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GUEST EDITORS: ANDREW EDGAR & STEPHEN PATTISON
_____________ Genomics, Society and Policy, Vol.4 No.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. www.gspjournal.com
Genomics, Society and Policy 2006, Vol.3, No.2
Guest Editorial by ANDREW EDGAR & STEPHEN PATTISON Articles What is special about the gene? A literary perspective by DAVID AMIGONI Hybrid Vigour? Genes, Genomics, and History by ROBERTA BIVINS When biology goes underground: genes and the spectre of race by TIM INGOLD The Meanings of the Gene and the Future of the Phenotype by LENNY MOSS Genes and the conceptualisation of language knowledge by ALISON WRAY
_____________ Genomics, Society and Policy, Vol.3, No.2 (2007) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. www.gspjournal.com
Genomics, Society and Policy 2008, Vol.4, No.1, pp.ii-iii
Editorial: What is special about the gene?
The gene may be yesterday’s concept as far as science is concerned. However, it is still alive in the popular imagination. It presents a rich challenge to humanities disciplines in generating ideas and analytic perceptions. Furthermore, as the gene and genomics escape the laboratory into everyday life and culture, they shape, and are shaped by, the world views of ordinary people. This in turn modifies the responses of individuals and groups as they engage with scientific and social developments and policies. While much of the discourse about genes and genetics beyond the laboratory is conducted in the language of decision-related and procedural ethics, or that of social analysis, there is a need to stand back and consider how deep, but not necessarily critically-articulated metaphors and understandings are constructed and affect the nature of perceived, taken-for-granted reality. In response to this challenge, a symposium was organised in September 2007 by the Centre for Applied Ethics at Cardiff University. The event emerged from co-operative work between the Centre for Applied Ethics, Cardiff’s School of Religious and Theological Studies, and Birmingham University’s Centre for Global Ethics, on a project entitled ‘The Meanings of Genetics’. This project explores the relationship between humanities disciplines and genetics. It asks what the humanities could contribute to understandings of genetic science and technology, and the manner in which these might be interpreted in, and impact upon, contemporary culture. It also attempts to engage with the challenges and opportunities that genetics and genomics pose for the humanities in terms of their methodologies and understandings of human being. A first symposium was organised in 2006, and its papers have already been published in Health Care Analysis. 1 Collected here are the contributions to the second symposium, where scholars from philosophy, history, English literature, cultural anthropology and linguistics, together with a poet, addressed the question: ‘What is special about the gene?’ Three key themes emerge from the symposium papers and discussions. First, it is clear that the old issues of genetic determinism and the nature/nurture debate continue to trouble humanities scholars, amongst others. In the present collection of papers, the contrasting approaches of linguist Alison Wray and anthropologist Tim Ingold in their respective papers are significant. While Wray explores the possibility that there may be genetic determinants to linguistic capacities, and that such determinants would have significant implications for educational policy, Ingold questions the coherence of the nature-nurture dichotomy, and thus the very possibility of a consistent notion of genetic determinism. Philosopher Lenny Moss’s exploration of competing concepts of the ‘gene’, and the indeterminism that holds between genotype and phenotype, adds to the consideration of this problem. A second, related theme concerns the politics of genetics and in particular the politics of identity. Genetics potentially challenges our understanding of who we are, and of
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within which contemporary selves. We hope to organise follow-up events. 1999. Further symposia could fruitfully bring natural scientists and clinicians together with humanities scholars more directly. London: Jonathan Cape. M. One contribution to the symposium that is not included in this volume are the poems of Michael Symmons Roberts. Symmons Roberts. and would be pleased to receive any comments and expressions of interest in this work. possibly opening up dialogue and public understanding. He offered readings from his collections Raising Sparks and Corpus.4. So. 15 (1): 1-3. ‘Mapping the Genome’.gspjournal. However. the possible misunderstandings and ambiguities that exist between scientific and humanistic approaches to the gene remain to be explored adequately. he reworks the metaphor of the lover mapping geographically the terrain of their beloved’s body in terms of the mapping of the beloved’s genome itself. Roberta Bivins explores the impact that genetics will have upon the methodology of the historian. _____________ Genomics.Genomics. and thus shape the frameworks. This problem is addressed most directly by David Amigoni in his reading of Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday. Moved by its beauty and poeticism. 2004.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. Health Care Analysis 2007. M. 2 Symmons Roberts worked with Sir John Sulston when he was sequencing the genome. and the lay public. This kind of endeavour begins significantly to bridge the gap that may exist between scientific and lay understandings of the gene. for example. genomics. In ‘Hybrid vigour? Genes. he has produced a number of poems relating genetics to love poetry. Corpus. Symmons Roberts.ii-iii our history.1. Vol. Society and Policy. No. suggesting that the gene and genome can be understood as a source of historical information. No. Cardiff University Stephen Pattison Department of Theology and Religion. He begins to figure the ways in which humanistic and artistic cultures can engage with the cultures of the natural sciences. to which the different humanities disciplines appeal in order to articulate the gene and its place in human culture. pp. not least as ordinary people increasingly understand themselves as genetic beings. Society and Policy 2008. but it may increasingly become an important complement to them. The final theme concerns the different ways in which the gene and genome are understood by scientists. in a tribute to John Donne. and history’. humanities scholars.4. communities and histories are understood. London: Jonathan Cape. The symposium demonstrated the urgent need for the humanities to engage with and explore genetics and genomics. Egorova. ‘Editorial’. as genetic understandings become increasingly part of lay cultures. Andrew Edgar School of English Communications and Philosophy.com iii . Vol. together with rhetorical and metaphorical structures. www. Birmingham University 1 2 Y. for good or ill. This store may never replace more orthodox historical data sources. Raising Sparks. The papers herewith illustrate the diverse methods and conceptions.
4. pp. Tracing some of the historical and philosophical complexities that circulate around the word 'gene'. in 1860 at the prospect of the latter’s being a mere 50% of simian descent. this question has. may turn out to be the science.Genomics. genetically. 2 To think that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce taunted T. No. Vol. Of course. already been answered. Even so. and genetics to literature? Of course. Reading Ian McEwan's recent novel Saturday (2005) in terms of the traditions of scientific and literary discourse that it draws upon and weaves together. But in so far as knowledge of the gene is elaborated by scientific research. and is being. 3 How can literature ‘speak to’ genetics.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. par excellence. the gene is a multi-faceted object of knowledge.gspjournal. 95% like a chimpanzee is of little comfort. Huxley at the British Association for the advancement of Science. conducted (Section 1).4. it may be argued. is the form of expression par excellence both for claiming and exploring human exceptionalism. then. in the late 1960s. entering into the ‘transitive’ domain of human understanding that is both perspectival and saturated with multiple traditions of discourse and human activity. and the literary and cultural historians who have researched their shared interests and mutual borrowings. 4 The dialogic work _____________ Genomics. the fact that we are. Oxford. the article argues that the literary craft may yet pose a distinctive challenge for the understanding of the place of genetics and literature in contemporary culture. which debunks the claim to human exceptionialism.com 1 . Society and Policy. the article suggests that if literary appreciation is often seen as a mark of human exceptionalism. as critical realism also recognises.1.1-11 What is special about the gene? A literary perspective DAVID AMIGONI 1 Abstract In answering the question 'what is special about the gene' from a literary perspective. the article argues that in one sense 'the gene' plays the lead role in the latest 'story' about heredity to preoccupy novelists. on the other hand. As Matt Ridley narrates in his book Nature Via Nurture (2003). The work of Roy Britten in 2002 reduced the scale of the difference to around 5%. Introduction Literature. as the critical realist Roy Bhaskar would argue. No. Society and Policy 2008. scientists. This paper will survey some of the key ways in which the conversation has been. www. having been posed again and again: ‘expressiveness’ has played no small part in the history of encounters between the evolutionary sciences and the seemingly ‘softer’ pursuits of philosophy and theology as modes of ‘literary’ discourse. the work of Vincent Sarich and Allan Wilson indicated that close to 99% of the DNA in the human being is identical to that of a chimpanzee. Vol. Genetics. in a sense. genetics is part of the ‘intransitive’ ontological domain which exists independently of human activity. knowledge of the gene may undermine this claim.H. It will explore the insistent philosophical and ideological complexities that condition ‘literature’ as an historically self-aware tradition of discourse in dialogue with disciplines and fields that constitute and demarcate objects of scientific knowledge.
a gene may be conceived as a Dawkinsian survival machine. www. Vol. The article will read Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005) – a ‘literary’ fiction – as a dialogic act which explores the gene at the interface between what Bhaskar refers to as transitive and the intransitive domains (Section 2). to describing as the work of ‘culture’. and culture. A clearer degree of human specificity is made possible by the Jacob-Monod theory of the gene as a developmental switch. Society and Policy 2008. pp. ensuring a healthy outcome in the expected environment. and the traditional literary and philosophical frameworks that have sustained and validated accounts of human specificity and distinctiveness.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. rather than chimpanzee. based on a Watson-Crick recipe of DNA replicators. 6 Dawkins makes this comment as he describes the process of looking through a microscope at the 46 (23 pairs) human chromosomes. McEwan is a novelist who interrogates the relationship between genetics as an ontological necessity. and seven different functions – few of which contribute decisively to human exceptionalism. No. As Richard Dawkins admits in his classic The Selfish Gene ‘it is not easy. Niall Dillon surveyed a history of the concept of the gene in making this opening point: Rediscovered in 1900 from the research of Gregor Mendel (18221884). The gene is not.1-11 performed by literature reminds us that the intellectual life of the gene – that is to say the gene as a conceptual object disseminated by intellectual activity – is grounded in discourses. to decide where one gene ends and another begins’. Finally. Society and Policy. almost thirty years after its original publication. First. 1. it seems. wholly deterministic. it is also hard to be definite about its borders and boundaries.4. and named in 1909 by Wilhelm Johannsen (1857-1927). this also links. Literature and Science: historical and philosophical perspectives What marginal effects do human genes play to make us human.1. Vol. and what is a gene anyway? Matt Ridley identifies seven meanings of the word gene. and has come to see the gene as a device for extracting information from the environment. All of these theories and functions build on De Vries’s early sense of heredity conducted by pangens (hereditary material reused in different developmental programmes). The decisively human part of us continues to be ‘made’ by our ‘exchange’ of information with the environment – what we have become used. the gene became one of the most influential scientific concepts of the 20th century. with genes strung out along them ‘in order’. From the start. using any genomic structure as a host for preserving itself on into the next generation. 5 If the gene has multiple functions. to the medical theory of the gene as a health-giver. a means of ‘promoting’ and ‘enhancing’ a particular characteristic in a given bodily design. Dawkins’s observation continues to shape research.Genomics. perhaps. indeed it may not even be meaningful. it remains a curiously nebulous entity that defies easy definition. the theory of the evolutionary psychologists Tooby and Cosmides embraces all of the above. there was a tension between the concept of the gene as a ‘unit of inheritance’ – _____________ Genomics. preserving an ancestral past in the living organism. it is also a Mendelian archive. No.4.com 2 .gspjournal. perhaps. In a recent article about ‘gene autonomy’. Yet despite its iconic power. fictions (in their broadest sense).
