “biosocial methods”, and “biocultural creatures”. A few months ago, I happened to contribute to a large handbook on biology and society in which, of around 1000 pages and more than 50 contributors, perhaps not more than 10% was dedicated to genomics. The remaining 90% was about bodies and biologies without, beyond, and besides genes. The times they are a-changing.
Why Postgenomics is Different
This is not to say that genes are dead (Richardson and Stevens, 2015), that non-genomic means non-reductionism, that digital representations are not strong in postgenomics, that there is no hype and uncertainties around epigenetics or microbiomics, or that these emerging programs are any better, in terms of social implications, than staunch gene-centrism (Mansfield and Guthman, 2015; Meloni, 2016). This is to say, however, that their implications are not easily understandable if one just follows a genomic line of enquiry, as Reardon does. There are genuine differences in postgenomics that one would expect to find (at least to take issue with) in a book called The Postgenomic Condition.
For instance, moving away from naked DNA to the “spatial and temporal contexts and circumstances surrounding DNA” (Stallins et al., 2016), postgenomics yields a different logic in terms of biological capitalism: not just the commodification of DNA sequences but, more ambitiously, the enclosure of the whole spatial influence that regulates DNA functioning, the -omics (the epigenome, the proteome, the microbiome and, ultimately, the whole body) (Stallins et al., 2016). The implications for the management of bodies and reproduction of social norms are also different. The task is not so much to map whether a disease is the product of gene or environment, or an interaction of the two, but how environmental exposures in critical windows of plasticity are biologically embedded and reproduced through a mixture of bodies-biohabits-culture (Warin et al., 2015). It is enough to browse the pages of new journals like Environmental Epigenetics or the Journal of the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease to have an idea of different scales of problems represented by postgenomics. This is significant for a number of arguments Reardon explores, too. Take race for instance. Reardon cites Collins’ universalist pronouncement that “under the skin, we are all one family” to develop her critique of the anti-racist genome. Fair enough. But today the problem is less the paradoxes of genomic universalism than the reality of localized biologies shaped by “the inextricable multiplicities among material bodies and environments past and present” (Lock, 2015). What biologists are actually saying is that under the skin we are also all different, different microbiomes, different epigenomes, because of different exposures to lifestyle, food, etc. Moreover some claim that recognizable differences can be found at the group level, because of shared exposures to hardship, to take one example. This is already happening within the framework of epidemiological epigenetics, the making up of new populations based on epigenetic differences, in a mid-space between race and individuals. As is well known to people working on social epigenetics, while Reardon was investigating the nationalism of the gene in Generation Scotland, epigeneticists in Glasgow were reframing class differences and social inequalities in terms of epigenetic differences between people from the richest and poorest areas of the city (McGuinness et al., 2012). This is a different biopolitics than the one found in Generation Scotland. Human biology in this case retains the imprint not only of macro historical events detectable through genomic admixture but of a very peculiar micro-history (class differences, diet, stress) miniaturized in epigenetic changes.
With the exception of a footnote to Richardson and Stevens’ volume Postgenomics: (2015) Reardon stays away from all this. This is curious. Even the high priests of DNA like Francis Collins (cited by Reardon several times) are appreciating that junk DNA “turns out to be doing stuff and most of that stuff is about regulation and that’s where the epigenome gets involved, and is teaching us a lot” (Collins, 2015). The NIH is even funding research (2014-2019) on epigenetic dietary effects through the paternal line, the sperm epigenome as “a messenger of ancestral exposures” (Soubry, 2015; Rando 2016). Reardon’s book is silent on this. Postgenomics is, in Reardon, just genomics plus genomics but with less optimism and more uncertainty about its meaning. Not engaging with these novelties may simply depend on the banality of academic evil (if such a joke may be permitted); that is, the compulsion to ignore what happens just next to one’s field in contemporary academia. Or it may happen for more structural reasons: a social study of science that follows the social implications of highly-funded programs may happen to miss what is born in the margins, the heretics of today that may define the landscape of tomorrow.
