, Supplement, December
by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved
Eclipse of the Geneand the Return ofDivination
by Margaret Lock
Research in the ﬁeld of epigenetics challenges the assumption onwhich the molecular genetics of the past
years has beenbased, namely, genetic determinism. This paper reviews the so-cial science literature that considers the social effects of the ap-plication of molecular genetics and genetic testing in connectionwith Mendelian conditions. It is argued that anthropologistsmust now go farther and respond to the challenge posed by cur-rent moves toward the implementation of genetic proﬁling andtesting for susceptibility genes. Following a discussion of onto-logical problems associated with molecular genetics raised byphilosophers and biologists who subscribe to epigenetics, currentknowledge about molecular and population genetics of late-onsetAlzheimer’s disease and cross-cultural ﬁndings about the epide-miology of this disease are introduced. These ﬁndings illustratethe provisional nature of these bodies of knowledge and the com-plexity associated with susceptibility genes, which makes esti-mations of probabilities of individual risk unrealistic. A con-trolled clinical trial is discussed in which ﬁrst-degree relatives ofAlzheimer’s disease patients are genotyped for risk for late-onsetAlzheimer’s disease. In conclusion, the social implications oftesting for susceptibility genes are discussed, with commentsabout the role that anthropologists might play in future research.
is Marjorie Bronfman Professor of SocialStudies in Medicine at McGill University (
Peel St., Mon-treal, Quebec, Canada H
, she was educated at the University of California, Berke-ley (Ph.D.,
). Her research interests include medical anthro-pology, the anthropology of biomedical technologies, and the an-thropology of genomics. Her publications include
Encounterswith Aging: Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and NorthAmerica
(Berkeley: University of California Press,
TwiceDead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death
(Berke-ley: University of California Press,
), and (edited with SarahFranklin)
Remaking Life and Death: Towards an Anthropology of the Biosciences
(Santa Fe: School of American Research,
).The present paper was submitted
6 x 04
2 ii 05
Funding for this research was provided by the Social Sciencesand Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) grant #
When mapping the human genome, the scientists in-volved set aside approximately
% of the DNA theyhad isolated, labeling it as “junk” because it did not con-form to their idea of how the blueprint for life worked.In the short time since the announcement in early
that the Human Genome Project was more or less com-plete, things have changed dramatically, and “junk”DNA, thrust summarily to one side in order to focus onthe task of mapping only those genes that code directlyfor proteins, can no longer be ignored. A
notes that “new evidence. . . con-tradicts conventional notions that genes. . . are the solemainspring of heredity and the complete blueprint forall life. Much as dark matter inﬂuences the fate of gal-axies, dark parts of the genome exert control over thedevelopment and the distinctive traits of all organisms,from bacteria to humans” (Gibbs
). The articlecontinues: “Some scientists now suspect that much ofwhat makes one person, and one species, different fromthe next are variations in the gems hidden within our’junk’ DNA.” This junk produces largelyRNA
thatdoesnot code for protein production but, even so, is deeplyimplicatedingeneexpressionandregulationandsomustnow be sifted through (Eddy
).The result is that we have entered an era, almost over-night, in which the “dark” parts of the genome are start-ing to ﬂuoresce.The activities of noncoding RNA are believed to com-prise the most comprehensive regulatorysystemincom-plex organisms, a system that functions to create the“architecture” of organisms without which chaos wouldreign (Mattick
). To this end, noncoding RNA hasbeen shown to have a profound effect on the timing ofprocessesthatoccurduringdevelopment,includingstemcell maintenance, cell proliferation, apoptosis (pro-grammed cell death), and the occurrence of cancer andother complex ailments (Petronius
). Consequently,the research interests of molecular biology are no longerconﬁned largely to mapping structurebuthaveexpandedto unraveling the mechanisms of cell and organ functionthrough time. Central to this endeavor is to understandgene regulation—above all how and under what circum-stances genes are switched on and off.
In the rapidlydeveloping science known as epigenetics, organizedcomplexity is recognized and activities of the cell,ratherthan simply those of genes, are the primary target ofinvestigation, although the effects of evolutionary, his-torical, and environmental variables on cellular activity,developmental processes, health, and disease are freelyacknowledged.
During the latter part of the twentieth century, molecular ge-netics was primarily concerned with the interrelationshipbetweenthe macromolecules of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ri-bonucleic acid) and how these molecules synthesize polypeptides,the basic components of all proteins. Only in the past few yearshas attention been turned to the numerous critical activities ofRNA that are not directly involved with protein production.
The importance of gene regulation was ﬁrst noted by Jacob andMonod (
), but the mapping of DNA structure was givenpriority.