Society and Policy 2008. www. intervenes into this ‘culture of the gene’. The language of code.1. while recognising that knowledge of that reality is historically relative and subject to refinement and elaboration.4. his recent novel Saturday. yet which also interrogates the force of various mobilisations of the ‘literary’ in that culture. for literature is a complex field of critical possibilities and historical legacies. and their work is consequently nuanced and inflected. 7 Dillon’s work contributes to the critical-realist aspirations of much scientific research: acknowledging genes as a necessary part of ontological reality. I’ll use this to show how another ‘fiction’ by Ian McEwan. bibliographers and historians of the book. a transitive culture of metaphysical fictions that needs to be distinguished from the expert. 9 Dawkins’s Selfish Gene also uses bibliographic metaphors to describe chromosomes. it is unnecessary to drive a wedge between them.4. or receptor. I’ll explore this power in relation to what the philosopher Howard Caygill has referred to as ‘the culture of the gene’. prior to Britten’s work. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) Daniel Dennett grasped the workings of the Mendelian archive. As Ridley points out. professional day-to-day field work that constitutes molecular biology and biochemistry as it seeks to research more deeply into the intransitive domain.Genomics.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. In any event. It is significant that Dillon should go back to the moment of ‘naming’ of the gene by Wilhelm Johannsen. Vol. the copying mechanism of DNA. insertion may be comfortingly recognisable to literary scholars as the very objects and concerns of their own scholarly pursuits.gspjournal. and Mendelian laws of inheritance. No. Britten identifies the ‘textual deletions and insertions’ that increase the scale of the difference from 1 to 5%. The literary and textual analogues structure the way in which Roy Britten arrived at his conclusion that humans differ from chimpanzees by virtue of 5% of their DNA. No. pp. some literary scholars are theoreticians and deconstructionists.com 3 . molecular biologists had only focused on ‘substitutions – ie. For instance. He draws on the language of codes and substitutions. all literary criticism needs to be seen in the context of the histories and traditions of _____________ Genomics. 8 It is an intervention that at once venerates the contexts of discovery of modern genetics. I want to explore some of the tensions produced by this process of refinement and elaboration: the gene as either absolute determinant. ‘the Library of Mendel’. Society and Policy. But only some literary scholars would recognise themselves in such a set of analogies: for instance. as many critics bring together a blend between the two. That is why I’ve added the health warning to my discussion: a literary perspective. deleting.1-11 which was defined in purely operational terms as an autonomous unit that transmits specific traits through multiple generations – and the gene as a physical entity – whose position could be mapped in relation to other genes on the chromosome. the gene as either autonomous unit of inheritance or real physical entity. and that he refers to the ‘iconic’ power of the concept of the gene. Turning to the ‘literary’. letters in the text that are different between human and chimpanzee genes’. Vol. Both point to a certain degree of play at work in the making of the concept of the gene. others are historicists. by analogy with a textual and philological analogue that followed Borges’s imaginary ‘Library of Babel’. Indeed. one can note that the power of textual analogy plays a strikingly important role in the conceptualisation of modern genetics. and the acts of copying.
perhaps reassure. Society and Policy 2008.1. to computer generated models of molecular activity derived from x-ray crystallography). Vol. they have focused on it in historically contextual terms. historically-orientated literary scholars are often interested in the languages of inheritance within a scheme of ‘cultural heredity’: that is to say where these languages come from. including acquired characteristics. and another reason why the effects of the concept of the gene may not be uniquely special to us. We should recall that Charles Darwin’s own theory of heredity – ‘pangenesis’ – that postulated the idea of gemmules that represented every aspect of a body. comparative anatomy. My own project seeks to move beyond reductionism. Young can be taken too far. there has been a tendency for leading proponents of the public understanding of science – such as the gene theorist Richard Dawkins – to homogenise thinking from across the Humanities and Social Sciences negatively as the product of ‘social constuctivism’ – the indefensibly reductive notion that science is just another form of textuality. Let’s keep with an historical perspective. The molecular biology of genetics is a science that requires not only high degrees of specialisation. being transmitted to and out of the sexual organs – went precisely nowhere. but depends also on speculative model building that relates to the deeply ‘unseen’ and ‘unseeable’ (from Crick and Watson’s early 1950s model helices of wood and metal. and intensive laboratory resources. But the public. complexity and historicity. my reading of McEwan’s Saturday traces echoes of literary criticism’s long historical reflection on the relation between the affective power of poetry and morality. but the structure and ideological leanings of theories of inheritance from the past. 11 But ‘pangenesis’ is fascinating nonetheless for what it says about Darwin’s interests in _____________ Genomics. the nineteenth century. It is tempting to see a kind of contest at work here between two equally indefensible reductionist drives – the postmodern textual and the neo-Darwinian genetic. and whether indeed they are passed on at all. What interests literary scholars and cultural historians. is often not so much the validity of the truth claims of the latest scientific theory of inheritance. what they ‘pass on’. and the semantic possibilities and constraints that they offer. No. Howard Caygill makes the same point about the varied traditions philosophical and scientific thought that inform what he calls the ‘culture of the gene’. and classification – depended to a large degree on evidence that was available to public display in its primary forms. It is important to stress this variety.gspjournal. In fact. For literary scholars who have explored the literature and science relation.1-11 discourse that continue to inform it.4. which is genetics.Genomics. Vol. both in humanistic and scientific critical pursuits. at least in its pre-1859 phase – geology.4. While the so-called ‘common culture’ thesis of the social historian of science Robert M. what work they perform. No. woven into a key moment of narrative crisis sparked by genetic malfunction in one of the novel’s characters. www. Indeed. 10 The disciplines that lent to its formation. there is something about the intelligibility of nineteenth-century biology that continues to fascinate and in a curious way.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. For these theories cast light on the authority of theories at work in the present. Society and Policy. since the ‘Sokal Affair’ hoax of 1996.com 4 . justificatory languages of genetic science need to be seen in the same context. Take my own period of specialisation. and towards the more varied scientific tapestry of the past. and its apparent display of ‘a common culture’. pp. This tendency to neo-Darwinian reductionism has perhaps pushed many scholars away from a Whiggish present in which the gene dominates.
1.4. Society and Policy. pp. No.1-11 pollen and buds as agents of heredity. politics and governance that resonated more widely in nineteenth-century culture. in class terms. No. he claims that ‘the central idea I shall make use of was foreshadowed by A. The English writer Benjamin Kidd in his influential degenerationist tract Social Evolution (1894) used the theory as a basis for concluding that the quality of populations would decline. If Darwin’s theory of natural selection.4. Vol. Let’s go back to that formulation of Dawkins in an attempt to illustrate this point: He refers to ‘pre-gene days’: how did we get to the naming of genes? When Dawkins refers to ‘pre-gene days’. 15 Literary and cultural historians are precisely interested in the proliferating fictions associated with science. Degenerationists such as Kidd argued that the least ‘fit’ populations. for instance. I’m not for a moment suggesting that Dawkins is a eugenicist – he is manifestly not – but as Hilary Rose argues. a topic that has been compellingly explored in a recent issue of the journal new formations (spring 2007). and. in particular debates about degeneration. In other words. of stories about reproduction and inheritance. were in numerical supremacy. Vol. Society and Policy 2008. acquired characteristics could play no corrective role. one might say. Craig Venter Institute. and destined to pass on their ‘unfitness’ through the germ plasm. 13 But it is important to recall there are competing stories of intellectual inheritance: to go back to Dawkins again. Cut off their heads and they simply proliferate’. by implication. 14 There’s a further point to make here about the relationship between eugenics and genetics. he is referring of course to the days prior to the successes of biochemical experimentation and microscopy that gradually identified the materials of _____________ Genomics. there is culturally a connection between genetics and eugenics. ‘the whole power of soothing fictions lies in their hydra-like reproductive capacities. could be assimilated to Lamarckian theories of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. in the ‘timeline’ published on the website of Genome Network News. entangled with the properly delimited scientific speculation about inheritance was a world of discourse about interdependence. To give another example: in the 1880s. But. Weismann in pre-gene days at the turn of the century—his doctrine of the continuity of the germ plasm’.Genomics. eugenics.gspjournal. we could dismiss Weismann’s theory as superannuated. www. for Weismann. and to pretend otherwise is to seek to maintain ‘a soothing fiction’. Weismann’s theory was resolutely anti-Lamarckian. the reproduction. was effected by material that was passed reproductively from one generational body to another. so it is not recognised as a milestone on the royal road to the discovery of DNA and the sequence of the human genome. generation upon generation if natural logics of inheritance were permitted to continue unchecked. 12 In one sense. and Darwin’s writings in general. Weismann’s theory impacted on debates in Europe. and a nineteenth-century idea about the body as a kind of confederated colony of organs. but which could not be improved by external influence. she continues. the German biologist August Weismann formulated his theory of the ‘continuity of the germ plasm’.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. in his conclusion to the first chapter of the Selfish Gene. which aimed to select certain pools of germ plasm out of the reproductive equation. For Kidd this necessitated positive action that would ensure and preserve the accumulation of ‘congenital variations above the average to the exclusion of those below’ – in other words. Heredity.com 5 . information supported by the J. Weismann’s work is not cited.
16 While it may seem to offer a grand narrative about the popularisation of science. It seems to me that _____________ Genomics. Society and Policy 2008. 17 Caygill also reminds us that it was not only the artists who were expelled from the city in the Republic – it was the physicians too. Yet it is trust that is bestowed with ambivalence. but also those crucial terms in genetics.1. Society and Policy. ‘drafted’ about the ‘culture of the gene’ by the philosopher Howard Caygill. while being also the threat of the revenge of chance as it re-enters the order from which. Following Nietzsche.com 6 . ostensibly constituted upon positivist foundations. but have assumed considerable weight in the culture of genetics’. Of course. Vol. ‘genotype’ (the particular genomic plan of the organism). Thus. and popular culture of. two crucial philosophical traditions in answering the question ‘what is special about the gene’. But he is careful to distinguish between the nuanced and workaday practices and findings of science. It was precisely this kind of framework of assumptions that enabled Johannsen to Platonise the late nineteenth-century findings of particulate inheritance into the ‘ideas’ of the ‘gene’.Genomics. nor the fear of the revenge of chance against the same order have any real basis in the science. The physicians were to be re-admitted in the guise of philosophical legislators. its ‘draft’ status could be said to interrogate. and these have important implications for a story told. a new Platonism for the masses. science which reinvented a Platonic Christianity as a metaphysic of science. ostensibly. In re-reading Plato and Nietszche. and the ‘phenotype’ (the particular and variable manifestation in a living individual). and that he is indulging in ‘social constructivism’. Caygill presents science as a Christian substitute.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. it may be objected by practising scientists that Caygill’s narrative is too grand by half.1-11 particulate inheritance that constitute modern genetics. Johannsen’s work performed crucial work in naming the ‘gene’. the ‘genotype’. ‘Neither the fear of the abolition of chance in a technical order of necessity. for supplementing nature with their particular brand of techne (much in the way that imitative artists did). it has been eliminated. ‘the first and last of the metaphysicians’ for Caygill. In twentieth-century genetics. which at once seems to promise the abolition of nature and chance (the totally engineered subject). ‘science’ fills the terrible gap left by ‘the death of God’ in the nineteenth century. The term ‘gene’ was coined by Johannsen in 1909 – a point that Niall Dillon reminds us of in his article about gene autonomy (Nature 2003) – during a hectic period when biologists such as De Vries were formulating theories of particulate inheritance while rediscovering the work of Gregor Mendel. No. Those sources are Plato and Nietzsche. it is the gene that figures as the unstable phenomenon. and what he describes as ‘the culture of genetics’. Vol. Caygill’s analysis examines the triumph of science in the nineteenth century as a new faith in.4. But he is also referring to a movement in scientific nomenclature. Caygill’s analysis points to another reason why the concept of the gene is not unique: for genetics is just the most recent manifestation of a metaphysical affirmation of science and medicine. in a productively fragmentary fashion. and the ‘phenotype’ – a metaphysical legacy that molecular biologists continue to observe yet be troubled by.gspjournal. as a popular ‘culture of genetics’ demands greater and greater degrees of trust be placed in the metaphysic (your guilt or innocence in a murder case may be determined as true or not by the ‘idea’ of DNA). No. pp. or as he would put it.4. www. In Caygill’s reading of Nietzsche. Caygill wrote his ‘Drafts for a Metaphysics of the Gene’ in 1996.
