Meaning Making and Genetics: Gene, History and Politics–Talk at the Interdisciplinary Bioscience Seminar at Columbia University

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(This talk is given by Lei Lei at the Interdisciplinary Biosciences Seminar at Columbia Univesity. It is sponsored by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.)

Thank you very much for having me here. I understand this is the first time you invited somebody from the humanities to participate in the seminar. I want you to know that I’m very happy to be the guinea pig.

The ethical and social implications of the advances in genetics and genomics have interested not only scientists but also my colleagues in the humanities. Today my talk will focus on the intersection of these interests.

My talk consists of three different but related parts. First, from the perspective of a student of literature and history, as well as a reader of biological sciences, I will talk about what contemporary genetics and genomics have taught us. Secondly, I will invoke Evelyn Fox Keller, the Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at MIT and her idea of the epistemological culture of biology as a constructive framework for understanding the historical and cultural underpinnings of scientific thinking. Thirdly, I will use biologist Zhou Jianren’s work on American eugenics as an example of how a scientist reflected on a dominant paradigm of biological science in the first half of the 20th century and in doing so affected positive social and cultural changes.

So, what have genetics and genomics taught us? Particularly, what have they taught us about human nature? When I said human nature, I didn’t mean human nature as what differentiates human species from other species; I meant by human nature human differences, meaning what makes us different from one another.

The interest in genetics as the codes of humanity is natural itself: people want to know about their propensity for diseases, height, obesity, IQ, personality, cognitive ability, behavior. Indeed, the expectation is high.

However genetics and genomics have told us that only one to two percent of human DNA consists of genes (protein coding sequences)—-here comes the obvious question: what is the rest of the DNA doing. In the past when the non-coding DNA is recognized it is thought of as junk—now geneticists recognized the enormously complex biological functions the non-coding genomic region plays in the development of organisms.
With the recent advances in biology, the genome is showed to be far more than the genes however it is defined. Some commentator even claimed that it is the “junk” that makes us human.

Contemporary biological research, particularly epigenetics have also shed light on the fact that not only are human behaviors and traits involve multiple genes, each of the Gene contribute to a small part of the total variation. population genetics shows that statistical association between genotype and phenotype are environmentally variable. Furthermore what you see as the final result of phenotype is not the product of the simple correlation between genotype and phenotype, but a very complex interwoven thing. Philosopher of science such as Jesse Prinz complicated the issue even more by pointing how that one can’t even in principle separate what is the gene and what is the environment. Just as scholars of humanities talk about individual personhood and social natural environment as mutually constitutive, scientists are showing that organisms and environment co-construct each other in ways that defy clear separation. The complexity of the development of organisms lies in precisely the incapacity of our linear language in capturing complex relationship.
The Human Genome Project shows that humans have roughly the same amount of genes as mice and their genetic codes are basically the same. The empirical finding of the project suggests that the gene is not sufficient, or at least not primary for understanding the differences between different organisms. Indeed, as Keller points out, it is the larger biological and ecological system that gives meaning to the gene. Genotype does not spontaneously translate into phenotype, let alone more complex emotions, traits, and acts. Keller argues that even the DNA is not sufficient because the process of biological development is orchestrated by the system in which DNA is only a part. By itself, DNA is without meaning and does nothing. Viewed from this light, the cellular and larger layers of environments and systems (some of which are heritable some are not) collectively negotiated the development of an organism. This can be illustrated through an ingenious metaphor physicist Nigel Goldenfeld and Leo Kadanoff used in an article on complex systems. And I quote: “Use the right level of description to catch the phenomena of interest. Don’t model bulldozers with quarks.” While it is certainly true that all the properties of a bulldozer result from the particles that make it up, like quarks and electrons, the properties of a bulldozer (its shape and its function) is by no means explainable in terms of those particles. The shape and function of a bulldozer are emergent properties of the system as a whole.
Contemporary biological research shows that not only all areas of our brain are to a greater and lesser degree plastic throughout our life; thinking learning and acting change the brain’s physical structure and the functional organization from top to bottom. Nowadays, the hottest topic in neuroscience is neo-plasticity. And just as our brain and cognitive capacity are plastic and malleable, so do our bodily constitution and DNA. the protein in which DNA is packaged, its cellular and extra-cellular environment are variable and subject to change

In her book, Evelyn Fox Keller coins the notion epistemological culture to denote the norms and mores of a particular group of scientists that underlies the particular meanings they give to words like knowledge, explanation, and understanding and even to practice. She shows that in the first half of the 20th century, geneticists struggling to uproot the vestige of vitalism worked to demonstrate that the growth and development of complex life forms can be explained by the principles of physics, chemistry, and mathematics (eg: D’Arcy Thompson, Stephane Leduc, Nicholas Rashevsky). None of these people considered it necessary to include gene in their models for development. And here comes the twist, the vitalism they tried so hard to uproot is by many measures closely resembles new norms of the contemporary biological sciences. The 21st century owns to the genetics the conceptual framework that shaped the way in which development is understood. However, the science of genetics has undergone dramatic shifts and contingent changes over the course of the past century, particularly in terms of their conceptual framework: consider The notion of gene action popular in 1930-1960 ; or the notions of feedback and genetic programs in early molecular biology.
I will talk a few important points from Keller’s study highlighting what she meant by epistemological culture in the making of genetics:

  1. Continuity and tradition: The new paradigms or new biological framework need not dispense with the old, rather just as in the evolution of species, they can and do incorporate earlier meanings in a new context in ways that exploit both the consonance and the dissonance among them. Here I quote “The explanatory force of the terms gene action, feedback, genetic programs, and positional information relies upon and makes use not only of their function in the disparate contexts from which they were borrowed but also of the functions of earlier terms and earlier forms of explanation in genetics that may no longer be explicitly invoked.” Take for example the realization of the importance of the system to which DNA and genes partake are increasingly shared by both scientists and philosophers. Its implication is manifested in the field such as systems biology. This interest in organization and system is not completely new as it resuscitated the early 19th-century synthetic biology approach.
    2. Materiality: What may be called the material realities of real biological systems in genetics should be understood in specific light, after all, since geneticists are not allowed to conduct controlled mating experiments or to freely manipulate human DNA, at least not in whole organisms, they had to rely on statistical tools and computer programs—-therefore inevitably they both benefit from the convenience and suffers from the limitations and conceits their tools impose.
    3. Language: many scientists and philosophers have highlighted the fact that scientific narrative relies heavily on metaphorical language and such as “program”, “coding”, “information” “feedback”. Metaphorical language in turn shaped and conditioned the way the life of genes and genomes was imagined. Linguists will tell us that languages are metaphoric through and through. The language scientists use is not immune to this rule. Furthermore, Keller argues: “The scientific narratives that make productive use of the imprecision of metaphor and other linguistic tropes not so much as a way of guiding us toward a more precise and literal description of phenomena but rather as a way of providing explanatory satisfaction where it is not otherwise available”: So how do we understand what is she saying here? let’s think about a famous example, genome sequencing narrated as a process of decoding. Does the metaphor of intelligence and telecommunication decoding give the narrative the explanatory force that it would not have otherwise? A question could perhaps even be asked as to whether the concept of gene assumed its meanings when it was imagined or made into an analogy of the phenomena such as war-time intelligence, and telecommunication.
  2. Technologies: Keller remarks: “Both what counts as knowledge and what we mean by knowing depend on the kind of data we are able to acquire, on the way in which those data are gathered, and on the forms in which they are presented.” ——-Techniques of genetic recombination (allow researchers to visually observe proteins and transcription of particular stretches of DNA), cell-imaging, powerful new computing machines allow for processing data, modeling the phenomena, refining and reconstructing visual images, providing representations. These technologies are not simply tools; they themselves are constitutive of what we recognize as knowledge and explanation. In other words, the means and the ends are intermeshed.

Before the end of the talk, I also want to briefly talk about a famous example in which a biologist reflected on a dominant paradigm of biological science and in doing so affected positive cultural and social change.
In the 1920s, during the heydays of American eugenic movement, works by figures such as Henry Herbert Goddard, Richard Louis Dugdale, Albert Edward Winship, Harry Hamilton Laughlin were translated into Chinese and aroused heated discussions among intellectuals. Biologist Zhou Jianren wrote a famous book in Chinese in 1948, analyzing the logic and sociopolitical context that gave rise to American eugenics, highlighting its relationship with modern genetics. When commenting on the prevalence of eugenics in American and increasingly in China, he points out that individuals’ physical and biological makeup is an easy scapegoat when the differences of human characteristics and traits result from the working of complex social-natural networks. Addressing the complex social issues can invoke dangerous political instability, state power is more inclined to over-emphasize the fixity of biological explanations. Zhou also talked about the relationship between evolutionary biology, genetics, and eugenics, He acknowledges the significance of the advances in biological sciences since Darwin in combating Christian teleology and elucidating the changeability of species. Nevertheless, he points out that some of the biologists sidelined the important feature of Darwin’s theory, namely, that species are the products of historical change and speciation is a dynamic process of alteration. Darwin himself didn’t explicate the details of alternation and the later generations, in turn, mobilized Mendelian genetics to fill in the gap in Darwin’s theory. In this process, the fixity of heritability is assumed. Historicity and social relationality were ruled out and the independence of inherence and genes assumed primacy.
Just as the advances in genetics and other biological sciences have shown the nature of human organism to be plastic and dynamic, the fact that we have the opportunity for interdisciplinary discussion is perhaps a result of that same spirit. Thank you very much.


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