Maurizio Meloni is a social theorist with strong affiliations to science and technology studies and the history of the life sciences. He is the author of Political Biology (Palgrave, 2016), coeditor of Biosocial Matters (Wiley, 2016), and chief-editor of the Palgrave Handbook of Biology and Society (2018). His upcoming book is Impressionable Biologies: From the Archaeology of Plasticity to the Sociology of Epigenetics (Routledge, 2019). It addresses the politics of plastic bodies from ancient and early modern medicine to contemporary epigenetics. He is Associate Professor of Sociology at Deakin University, Australia.
Barnes B and Dupré J (2008) Genomes and What to Make of Them. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Charney E (2012) Behavior genetics and postgenomics. Behavioral and Brain Sciences35(5): 331–58.
Collins F (2015) Speech at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference on January 13, 2015. Available at: http://sandwalk.blogspot.ca/2015/01/francis-collins-rejectsjunk-dna.html. Accessed October 5, 2015.
Deichmann U (2015) Chromatin: Its history, current research, and the seminal researchers and their philosophy. Perspectives in biology and medicine, 58(2), 143-164.
Dupré J (2012) Processes of Life: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Germain P, Ratti E & Boem F (2014). Junk or functional DNA? ENCODE and the function controversy. Biology & Philosophy, 29(6), 807-831.
Griffiths P and Stotz K (2013). Genetics and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ingold T & Pálsson G (2013). Biosocial Becomings: Integrating social and biological anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Lappé M and Landecker H (2015) How the genome got a life span. New Genetics and Society 34(2): 152–176.
Lock M (2015) Comprehending the body in the era of the epigenome. Current Anthropology 56(2): 151–177.
McGuinness, D et al. (2012) Socio-economic status is associated with epigenetic differences in the pSoBid cohort International journal of epidemiology 41, no. 1 (2012): 151-160.
Mansfield, B & Guthman J (2015). Epigenetic life: biological plasticity, abnormality, and new configurations of race and reproduction. cultural geographies, 22(1), 3-20.
Meloni M (2016) Political Biology: Science and social values in human heredity from eugenics to epigenetics. London: Palgrave.
Meloni M, J Cromby, D Fitzgerald, S Lloyd (eds) (2018) The Palgrave Handbook of Biology and Society. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mignolo W (2000) Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Muller, H J (1929). The gene as the basis of life. Proc. 1st Int. Congr. Plant Sci., 1:897-921
Rando OJ (2016) Intergenerational transfer of epigenetic information in sperm. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine 6(5): a022988.
Richardson S and Stevens H (eds.) (2015) Postgenomics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
Soubry A (2015) Epigenetic inheritance and evolution: a paternal perspective on dietary influences. Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 118(1–2) 79–85.
Stallins JA, Law D, Strosberg S. and Rossi, J (2016) Geography and postgenomics: how space and place are the new DNA. GeoJournal (2016) 1–16
Warin M et al. (2015) Epigenetics and obesity the reproduction of habitus through intracellular and social environments. Body & Society, 22(4): 53–78
See a debate overview in, Germain, Ratti and Boem, 2014
See for instance on these questions, Barnes and Dupré, 2008; Dupré, 2012
Chromatin research is not a postgenomic novelty, far from it: for the complex (karst-like) history of the term since the nineteenth century, and its current overlap with epigenetics, see Deichmann, 2015 (the implications of this debate escape the limited space of this review).
Given the nature of this essay I am keeping references at a minimum, also because many of these labels are very well known to Somatosphere’s readership. For “biosocial becomings” and “local biologies” see respectively Ingold and Pálsson, 2013 and (more recently) Lock, 2015. For recent iterations of the notions of 1) “biological embedding”, 2) “biosocial methods”, and 3) “biocultural creatures” see respectively chapters by 1) Kelly-Irving and Delpierre; 2) Youdell and Roberts and Sanz; and 3) Frost in: Meloni, Cromby, Fitzgerald and Lloyd (Eds) 2018.
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