through a kind of education orchestrated by his daughter.4. Traditions of Discourse in Ian McEwan’s Saturday: fiction. Tolstoy. ‘literary’ fictions participate in the culture of genetics in challengingly complex ways. www. Daisy. Of course. ways.1-11 Caygill implicitly draws a distinction between. and a distracted Blair mistakes Perowne’s identity. Society and Policy. that Saturday by Ian McEwan – an imitative artist who is also deeply attracted by the techne of science and medicine – explores the ‘culture of genetics’ by engaging with the relationship between these ‘transitive and intransitive’ domains. Daisy has read English at Oxford. If the philosophy of critical realism has to be clear and rigorous about the relative stratifications that separate the real. 18 While fictions of the iconic status of the gene figure in powerful. 2.4. his fiction works to suggest something vaguely disturbing about the human ‘gift’ for apprehending literature as a mode of affective power. a kind of homage to the Modernist literature of the city represented most obviously by Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.1. Vol. meets Tony Blair at an official engagement. McEwan nonetheless shows him striving to develop an understanding of the affective dimensions of the culture that he inhabits. context of discovery. genetics and poetry Saturday is an urban fiction. to use Hans Reichenbach’s terms (subsequently adapted by Christopher Norris). 19 It is also possible to see Saturday as a fiction that asks questions about who will legitimately legislate for the city. but carefully circumscribed. A recollected image of this reading frames the reader’s first encounter with the education of Henry Perowne. the actual and the empirical. and the engineer’s understanding of the body as a complex mechanism. In a sense. interestingly. he mistakes him for an artist (Blair is made to comment that a painting mistakenly attributed to Perowne adorns a wall in Downing Street). As Perowne re-awakes on Saturday _____________ Genomics. especially in the context of one of the meanings of the word gene: a switch or cultural receptor for mediating information between organism and environment. a neurosurgeon Henry Perowne.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. and their competing claims. Conrad). McEwan’s evolutionism finds Platonic questions about the governance of the ideal city-state no longer answerable. literature and science. and Bhaskar’s distinction between intransitive and transitive domains.Genomics. literary narrative can place itself at the exploratory interface between these domains. and a history of the expertise that he contributes to it. pp. Vol. No. Society and Policy 2008. No. can be exploited as different traditions of discourse clash and meld. in fact. For McEwan’s fictive exploration of the relation between literature and genetics eschews any grand statements about human exceptionalism.gspjournal. in conclusion. and is a young published poet: she is determined to educate her father in the literary canon (Flaubert. then literature can still be viewed as that privileged space where the ‘blurring’ of relations between the transitive and intransitive. I want to suggest. Henry Perowne tends not to intellectualise his working life: a neurosurgeon whose specialisms are at once the molecular biologist’s knowledge of the micro-composites of life. but also the greats of scientific writing.com 7 . Saturday stages a confrontation between the two expelled figures from the republic: the artist and the physician. and context of justification. in one sense. The governance of the appointed legislators is in one sense farcically detached and ineffective: the central character.
and even cities have evolved. by literary possibilities that Daisy understands only too well: He tries to see it. this moment in the last decades of the petroleum age. The evolution of the city. but so too are Perowne’s attempts at Modernist epiphanies. No. Boyle.1-11 morning following his disrupted sleep in the early hours. Perowne tries to take in the scene as it might have been seen by those ‘curious men of the English Enlightenment’ who gave birth to his world view. Wren. or in his case thwarted. unconsciously recalled second hand from the biography that Daisy has ‘set’ him to study (Daisy conducts her relationship with her father rather in the manner of a tutorial). they would be awed … But he can’t quite trick himself into it. Vol.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. He can’t feel his way past the iron weight of the actual to see beyond the boredom of a traffic tailback … He doesn’t have the lyric gift to see beyond it – he’s a realist. Society and Policy. the realist surgeon cannot enter into the way of seeing mastered by his lyrical daughter. how out of war. and the illustrious traditions of scientific enquiry that have forged the present. It leads to Perowne’s reflection on the creation story told by evolution. Vol. death and destruction. and a ‘summary of the concluding pages [of the Origin]. and. But his attempt to do so is haunted.gspjournal. www. Of course. life forms. it still poses the question: if we come to know the justification of the neurosurgeon’s techne (we hear of Perowne’s skills in the operating theatre.4. as he himself comes gradually to realise.4. in historical terms. a fiction that owes much to Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway: ‘this moment’ is an intertextual echo. a phrase passes through his mind: ‘There is grandeur in this view of life’. Ordinary people! Rivers of light! He wants to make himself see it as Newton might. morality is shaped. flash through Perowne’s mind again as he becomes stuck in a traffic jam in London: McEwan sets Saturday on the day in February 2003 when up to a million people took to the streets of London to demonstrate against the impending invasion of Iraq. when the unprecedented wealth of masses at serious play in the unforgiving modern city makes for a sight that no previous age could have imagined. how does it speak within a culture saturated by genetic science? The question begins to be answered as Perowne steers his car away from the jam. this is from Darwin. and the science that has shaped modern culture. accidentally. and can never escape (p. curious men of the English Enlightenment who for a few years held in their minds nearly all the world’s science.168). Contexts of discovery and contexts of scientific justification seem to mingle together in the verbalised consciousness of Perowne.55). or his contemporaries. and read sleepily in the bath the night before. the closing paragraph of the Origin of Species.Genomics. what does literature do. amended in later editions’ (p. Society and Policy 2008. McEwan brings literature and science into cultural contest: Saturday is a day in the life of a professional man on his day off. his expertise in molecular biology and bodily engineering). pp. Surely. No.com 8 . when a nineteenth-century device is brought to final perfection in the early years of the twenty first. ‘Ordinary people! Rivers of light!’ But it’s a stand off. into the path of another car. or feel it. Willis – those clever.1. dislodging its wing-mirror. Hooke. The minor collision brings Perowne into _____________ Genomics. While Saturday is a novel in which texts that construct and enrich our literacy actually play a significant role. The section of the biography he reads is about ‘the dash to complete the Origin’.
Perowne notes ‘muscular restlessness’ in Baxter’s face and. He does so later in the day as the family dinner with Perowne’s father in law. Daisy and his son. The twitching.com 9 . passing it off as her own. www.1. Here’s biological determinism in its purest form. and the moment for violence. No.222). The reader oversees fragmented images grasped during the recital from Perowne’s perspective. Vol. ‘simian’-like Baxter. is shattered when Rosalind Perowne returns from work with Baxter. of I.95). but of the magical. in an excessive repeat of a single sequence – CAG. Richards’s ‘experiments’ with Cambridge undergraduates in the 1920s. and a knife threatening her.A.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. This is how the brilliant machinery of being is undone by the tiniest of faulty cogs.94) Perowne offers his expert diagnosis. wracked by mood swings triggered by faulty genes. and it turns the situation.1-11 the lower social orbit of Baxter and two other petty criminals who use the occasion as an attempt to extort money. don’t you. in the discourse that is recited. Perowne does not know and cannot identify the poem as Arnold’s. More than forty repeats of that one little codon and you’re doomed. she follows instead Grammaticus’s cue and recites Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’. so frequently rehearsed in the nineteenth century and since. a further parody. but indeed the magical thinking that hovers below the metaphysical justification of the patient-doctor relationship. Society and Policy 2008. Vol. Perowne finds many associations. and the episode ends in Baxter’s humiliation as he loses command of his henchmen. (p. All thoughts of rape dissipate as he says ‘”You wrote that… it’s beautiful. The episode is especially rich because of the way in which McEwan translates a lyrical moment into the stuff of storytelling. If Perowne’s ‘magical’ knowledge of ‘biological determinism’ shapes the first reversal of Baxter’s behaviour.4. It seems to me no coincidence that this moment turns on the understanding of an Arnold poem.Genomics. Arnold being also the author of that great Victorian statement about the civilising mission of literature. many ‘subject positions’ from his life and his sense of Daisy’s life. Daisy refuses the invaders’ sexual taunts to read one of her ‘dirty’ poems from the set of proofs (entitled My Saucy Bark) that sit upon the table. What McEwan produces here is a curious kind of parody of literature’s civilising mission. No. However. Society and Policy. exploiting. You know that. McEwan seems to _____________ Genomics. pp. transformed by a literary conversion. It is in this context that McEwan finally ‘answers’ the question of what literature does. the biochemist and engineer in him immediately reaches this diagnosis: Chromosome four. to a squash match. not the metaphysical. and which continues to haunt the legitimating strategies of modern science: ‘They are together … in a world not of the medical. And you wrote it”’. but will be made to pay. The misfortune lies within a single gene. perhaps. exposing them to unidentified poems which they were asked to close-read. (p. the poet John Grammaticus. Perowne drives off. and threaten Perowne with a beating when he resists. then it is a literary recital that shapes the second.gspjournal. Culture and Anarchy (1869). In narrating the episode. becomes a kind of cruelly ironic Arnoldian best self. When you are diseased. Your future is fixed and easily foretold … nightmarish hallucinations and a meaningless end. It’s beautiful. But it is borrowed time. his henchmen.4. he does not ‘tell’ that the poem being recited is ‘Dover Beach’. it is unwise to abuse the shaman’ (p.
10 _____________ Genomics. there is of course something wonderfully inventive and distinctive about the particular workings of McEwan’s fictive exploration of genetics: it does not provide us with unshakeable ground from which to judge the respective claims of the transitive and intransitive domains.uk M.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. 20 We return then to those varied ‘meanings’ of the gene that Matt Ridley has codified in Nature Via Nurture.amigoni@keele. Something that ‘begins’ in genetics.1-11 be suggesting that the civilising process that the poem effects upon Baxter is only one kind of affective response. Indeed. Keele University d. from a literary perspective. contributes powerfully to the transitive domain of literary and cultural activity. But McEwan’s fiction does. But it also does so contingently. and receptor. 24-5.4. a character determined by heredity. a descendant of the fiction of Gissing and Zola. Society and Policy 2008. London. generate more subtle challenges to received meanings. and the antithesis of reductionism. in presenting these different meanings. No. draws upon historically constituted traditions of discourse. and ironically it works most powerfully on the most genetically faulty and deranged person present. This is hardly a surprising or indeed unsettling conclusion to reach.gspjournal. in fact it blurs the boundaries between the two. 2003. At the same time. Baxter is made from the naturalist tradition of European fiction. 1 2 English. Society and Policy. leads us to awkward and conflicting meanings. Literature multiplies the positions available for judgement and response. to be sure: but critical openings. Vol. Perhaps this is the point: while Caygill has identified a metaphysical ‘culture of the gene’ which does indeed exert a powerful and at times ideologically constraining effect in the popular understanding of science. it could be argued that Baxter’s faulty gene becomes both a ‘switch’. there is nothing particularly special about the gene because it constitutes the most recent episode in a long and inconclusive story about the nature of heredity. McEwan’s fiction. Vol. www. for the appreciation of poetry. If the Library of Mendel has inscribed an irrevocable genetic script for Baxter – ‘It is written’ (p. Experience and What Makes Us Human. literature as an effect. Consequently we have to make meanings out of the contingencies explored by narrative practice.ac. School of Humanities.1. Nature Via Nurture: Genes. I am grateful to the two referees whose comments helped me to re-shape aspects of this argument. But he is also touched by those influential discourses of culture and aesthetics that have presented themselves as the antithesis of scientific determinism. pp. the stories that we have inherited about the relations between naturalistic and social inheritance. Fourth Estate. or the intransitive domain of ontological necessity. No.210) – the Library of Babel is characterised by indeterminacy. relatively: that Baxter and Perowne ‘hear’ such different versions of the poem suggests that there is no universal genetic ‘programme’ underwriting literary apprehension as some reductive modes of neo-Darwinian have been inclined to argue.com .Genomics. In one sense this demonstrates a key claim of this article: that. or literature as culture’s flagship. but also the gene as switch and receptor which precisely generates culture in its profoundly intransitive modes.4. Ridley. McEwan’s fiction playfully mobilises their varied meanings: the gene as ancestral archive which condemns Baxter to a terrible fate. I would argue. as a practice exercised by a masterful practitioner such as McEwan.
new formations: critical realism today 2005.247. http://tekhnema. literature and cultural contest in Ian McEwan’s narrative practice’.free.24. note 6. Society and Policy 2008. see.07) 17 I recognise that positivism is a complex term. Manchester. The Selfish Gene.M.org/resources/timeline/ (consulted 14. 425: 457. 278-9.06. 3 _____________ Genomics. 19 I. Darwin.15 16 H. No. 4 For a recent account of the importance of Bhaskar’s work. 2005. Manchester University Press. Norris. 5 Ridley. Desmond & J. Saturday. Delacorte Press. 1997. 1985.htm (consulted 18. 8 Some of the material I use in my reading of Saturday will also appear in a much fuller consideration of McEwan as a novelist who explores scientific ideas.07) 14 Dawkins. Madame Bovary’s Ovaries. Penguin. Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture. ‘The Luxury of Storytelling: science.) Literature and Science: Essays for the English Association 2008. and contemporary scientific culture. Vol. Moore. Caygill. Desmond. Cambridge.531-2. 1996. 9 Ridley. London. 1998. 10 See for instance R. 60: 13-26. Harmondsworth. Young. 3. eds. Eugenics and Genetics: the conjoint twins? new formations: eugenics old and new 2007. 15 H.36-7. Dawkins. See D. Kidd. Dean. esp.Genomics.fr/3Caygill. Norrie. New York. Rose. J.1. p. note 2. and the present state of the critical realist tradition. In my account here I implicitly draw on Auguste Comte’s nineteenth-century teleological conception of positivism as an integrated approach to both scientific knowledge and social organisation which had moved beyond ‘metaphysics’ as an evolutionary stage in human development. op. 6 R. Darwin’s Metaphor. Barash. and that it is often loosely used by literary and cultural historians. 1894.11. Huxley: From Devil’s Disciple to Evolution’s High Priest. Nature. Drafts For a Metaphysics of the Gene. Tekhnema: A Touch of Memory. Jonathan Cape.5. Dillon. p. Macmillan.4. 2005.4.12.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. Cambridge University Press. 2nd edition. p. cit. pp.P. op cit. 18 C. Oxford. p. pp. New Idols of the Cave: on the limits of anti-realism. Vol. cit. Dean & A. S. Barash & N. Social Evolution London.com 11 .22 7 N. 12 B. 192. K. 56. www. pp. Harmondsworth.genomenewsnetwork.R. chapter 9. Penguin. Oxford University Press. 1989. 2003. 1990. p. No. McEwan. 11 A. p. All further page references to this work will be given in parentheses in the main text.1-11 For an account see A. op. Ruston (ed. Forthcoming.gspjournal. Society and Policy. 13 http://www. note 2. 20 See for instance D. Positions Please: On Gene Autonomy. Amigoni.
and indeed the biological and medical sciences. and History ROBERTA BIVINS 1 Abstract Is the gene ‘special’ for historians? What effects. particularly of science and medicine. about claims of a genetic basis for any specific social behaviors. and cultural) responses to genetic claims. among others. historians have examined eugenics movements of the 20th century. www. sociology. pp. But historians and geneticists view history and genetics very differently – and assume very different relationships between them. Yet the impact of genetics and genomics on society has been studied principally by anthropologists. are more than sceptical of the claims of genetic determinists: many are deeply ambivalent or openly apprehensive about what has been called the ‘geneticization’ of society.4. Historical studies of genetics reflect – and explain – their unease. identity. No. and indeed the nature and meanings of ‘history’ differ yet again.” 3 So wrote the renowned historian of biology. and political. if any. has the notion of the ‘gene’ had on our understanding of history? Certainly. assumptions. I am sceptical. There is considerable overlap between the subject matter of genetics/genomics and many of the most widely used analytic categories of contemporary historiography – race. If genetics cannot explain even the ‘social behaviours’ of individuals. Historians have explored the gene both through studies of its scientific emergence. Society and Policy 2008. genetics. ethnicity. gender. What does this indicate or suggest? Second. 2 Only two historical sub-disciplines have engaged with the rise of genetics to any significant degree: the histories of science and of medicine. and evolution) on public conceptions of history itself. sexuality. Genomics. 5 Perhaps most disturbingly. 4 and through explorations of societal (and economic. then clearly the gene has little to say about history. and models of human heredity.com 12 . I will explore the impact of the ‘gene’ and genetic understandings (of. First.4. (dis)ability.12-22 Hybrid Vigour? Genes. in looking at the meaning. for example. Garland E.gspjournal.Genomics. Society and Policy. Here. I will examine the ways in which historians have thus far approached genes and genetics. And public perceptions of genes. _____________ Genomics. And Allen’s scepticism about the claims made for genetics as an efficient cause or an explanatory system is widely shared by scholars in history. Allen in 1997. and the impact such studies have had on the field. No. I will focus on two aspects of the discourse. Vol. as well as in anthropology. the family.1. and the implications – the significance – of the gene (and its corollary scientific disciplines and approaches) specifically to historians. I would even say biased. sociologists and ethicists. genomics. Decoding genetics: Historical approaches to the gene “I confess that from my experience as both an historian and someone who writes a great deal about current work in genetics. Vol. science studies. there is a widespread public and professional perception that genetics and history are or should be in dialogue with each other in some way. health.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. the body. But historians. disease.
and in enabling the other tragic outcomes of negative eugenics programmes. No. As an example to illustrate the problem. and thus genetics. in forced sterilization campaigns. Experiments constructed under these circumstances ‘naturally’ validated existing beliefs about both marginalized and privileged groups – and the evidence they produced was readily accepted as objective despite its poor quality. say.4. Other historical approaches have included the study of the gene as a 20th century marker of ‘biological determinism’ (tainted in historical terms by its use in sociobiology. even our souls are encoded in our genes. if as yet relatively unexplored – but the influence of genetic understandings of social. Jenny Reardon. industriousness. and the interpretation of the data produced by those trials. laziness. 9 All in all. but also stupidity. Vol. historical comparisons suggest ominous similarities between these claims and those of their eugenic predecessors. 10 These traits make it extremely difficult to pin down.1. the history of genetics has also yielded exemplary accounts of gender bias in modern science. our futures. the polysemic flexibility and consequent durability of the concept and category ‘race’ within the scientific disciplines that have focused on heredity.com 13 . honesty. and fear that eugenic thought continues to underpin genetic science and genetic medicine. reinscribed in politically neutral terminology.gspjournal. moment by historical moment. and criminality – as well as physical ones were biologically inherited. pp. The commonsense of their day. and governed by genes. It is therefore unsurprising that historians like Garland Allen and Daniel Kevles are suspicious of contemporary scientists’ claims to have found the genes for. consider the congested historical intersection between ideas of race and ideas of biological heredity. has historically proven a dangerous one. relied on assumptions that social traits – for instance. intelligence. or criminal violence.Genomics. what risks then are likely to lie in seeking to understand ourselves and our pasts through our genes? In my own historical field. cultural and historical phenomena extends far more widely. the history of medicine. non-whites. has recently demonstrated (coincidentally displaying the traction historians could gain by actively engaging with the anthropological and science studies literatures). The idea that our capabilities. geneticized models of human culture and human history.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. working in the field of science and technology studies. Many prominent post-war scientists explicitly denied biological ‘race’. Vol. In severing the direct _____________ Genomics. Thus scientists and medical researchers could retain the analytical power of ‘race’ without the taint of racism. these assumptions shaped the research designed to test them. where ‘biology’ became ‘destiny’ in ways profoundly limiting for women. and related study of the ways in which genetics could facilitate the construction of a normative biology. while persisting intellectually: biological and medical use of ‘race’ as a category of analysis went. Society and Policy. the impact of the gene and the genetic trope on medical research and practice is clearly visible. No. as it were. 7 Simply put. existing historical scholarship on the gene and genetics leaves little ground for optimism about the effects of our current cultural fascination with hereditarian. underground.4. 8 Via biography and autobiography. As the science of genetics (and subsequently genomics) gained broader and wider explanatory powers in relation to human variation. whether positive or negative. and other marginalized groups). ‘race’ as an explanatory model could disappear linguistically. homosexuality. the meaning of race to scientists and within the scientific literatures. www.12-22 including the role of eugenic thinking in the Holocaust. 6 Eugenics. Society and Policy 2008.
and states that they must be addressed – but note his conservatism. Society and Policy 2008. This neat solution to the problem of ‘race’ for scientists was pioneered in the 1950s. On the genetic side … race is an imperfect surrogate for ancestral geographic origin. rather than its less accessible and historically documented practices. social) causation as well: “if we are not satisfied with the use of imperfect surrogates in trying to understand hereditary causes. 15 As a rare condition prevalent only in underprivileged minority populations. it is apparent why self-identified race or ethnicity might be correlated with health status.” Historically.12-22 connection between the life sciences and racial thought. by Chicago physician James Herrick. 13 Collins. Think for example of the long-contested status of the link between smoking and lung cancer. No. www.4. Collins also cautions: “If only genetic factors are considered. in which biological race determines susceptibility to particular diseases. the science-trained commentator here. and draw attention to indirect. which in turn is a surrogate for genetic variation across an individual's genome… Considered in this context. then we should not be satisfied with them as measures of environmental causation either. only genetic factors will be discovered. 12 On the other. and application of the scientific methodology to ‘environmental’ (in other words. cultural. And if we are not satisfied with the use of imperfect surrogates in trying to understand hereditary causes. clinical and research geneticists argue vociferously that self-identified race is only a ‘weak surrogate’ for a host of more complicated factors in morbidity. then we should not be satisfied with them as measures of environmental causation either.com 14 . as the cases of sickle cell anaemia and thalassaemia illustrate.1.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network.gspjournal. It is also evident that a true understanding of disease risk requires us to go well beyond these weak and imperfect proxy relationships. all of which can influence disease risk. Society and Policy. He identifies the flaws in current exclusively genetic models of race and race-linked morbidity. No. Even geneticists adamant that ‘race’ is at best a proxy for authentic sources and markers of genetic difference make assumptions about the (biological and material) nature of those hypothetical authentic signs: On the nongenetic side … race carries with it certain social. behaviours and morbidities. Vol. On one hand. through genetic or nongenetic surrogate relationships or a combination of the two.Genomics. commercial. Sickle cell anaemia (SCA) was first identified as a specific condition in 1910. pp. and indeed some public health models of disease causation often present a far stronger programme.4. the dangers of this approach are all too obvious. they also disrupted historical analyses that have been heavily dependent on the language of science. the public can expect little protection or advice in health matters in the short. educational and economic variables. Vol. with its stress on absolute certainty and one-to-one correlations of cause and effect. it persists. 11 Today.or mediumterm. popular.” History can tell us much about the implications of this kind of gene-thinking. makes several key points. but nonetheless persuasive and relevant links between substances. _____________ Genomics. 14 If only ‘perfect’ data and direct biological links are to be used in health policy making. Epidemiological data necessarily often document proxy relationships.
wrote one British Member of Parliament (well-known for his racist views). Rather. In part through this work on the metaphors and constitutive imagery in genetics and genomics. or pluralist ideas of individual heritage and selfhood. the language of science has been recognized as being more than merely didactic.com 15 . the presence of SCA in a family was taken as irrefutable evidence of ‘Negro blood’ through the 1950s. www. trumping family history. and paradigm-formation.1. historians of science concerned with gender (most influentially Evelyn Fox Keller and Donna Haraway) have used molecular genetics and genomics as sites at which to explore the impact of gender on scientific thought. 21 History may have yet more to gain through tackling ‘geneticization’ head on. Society and Policy. And yet the study of the history of genetics has done much for the histories of science and medicine. and just waiting to be read by genetic and genomic scientists. and identity. and the content of the sciences themselves. No. certainly. smallscale studies identified the condition as genetically linked. racialized stigma remained. self-identification. pp. 18 Even – perhaps especially – after the specific genetic point mutation that produces SCT/SCA had been identified.4.Genomics. It seems likely that the discipline of history stands to lose at least some of the ground it has gained in terms of inclusivity and accessibility – largely through the growth of social history – if we ignore the impact of genetics on popular social and cultural understandings of history and the historical.gspjournal. 20 Today. For example.12-22 sickle cell anaemia triggered little clinical or biological interest. we are at risk of slipping backward.4. risk. By the 1930s. not present in the indigenous population of Great Britain. one written and embedded in the human body itself. No. but by the cellular phenomenon of ‘sickling’ was already established. of returning to models in which the presence or absence of the genetic mutations associated with sickle cell anaemia or thalassaemia determines ‘race’ or ethnicity. geneticists and the human past If the media are to be believed.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. it forms and reveals the intellectual structures through and within which scientists conceive their experimental and disciplinary programmes. and better defined its pathology. 16 By this point. 22 The _____________ Genomics. the trend of identifying the disease not by its symptoms. Only in the 1970s did more nuanced approaches to SCA and other conditions associated with (but not limited to) specific ethnic groups become the norm. genomes. “What steps are being taken”. Vol. including distinctions between sickle cell disease (SCD) and sickle cell trait (SCT). medical anthropology and medical sociology have captured new audiences – particularly in relation to health and science policy – through their direct engagement with the impact of genetics and genomics on lay attitudes towards health. there is a new kind of history out there. Vol. 17 Stigmatized in the US as a sign of African-American ‘racial degeneration’. Society and Policy 2008. can be inherited by the offspring of racially-mixed unions?” 19 The same MP sought the segregation of the national blood banks. programmes of research. “to warn the public as a preventive measure that the debilitating genetic disease known as sickle cell anaemia. Their work substantially enhanced the credibility of gender as a force in the development (and tool for the exploration) of the scientific professions. The headline of a 2005 article in the respected UK newspaper The Guardian was blunt: “All of human history can be written with four letters”. as was a complete identification of the disease with an ‘African’ origin. History through a genetic lens: Genes.
No.gspjournal. 25 As if to confirm claims that human DNA is the ‘archive’ of this new history. genetic work suggests. Society and Policy. like journalists. pp.12-22 body of the article itself reveals the tension inherent in this view. or even material culture or archaeological finds) to do away with ‘prehistory’ and the ‘prehistoric’. Sally Hemings.4. I would argue. the resources created to test claims of Jeffersonian paternity have now yielded new ‘facts’. and some family secrets. Unsurprisingly. these claims had been fiercely denied by Jefferson’s white descendants. oral traditions. It is the study of genetic variation. Finally. which provides concrete evidence about the spread of cultural innovation.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. a new study has found his family comes from the Middle East.1. Under the headline “Starch ‘fuel of human evolution’”. backed up by language and archaeology.” But only a sentence or two later. in the late 1990s. it presents DNA as a historical text that “reveals a lot about human evolution.4. the movements of peoples … the precise links between races. Consider.9 per cent of human evolution which preceded the invention of writing. Experts at the University of Leicester found Jefferson's Y chromosome belongs to the rare 'K2' class. a BBC News story recites a new scientific claim: “Man's ability to digest starchy foods like the potato may explain our success on the planet. DNA testing confirmed the oral historical traditions of one branch of the Jefferson clan that they were the descendants of a child born to Jefferson and his slave. Thomas Jefferson. if only because the use of such claims for mass marketing clearly illustrates the perceived appeal of a ‘scientific’. GCTTCTCGCG. On one hand. Society and Policy 2008. objective. for example the now famous role of genetics in re-writing the history of the third President of the United States of America. and especially.Genomics. this genetically inscribed past is presented as a corrective to the errors and biases of its more traditional analogue. and ignored as either tendentious or merely contentious by many historical texts and textbooks. given US racial politics.” This is hardly the transparent window onto the past that one might have expected from the breathless narrative that preceded it. Sally Hemings. leaning heavily on the traditions of sociobiology. ponder the history of human survival. the computer-generated graphs and the maps was an innocuous string of letters. a complete history. Other accounts.com 16 . 24 It is worth paying attention to this kind of ephemeral material. Vol. It is a powerful indicator of the truth status granted by our society to ‘genetic’ knowledge that the DNA evidence silenced most (though not all) of the dissenting voices that had dominated debate for over 200 years. including a putative Middle Eastern heritage for Jefferson himself: While DNA tests carried out ten years ago famously showed the third US president Thomas Jefferson fathered a child with his slave. too. Vol. The publishers of one recent book confidently asserted: Historians relying on written records can tell us nothing about the 99. www.” 23 Publicists. No. the reporter/protagonist describes the “piece of paper” which seemingly reveals all: “Among the multicoloured lines. First. found in Egypt – and _____________ Genomics. beginning. make much of the power of this new discipline (unlike history based on documents.
he ascribed the problems not to the nature of genetic evidence. www. Memes and Human History: Darwinian Archaeology and Cultural Evolution. But just like the poorly or incompletely interpreted document. Gates took another DNA test. As David Chioni Moore pointed out in 1994. a ‘history’ with periodization often closer to that of geology than of social or political history. Race.4. and an early enthusiast of the new history. Society and Policy 2008. IdentityGenetics. however. Instead of rejecting the approach that had left him with multiple identities. Ideas of racial and ethnic identity are at the heart of this new industry. The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution. by incorporating more traditional historical methods. Vol. Inc.gspjournal. When interviewed by the Wall Street Journal on the subject. Genes.. The companies are quite explicit both abut their target consumer groups. so good: geneticized history steps in to save the day when historical scholarship fails. having run out of conventional historical sources – Gates submitted his DNA for genetic testing. or that the meaning of the concrete evidence it supplies is or ought to be a truth self-evident is as yet unclear. Gates founded a company to do it better.com 17 . A rapidly growing body of (largely popular) work propounds this approach.1. was also an early victim of its flaws.12-22 introduced to Britain thousands of years ago. nor subsequent coverage supplied any interpretation of this new information about Jefferson. 26 Neither the original article. having “come to the end of the paper trail” in his search for the African roots of his own family – in other words. 28 In 2000. _____________ Genomics. One corporate spokesperson argued: “For most African-Americans. eminent Harvard scholar of African American literature.4. Their titles are revealing: Mapping Human History: Genes. Henry Louis Gates Jr. some time later. and the relationship between their services and ‘history’. but we see this as a service to a people who have been cut off from their history and culture. Whether this omission suggests that meaning is beyond the remit of genetic history. No. these apparently transparent physical artifacts can easily become meaningless. Gates agreed that the application of genetics to history was “problematic”. when the very science that ostensibly underpins ‘genetic history’ claims that race does not exist as a biological entity. and Gates’ own AfricanDNA. or even deceitful – artifacts in the biomedical. So far. for a new kind of history. Vol. and was given different results. pp. 27 This history ignores or downplays the evidence and artifacts of culture in favour of molecular biological evidence. No. In each of these examples. but to “the reluctance of some companies to reveal the complexity of the results. rather than the historical sense. there is no paper trail … we make money. or clusters of genes acting as a new kind of historical evidence. African Ancestry. and was promised and then provided with definitive results pinpointing the geographical origins of his ancestors.” 29 The names of the companies too are telling: DNA Tribes.” 30 Surely it behoves historians to examine this phenomenon and ask what analytic categories like ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ mean in their new context – and why they remain so attractive. Society and Policy. we see the gene. and Our Common Origins. One aspect that immediately strikes the historian’s eye is the association between the ‘Roots’ phenomenon of the 1970s (particularly for African Americans) and the emergence of geneticized history. Unfortunately.Genomics.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network.
and here you have the science telling you. genetics and genomics? Are we threatened by this new ‘history from below’ (or by the encroachments of science)? Or have genes just become the new germs – are we merely reproducing the scientific evangelism of our forebears. fictionalized elements. and in medical and forensic genetics. noted the impact that such tests can have on their recipients’ identities: “People are making lifechanging decisions based on these tests and may not be aware of the limitations”. Like many professional historians. the American ethnologists E. but that origin is imbued with the same truth status that we as a society grant to scientifically created knowledge of the natural world in general: that of uncontestable fact. we have become considerably more enthusiastic about family records. Troy Duster. a sociologist who has studied this new marketplace of pasts.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. www. pp. S. and identification. biologically of the same substance. ‘truer’ – but also narrower – history. too. but they are intimately linked. linking them directly and authentically to Africa.4. we risk being blinded to persistent assumptions and prejudices if they are clothed in genetic terms. … [F]amily records are considered of no importance to the larger world of scholarship and science unless related to the lives of distinguished persons. Society and Policy. and the tracing of genealogy are tolerantly humoured but certainly not seriously honoured by historians and scientists. Vol. In 1942.1. I am ambivalent about this newer. I always wanted to know where my ancestors came from before slavery. As Duster points out. who sought a germ for every sickness just as passionately and unreasonably as we seek a gene for every trait? 34 Part of the reason for historical indifference surely lies in the use to which geneticized history is currently being put. No. identity.gspjournal. Because our society currently gives genetic information such a high truth status. Society and Policy 2008. Craighill Handy and Elizabeth G. Not only does genetic testing seem to offer an easier route to discovering a specific ancestral identity.Genomics. No. Anthropologists and sociologists are already exemplifying these problems in. with new hope that they might find an ancestor. Vol.” 32 Roots sent a generation of African Americans in search of their origins. Handy tore their eyes away from Hawaiian culture long enough to wryly observe their own: As a pleasant and harmless form of antiquarianism. 35 The attitude they observed remains a part of historical culture (although thanks to social history. 33 So why have historians generally ignored this phenomenon in their explorations of the gene. with the tools of ‘genetic history’. the study of family history. for example. and fabrications that soon surrounded Roots undermined that optimism and highlighted how difficult and dubious historical genealogy could be. and rather less exclusively concerned with ‘distinguished persons’). biography. The very technology that tells us what _____________ Genomics. 31 As the actor Isaiah Washington noted of his own DNA ancestry test “I remember watching ‘Roots’ when I was young and it stuck with me.12-22 scholars across the humanities have yet to engage with the social and cultural impact of Alex Haley’s novel Roots (and the 1970s television series based on it). The controversies about plagiarism.com 18 . studies of the new reproductive technologies.4. But it is only a part of the answer. There is a yet more ominous and troubling element of the reliance upon DNA analysis to determine who we are in terms of lineage.
linear. and also can be revealed by it. Society and Policy 2008. I was stunned to discover so prominent among them this idea that you could research your family history through genetic testing. Professional historians can also engage with this biological past creatively and productively. we say that history and historical outcomes are contingent and relative. is a return to narrative – albeit a narrative outside of time to all intents and purposes. www. to the great detriment of those treated with ineffective sera. looking for the different kinds of connections being made between the constructs ‘gene’ and ‘history’. The gene has heightened the profile of what might called the historical mindset: the idea that the past is connected to the present.1. Thus another crucial element for historians to observe about the ‘genetic turn’ in history is that the ascendance of genetic explanations. is polysemic – we just have to render that complexity comprehensible and satisfying. We need not simply dismiss it as old wine in new bottles. in part by rooting itself so far in the past that the data have already been thoroughly winnowed. This is by no means a justification for writing poorer.4.Genomics. shapes it. proportionately. . Occam’s Razor notwithstanding. reified. One difficulty professional historians have had in presenting satisfying representations of the past is not unlike the problem mathematicians – and indeed medical geneticists – have in explaining risk: just as they say that risk is probabilistic.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network.com 19 . No. and they have been retrospectively diagnosed as racist sciences.. History is complicated. and crucially. _____________ Genomics.. the past is not erased by progress. germ theory and eugenic sociobiology were applied to explain every human disease. knowledge-workers tend to enjoy complexity and to see it as signifying a richer and more accurate account of reality. pp.12-22 proportion of our ancestry can be linked. to subSaharan Africa (ancestry-informative markers) is the same being offered to police stations around the [USA] to “predict” or “estimate” whether the DNA left at a crime scene belongs to a white or black person. self-replicating. I meandered the far-flung tendrils of the web. But it casts light on a broader problem for the discipline. While researching this piece. Here. Society and Policy. as is the ideal in many other sciences and scientific tropes – but it is encased in amber. But there is a break in the narrative flow of cause and effect when things get ‘complicated’. simpler. With the demonstrable skew of the incarcerated population over the last few decades along social categories of race. This “ethnic estimation” using DNA relies on a social definition of the phenotype. Vol. is contingent. particularly in relation to human traits and familial morbidity. African-Americans need to be particularly sensitive to the use of phenotype as the starting point for understanding genotype. or stigmatized as ‘unfit to breed’ (or ‘lives not worth living’). it becomes the job of historians to point out the fact that we are repeating a pattern into which we have slipped before – and with no very positive outcome. and thus in individual cases uncertain.4. artificially linear history. Phrenological and anthropometric approaches to the modelling of race were also once the acme of modern science. Vol. 36 Under these circumstances. No. The new genetic history bridges that chasm.gspjournal.
www. Cambridge UK. and M. Durham. pp. R. Kay. 1997. Vol. The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany. see P. 2007. Nash. New York: Columbia University Press. Kevles and L. 1988. The social and economic origins of genetic determinism: a case history if the American Eugenics Movement.B. Duke University Press. 2007. Alfred A. for an excellent review of work specifically addressing ‘genetic kinship’. 2005. J. K. Hood. J.mpiwgberlin. Routledge. Reproducing the Future: Essays on Anthropology. Kinship and the New Reproductive Technologies.mpg. Stanford. Philadelphia. Franklin & S.html. Refiguring Life: Metaphors of Twentieth-century Biology. Duke University Press. 18 (1): 1–33. see A. 1500-1870. 5 For example. Staffan Müller-Wille. Irvine. New York.H. N. VA. Urbana: 2 1 _____________ Genomics. Oxford University Press. and Culture. M. 1995. McKinnon.. Creating Born Criminals: Biological Theories of Crime and Eugenics. are available online as preprint 343 at http://www.J. Cambridge.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. which strove to achieve the same ends – a better. Genetica 1997. Proctor.Genomics. Heredity Produced: At the Crossroads of Biology. R. and Christina Brandt have in recent years led a series of collaborative workshops aimed at defining 'A Cultural History of Heredity'. 1992. Harvard University Press. Society and Policy. E. 1900-1940 and its lessons for today. H. E. 2000. eds. 1986. L. Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code. Brazil.4. Kevles. Müller-Wille & H. and even happier human race – via encouraging ‘superior’ individuals to pair and produce many children. Princeton: Princeton University Press. healthier. Oxford University Press. Finkler. Kaye. Hans-Jörg Rheinberger. London: Yale University Press. Cambridge University Press. of attempts to improve the human race or breeding stock through eliminating those humans regarded as inferior. Experiencing the New Genetics: Family and Kinship on the Medical Frontier. MIT Press. op. See for example. D. 1990. Fox Keller.1. Code of Codes: Scientific and Social Issues in the Human Genome Project. those who work in the interdisciplinary nexus of science and technology studies. Cultural Studies 2004. Politics. Negative eugenics is usually contrasted to positive eugenics. Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Study.78).-J. eds. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. S. Rheinberger. New York. Cardiff School of History and Archaeology. Franklin. 2000.uk In particular. Beyond the Gene: Cytoplasmic Inheritance and the Struggle for Authority in Genetics. VA. New York & London: Routledge. 99: 77-88 (p. and Russia. as well as a geographer’s perspective on the new ‘genetic genealogy’ I discuss in section 2. D. Minna Stern. more specifically related to the gene. see Allen. Fox Keller. 2001. Here I must also note a approach which has come to my attention too late for inclusion here. Durham. Rheinberger. No. Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy. UK bivinsre@cardiff. S. ed. MA. Gender and Science. Falk & H. Stanford University Press. 1985. J. The Social Meaning of Modern Biology: From Social Darwinism to Sociobiology. and Mary Wren Bivins for their valuable comments on this piece. The Concept of the Gene in Development and Evolution: Historical and Epistemological Perspectives.gspjournal. Knopf. Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America. 2005. 1992. Harvard University Press. 1987. University of Pennsylvania Press. No. Reardon.de/en/research/preprints. Berkeley. New York. Oxford. 3 G. I should note here also the highly pertinent contributions of geographer Catherine Nash. Cambridge MA. Allen. Rafter. Genetic kinship.ac.-J. Further essays.J. Racial hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. note 3. One volume of essays arising from this collaboration has now been published: S. CA. Adams. Society and Policy 2008. E. Strathern. eds. the speakers and audience who attended the Cardiff University Centre for Applied Ethics 2007 workshop “What is special about the gene?”. Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics. CA. MA. 1992. For an intriguing overview of the many different paths of eugenics in the US. 6 That is. The Wellek Library Lecture Series at the University of California.com 20 . Cambridge. University of California Press.12-22 Acknowledgements I would like to thank the anonymous referees. France. Cardiff University. or as likely to produce inferior progeny. Beurton. 4 Exemplars include L. cit. 7 Among many examples of this historical approach.N. Secrets of Life/Secrets of Death: Essays on Language. 2000. eds.4. Sapp. See C. Vol.
The Role of Foundations in International Population Studies. 2007. This explanation. 1992. Gender and Science: Origin.cit. and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America. London. D. No. and G. 10: 263-89. Isis 1986. M. each form of which confers some selective advantage). Drawing Blood. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 36 Published online: 26 October 2004.B. ‘Sickle-cell anaemia -. Gould. 16 Sickle cell anaemia is now recognized as the homozygous form of a balanced genetic polymorphism (pratically speaking. New York. What we do and don't know about ‘race’. op. of course. Secrets of Death: Essays on Language. op. K. include capillary engorgement.1. McGraw-Hill. Tapper.the first molecular disease’ in M. www. San Francisco. Pure and Eloquent: a story of discovery.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. Harvard University Press. op. Knopf. Accessed 08/09/2007 at http://www.html 13 Ibid. 1975. The Hour of Eugenics: Race. E. 15 For a history of sickle-cell’s biomedical discovery and elucidation. infections. A “disease sui generis”: the origins of sickle cell anemia and the emergence of modern clinical research. cit. E. Cambridge. New York. Ashes to Ashes: America's Hundred-Year Cigarette War. 2000. For a brief case study of the role of gendered language in shaping experiments in early bacterial genetics (illustrating _____________ Genomics. The Mismeasure of Man. Comparative Studies in Society and History 1995. The Century of the Gene. 1997. Fox Keller. 1997. 9 See for example. copyright Meets_OncoMouse trademark: Feminism and Technoscience. Secrets of Life.J. Allen. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (Norton Critical Editions). N. note 15. 19 The Minster of Health answered rather evasively.gspjournal. Stepan. P. leg ulcers. 1998. Society and Policy 2008. Albany: State University of New York Press. “None. pp. genetics and the new racial science.4.com/ng/journal/v36/n11s/full/ng1436. People who are heterozygous for at the sickle cell locus have no symptoms of the disease. see D. 8 For an overview and critique of biological determinism. Wailoo. and Science. Norton. The Politics of Heredity: Essays on Eugenics. Politics. For an alternative perspective. 14 For a history. A. New York. but can pass the trait to their children. Race and Gender: The Role of Analogy in Science. a trait that exists in multiple forms in a population. or people and of ideas. 319-37.nature. and Politics. cit. E. see Reardon. 1991. R. Rosalind Franklin and DNA. New York.4. See also K. Nature Genetics 2004.W. see C. Journal of the History of Biology 1984. araway. 12 F. Blood. note 2. Modernising Eugenics. her second chapter ‘Post World War II Expert Discourse on Race’. Brandt. ‘ethnicity’. 1996. University of North Carolina Press. who in chapter 2 offers valuable examples form the scientific literature. and the Nature-Nurture Debate. Fox Keller. 1997. pp.S Collins. Weindling.12-22 University of Illinois Press. Society and Policy. Wailoo. 1983.” See The National Archives (UK) MH159/121. Wailoo. Osiris 1995 (2nd Series). Norton. Dying in the City of the Blues: Sickle Cell Anemia and the Politics of Race and Health. 37: 76-93. New York. W. 2001. 10: 26-38. see A. Wintrobe. Fall. 17 (1): 141-145. 10 See Reardon. Johns Hopkins University Press: 134-161. No. Gender. 1940-1952. Basic Books.Fox Keller. Technology and Disease Identity in Twentieth Century America. Interrogating Bodies: Medico-Racial Knowledge. 65: 185-208. Sickle cell anaemia can occur in children only where both parents carry the necessary mutant gene. Wailoo. Social History of Medicine. and the Study of a Disease. 167-179. 11 Again. The Roots of Biological Determinism.Fox Keller.com 21 . 1980. Biomedicine. The Johns Hopkins University Press. fit well with US (and to a lesser degree UK) convictions about the dangers of miscegenation and racial mixing. Vol. Norton & Company with J. Drawing Blood Technology and Disease Identity in Twentieth-Century America. K. note 2. A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. 1981 (originally published 1968). Chapel Hill. M. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 1991. MD. Conley. Tapper. Sayre. Watson. thrombosis and a range of long-term sequelae including organ damage. Emphasis added. Gender and Nation in Latin America. Routledge. Freeman. W. New York: W. Routledge. An “anthropathology” of the “American Negro”: anthropology. see S. 17 The symptoms of sickle cell anaemia. Leys Stepan. esp. History. 20 See Wailoo. MA. N. and compare. 21 See for examples. as well as the anaemia itself and the painful crises. Femaleman. 1996. 18 K. 1997. Baltimore. Alfred A. Baltimore. The Public Health & The Unabashed Triumph of Phillip Morris.D. Paul. Vol. 1904-1924. 77: 261-277. E. Kluger. genetics and health at the dawn of the genome era. Minerva 2002. The Cigarette Century: The Rise.Genomics.
S. and Our Common Origins. 28 R. The Gospel of Germs: Men. op. Elliott and P.2007). Winstein. for a contemporary perspective on the phenomenon. and the Microbe in American Life. Sex Cells: Gender and the Language of Bacterial Genetics. Race. Tomes. Ergorova & T. Penguin Press Science. 23 http://news. note 18. eds. See also C. Routledge. S. 34 For examples of the public’s enthusiastic embrace of the germ. see N.bbc. and Y. Mapping Human History: Genes. 2002. and dissenting views. 27 L.cit. April 28. 30 As quoted in Nixon. Deep Roots and Tangled Branches. Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution. see J. Duster. Emphasis added.E. Longview Institute. op. See its homepage at http://www. 33: 113-139. L. 31 D.pbs. DNA reveals president’s slave child. cit. Onuf. Wall Street Journal (November 15.1.12-22 some of the strengths and the weaknesses of the linguistic turn in the history of science). 25 For a fuller account of this case. 22: 381-388 (p. Vol.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. Harvard University Press. Nixon. Memory and Civic Culture. 32 Nixon. cit. op. From His Story to Our Story: A Review of “Roots”. MA. Cambridge. November 25 2007).org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/ 26 Anonymous. note 18. Chioni Moore. Genes. 64: 4-21. including documentary and biological evidence. The Journal of Negro Education 1977.longviewinstitute.uk 10/09/07 24 Cover text. Cavalli-Sforza. note 2. Peoples and Languages.co. www. D5. Harvard's Gates Refines Genetic-Ancestry Searches for Blacks. 35 E.J. Handy. Metro (30/03/2007). pp. Brodwin.com 22 . The Guardian. Routes. 29 K.L. No. Houghton Mifflin. cit. No.L. Memes and Human History: Darwinian Archaeology and Cultural Evolution. Transition 1994. Arnez. 33 Nixon. New York. Olson. note 18. chronology.S.4. DNA Tests Find Branches But No Roots. New York. Accessed 09/12/2008 at www. 36 T. Women. London. Craighill Handy and E. Rare Match. British Medical Journal 2002.Genomics. Lewis & P. London. op. Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History. see R. which responds to the establishment of the first commercial genetic ancestry testing company.L Cavalli-Sforza.G.org/research/duster/deeproots _____________ Genomics. 2002. 1469–1471. 1999. Parfitt. Journal for the History of Biology 2000. London: Thames & Hudson. Society and Policy.gspjournal. 22 Alok Jha. 325 (7378). Addison-Wesley. William and Mary Quarterly 1942.386). 46 (3): 367-372. 2005. 1998. Vol. S. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. 1995. Genetics. Genealogy and Genetics. This example was also disseminated to far wider audiences through the medium of a Public Broadcasting Service television series. New York Times (Business. 2001. Bivins. Genes. Shennan. Identity and genetic ancestry tracing. See N. Society and Policy 2008. See also Nash. 2006.4. Mass Media and Identity: A Case Study of the Genetic Research on the Lemba and Bene Israel. All of human history can be written with four letters.
In its 1996 ‘Statement on Race’.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network.23-37 When biology goes underground: genes and the spectre of race 1 TIM INGOLD 2 Abstract This paper examines the changing meanings of the concept of ‘biology’. These shifts in meaning correspond to phases in the history of anthropology. for there is no getting around the fact that the discipline owes its origins. Society and Policy. it is argued.1. identified here as the Enlightenment phase (culture as a process of civilisation drawing on universal biopsychological capacities). on the other. members of a particular species. This kind of thinking had its origins in the moral evaluation of physical difference. 4 There was a period. Vol. as social beings or persons on the one hand. from around 1870 to 1920. to the virulent racism of the late nineteenth century. The problems we face are formidable. pp.4.4. when anthropology quite explicitly identified itself as the study of the different races of mankind. and like to trace their origins to the work of great scholars of the past.com 23 .Genomics. namely that of ‘race’. To introduce the problem. Society and Policy 2008. and of its opposition to ‘culture’. relational approach that focuses on the dynamics of developmental systems. Anthropologists are less fortunate. the Consensual phase (culture as diverse traditions inscribed upon a common biological substrate) and the Interactionist phase (behaviour as the product of an interaction between culturally and genetically transmitted information in a given environment). and as biological organisms. Only through such an approach. only serve to perpetuate raciological thinking. Vol. Introduction For some years now. can we wrest biology away from the combination of geneticism and essentialism that continues to perpetuate the logic of raciology even in the course of its vehement denial. I want to begin by unpacking what has surely been one of the most sensitive notions in the whole history of anthropology. Most academic disciplines are proud of their history. The paper seeks an alternative. 3 This also means trying to overcome the division in the way we tend to see ourselves. between the world of nature and the world of human society. the construction of hierarchy and essentialist typology. www. No. so deeply entrenched in western thought and science. Much of the difficulty stems from the inherent ‘slipperiness’ of our concepts. I have been seeking a way of understanding the relations between human beings and their environments that allows us to overcome the separation.gspjournal. and none are more slippery than the concepts of biology and culture. Efforts to redefine all extant humans as belonging to a single sub-species. or to replace ‘race’ with ‘culture’. Indeed this is still how the subject is often popularly portrayed. and along with many anthropological colleagues. the American Association of Physical Anthropologists ruled out any connection between the biological and cultural characteristics of human beings. No. For today’s _____________ Genomics. through an analysis of the ways in which anthropologists have sought to refute the idea that humanity is divided into distinct races. very largely. Yet the statement is internally inconsistent in the meanings it attributes to both biology and culture.
It is to claim not just that race exists. but rather to confirm it. No. at one and the same time. spreading north from Africa. overran the continent of Europe at the expense of its indigenous Neanderthal population. both rejecting the idea of race while holding on to the idea that humanity is segmented into discrete cultures. by descent. Thus the reasons that anthropologists latterly adduced for the existence of separate cultures – namely. once and for all. To say that all humans are of one race is not to dismiss the concept of race itself. The first is by declaring that all humankind comprises just one race or sub-species. anthropological orthodoxy swung to the view that it is divided into distinct cultures. Vol.com 24 . lead straight back to the existence of race. www. Vol. that the members of a culture share a common essence or heritage that is passed on by descent – would. Homo sapiens sapiens (or ‘anatomically modern humans’. is almost a precise mirror image of the nineteenth century story of the how white Europeans were destined to colonise and subjugate the ‘primitive races’ of black Africa. coupled with the notion that this essence is passed on genealogically – that is.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. They would like to put it behind them. It is that the arguments they have used to refute the idea that humanity is divided into distinct races still carry with them the germs of the very kind of thinking they claim to demolish. in turn. No.gspjournal. how it shapes attitudes towards the self and others. of how superior creatures of our own race.Genomics. so that as students of society we have to confront the questions of what people mean by race. But does this amount to an acknowledgement that race does not exist? Far from it. Yet somehow the spectre of race continues to haunt them. We cannot have it both ways. and how these.4.1. 6 What the new story has in common with the old is the belief in a shared essence. superimposed upon a human nature that is common to all. pp. is rather less comfortable. Society and Policy 2008. The story that is told by modern science. One reason for this is obvious: we live in a world in which racism is still rampant. 7 But the logic of this division remains precisely the same. this image is a source of continuing embarrassment. all other sub-species (such as the ill-fated Neanderthals) having long since been reduced to extinction. 5 By and large. that makes us what we are. as they are known by specialists). that is by simply replacing the word ‘race’ with the word ‘culture’. or common human nature. Homo sapiens sapiens. But there is another reason which. only the mechanism of genealogical transmission has been changed – from genetic inheritance to social learning. but that in the prehistoric past – though no longer today – there were indeed distinct races of mankind. why the idea still exercises such a hold on the imagination. 8 _____________ Genomics.23-37 anthropologists. if applied in the realm of biological variation. For the reasons why races don’t exist are also the reasons why cultures don’t exist. however. The problem for contemporary anthropology is that any critique of the concept of race that would really carry conviction would. Society and Policy. Nor is this combination of essentialism and genealogical thinking in any way shaken by the second way in which modern anthropology has tackled the problem of race. Instead of saying that humanity is divided into distinct races. bear upon the experience of social life. have to be a critique of the concept of culture as well. for anthropologists. anthropologists have tried to deal with the problem of race in two ways.4.
as anthropologist Eric Wolf puts it. as in ‘the human race’. during the heyday of European colonial expansion. ‘has presided over homicide and genocide’. as we have seen in recent movements of ‘ethnic cleansing’.23-37 From race to raciology But I have run ahead of myself. Vol.1. race is still popularly used as a synonym for species. Mongoloid. ‘The race concept’. or that arguments about concepts are mere word-play for academics. Of course. Negroid. peoples or ethnic groups. Yet for anyone who still believes that concepts are immaterial.4.com 25 . the construction of hierarchy. The root meaning is one of common descent. cultures. It is indeed worth reflecting on the reasons why those who are adamant in their rejection of the race concept are nevertheless happy to embrace the concept of culture.Genomics. 9 One might add that the concept of culture has had historical consequences that are scarcely less devastating. Society and Policy. And in the same sense. The etymological source of the word ‘race’ has been traced – albeit somewhat inconclusively – to the Latin generare (to beget) and generatio (generation). to discover how the idea of race came to be so deeply embedded in the political and intellectual milieu within which anthropology first took shape as a distinct discipline. No. pp. the notion of race gathered additional connotations that converted it from a merely descriptive term into one that carried an exceedingly potent moral and political charge. such that higher races would inevitably win out in what came to be seen as a ‘struggle for existence’. race has meant many things to many people. Usages of this kind. in much the same sense that we might now talk about nations. Roughly speaking. these connotations had their origins in three lines of thought: i) It was supposed that people’s physical appearance or type was an index of their temperament or moral disposition. and so on – to which every living individual represented a more or less close approximation. intelligent or stupid. for each race there was supposed to correspond an essential form of the human being – Caucasoid. It is in this sense that. or shared genealogical origin.4. Vol. We need to take a step back.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. the invidious role that notions of race have played in the history of humanity must surely prove otherwise. ii) It was assumed that different types could be arranged in a single hierarchy from inferior to superior. though perhaps rather loose. www. divorced from the struggles of the real world. Society and Policy 2008. are relatively harmless. so that one could read off what people were like – good or bad. No. honest or crafty. and essentialist typology – were together responsible for the climate of _____________ Genomics.gspjournal. on almost exactly the same terms. at least until quite recently. one could often find authors – for example of popular travel books – talking about the ‘races of men’ inhabiting this territory or that country. However in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. like all concepts that touch a raw nerve in human history. iii) Every race was thought to represent a type in the strict sense: that is to say. These three tendencies – the moral evaluation of physical difference. active or passive – from the way they looked.
to claim that the very notion of intelligence is an invention of western discourse. For this to be so there would have to be significant differences in average intelligence between populations. claims to have shown that the underlying assumptions of racist thinking. then you would find no neat correspondence but an apparently chaotic tangle of intersecting gradients. even if it really were the case that a person’s level of intelligence is genetically determined. But let us suppose – just for the sake of argument – that there is such a thing as intelligence. are alien to their experience.23-37 racism within which the discipline of anthropology emerged and which is now a source of such shame. the map looks quite different. First of all. and that it corresponds to nothing real that could be objectively measured. Although suggestions to this effect have been made from time to time. The lines on the chart are contours indicating temperature gradients. Vol. of course. no basis for a division of humankind into defined sub-groups on the basis of hereditary characteristics. racial essentialism – the belief that human beings come in a number of fixed ‘racial types’ – was shown to be incompatible with Darwinian evolutionary theory. Modern evolutionary biologists are concerned not with the enumeration of distinct types but with the mapping of genetic distributions. I think. Society and Policy. Society and Policy 2008. No. or. on the other. most anthropologists would be inclined to place more emphasis on nurture than nature. Again. Consider for example the hotly disputed criterion of intelligence.gspjournal. Vol. though for my part I think the whole nature/nurture debate is misconceived. Moreover there is no evidence to suggest that extant human populations can be ranked in terms of any criterion of superiority or inferiority. then. it would rest on so many undemonstrable assumptions – namely _____________ Genomics. Likewise. There still remains the question of the extent to which a person’s intelligence is a function of genetic inheritance on the one hand. 11 Many anthropologists would probably want to go even further. And even if such evidence could be adduced. that would still not mean that intelligence varied by race. showing tomorrow’s expected temperatures. 12 there is no evidence whatever to support them. No. Are some populations more intelligent than others? The majority of contemporary anthropologists would. take the view that there is no way of measuring intelligence that is not culture-bound.4. If you were to superimpose maps for a range of different characters.1.Genomics. 10 have no scientific credibility. of the environmental circumstances in which he or she was brought up. genetic distribution maps use contours to depict graded variations in the percentage of the population that carries a particular character. But for every character you might select. If children from other cultures do badly in intelligence tests devised by western psychologists and educationalists. www. I myself am of this opinion. For any particular gene or characteristic. This point seems incontrovertible.) However. this is simply because the ways in which the problems are set.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. (Later on. I shall explain why. they are not absolute boundaries between hot and cold. There is. pp. Modern scholarship. or of what Wolf calls ‘raciology’. and that you can use standard testing procedures to measure it. this map resembles the kind of chart we see every day on the television weather forecast. and indeed the whole institutional apparatus of the ‘test’ with its attendant technologies and authority structures.com 26 .4.
Vol. This separation or detachment of the cultural from the biological dimensions of human being effectively split anthropology itself into the two quite distinct divisions of physical (or biological) anthropology on the one hand. the absolute separation of biological variation and cultural difference has been central to the anthropological refutation of raciology.gspjournal. The crucial passage is reproduced in full below: There is no necessary concordance between biological characteristics and culturally defined groups.Genomics. there are diverse populations that differ in language. 13 So far as most anthropologists were concerned.1. And the source of the incoherence lies in fundamental ambiguities surrounding the meanings of both ‘biology’ and ‘culture’. and social (or cultural) anthropology on the other. declared unequivocally that ‘any attempt to explain cultural form on a purely biological basis is doomed to failure’. that was that. the statement is largely incoherent. once and for all. with the result that there is often some degree of correspondence between the distribution of physical traits on the one hand and that of linguistic and cultural traits on the other. temperament and behaviour that are generally bracketed under the rubric of ‘culture’. Ever since. The present consensus. human beings who speak the same language and share the same culture frequently select each other as mates. There is. Vol. Right from the early decades of the twentieth century.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. biological and sociocultural anthropologists have proceeded quite independently of one another – addressing apparently different problems. turns on the issue of the relation – or rather the lack of it – between the biological or physical characteristics of human beings and those aspects of morality. There is no national. Society and Policy. economy. and that it has a significant innate component – as to be virtually meaningless. www.4. religious. as I shall show. however. However. that it can be measured by standard tests. absolutely no connection between the biological and cultural characteristics of human beings. pp. that whatever biological differences may exist between people. and therefore it is not justifiable to attribute cultural characteristics to the influence of genetic inheritance.com 27 . is summed up in the formal ‘statement on race’ recently adopted by the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. 14 Evidently the intent of the statement is to draw a line under the whole issue: to make it clear. collecting different kinds of data and speaking different conceptual languages. some of them mutually compatible. they are of absolutely no consequence so far as their acquisition of culture is concerned. In 1930 the acknowledged founder of American cultural anthropology. No. and culture. Franz Boas. Unfortunately however. culture and the ‘statement on race’ A much more tricky problem.4. others _____________ Genomics. on both sides of this academic divide.23-37 that intelligence exists. linguistic or cultural group or economic class that constitutes a race. according to this statement. Society and Policy 2008. On every continent. A glance through the recent (and not so recent) literature reveals a host of different senses of biology and the biological. Biology. But there is no known causal linkage between these physical and behavioural traits. No.
as a property of a higher-level entity. skating or cycling is cultural. Vol.4. of course.Genomics. then ‘biological characteristics’ must belong to individuals. The manual gesture of hand-shaking.4. which asserts that ‘there is no necessary concordance between biological characteristics and culturally defined groups’. 17 Biology is simply taken to mean what all human beings have in common – a sort of ‘lowest common denominator’ for the species – as distinct from those characteristics in which they differ. namely society. and something inherently individualising in our thinking about minds and organisms. But the statement then carries on to make a distinction between ‘physical traits on the one hand and … cultural traits on the other’. An emphasis on the behaviour of individuals rather than higher-order social groupings. by a shared corpus of rules and meanings. to five. This is to move to another (and in the history of American anthropology. A search for what is universal to the human species rather than variable between populations. Thus culture came to be seen as an essentially collective phenomenon. which I summarise below. A Darwinian explanatory paradigm of adaptation under natural selection. the individual was left as a residually biopsychological entity. were thought to define the limits of society.1.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. 15 They can be reduced. all difference is due to culture. then. while anthropologists and sociologists study groups. 16 And this thinking seems to be confirmed in the first sentence of the passage I cited from the ‘statement on race’. There seems to be something inherently ‘groupy’ in our thinking about society and culture. From this logic stemmed the idea that biologists and psychologists study individuals. is by no means universal. it appears to set out from the third of these senses of the biological. For example. to suppose that the members of a society or community are united by their possession of a common culture – that is. As everything cultural was. Let me pause to explain this sense a little further. so to speak. However as soon as _____________ Genomics. Or again. or some cultural analogue of the same. If we return to the ‘statement on race’. The limits of sharing. whereas swimming. It has long been conventional. Biology can mean: i) ii) iii) iv) v) A focus on the basic capacities and dispositions that humans have in common with other animals (especially non-human primates). www. as opposed to learning-transmitted. Vol. pp. ‘creamed off’ to this higher level. however. earlier) notion of culture as a property of individuals. now distinguished from biology in terms of a logic of sameness and difference. among humans.com 28 . walking is said to be biological. on the other hand. it might be argued that the facial gesture we call the smile is found among all humans everywhere: it is therefore a ‘biological’ or ‘physical’ trait.23-37 directly contradictory. A concern with the discovery of genetic. No. so it is assumed to be a ‘cultural’ trait. This corresponds to the second of the five senses of the biological listed above. over and above the level in which human beings exist as individual organisms.gspjournal. in social and cultural anthropology. influences on behaviour. Society and Policy 2008. If groups are defined by their possession of shared culture. Society and Policy. with an existence and a form of consciousness of its own. a simple corollary of the assumption that. No. The identification of the biological with what is universal is.
beginning with its conception and ending with its death. Society and Policy. biology is supposed to be the source of all variability and difference. is what we see: the organism as it actually appears to an observer. by contrast. analogous to the genetic programme but transmitted by an alternative mechanism of inheritance – namely. by contrast. hidden away in the nucleus of every cell of the body. It speaks of the difference between ‘physical traits’ and ‘behavioural traits’.gspjournal. in the sense that currently concerns us. biology is taken to be what makes everyone the same. So ‘culture’ is now to be read as ‘behaviour’. not as phenotypic behaviour. Now it is not just ‘biology’ that has gone underground.4. or more specifically with genetic inheritance. the way is opened for an alternative view of culture. as it were. the latter to their outwardly observable effects.Genomics. social learning. The phenotype. what it looks like) and the behavioural (the activity of the organism. the genes.com 29 . Hence we arrive at the fifth and final sense of the ‘biological’ in our list. Rather than referring to phenotypic traits that all humans have in common. plays no part in the evolutionary process. referring to genetic as opposed to learning-transmitted influences on behaviour.1.4. The formation of the phenotype. 18 The genotype is an underlying programme for constructing an organism of a certain kind. No. And it is the genotype that is supposed to evolve through changes in the frequency of its information-bearing elements. There are two dimensions to the phenotype: the morphological (the outward form of the organism. the inner programme at the heart of each human organism.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. pp. The logic of the theory rests on the assumption that elements of the genotype alone can be passed from one generation to the next. This shift has to be understood in terms of a distinction that is central to the whole explanatory framework of modern biology: between genotype and phenotype. Vol. 19 Thus the _____________ Genomics. what it is observed to do). To emphasise the analogy with genes. That is why we end up with the curiously contradictory positions that whereas in the human world. the genes. is simply the human phenotype in its behavioural aspect. neoDarwinian) perspective. This identification of culture with the behavioural phenotype paves the way for biology. and is thought to be encoded in the materials of heredity. it is confined within the life-cycle of each individual organism. No. ‘Culture’. in the non-human world. but as an underlying programme for behaviour. Vol. A distinction is introduced between culture and behaviour. that assumption ceases to apply. situated within a particular environment. augmented in the so-called ‘modern synthesis’ of twentieth century biology through an alliance with population genetics. Thus the notion that culture is phenotypic whereas biology is genotypic takes us to the fourth of the senses of ‘biological’ listed above: the sense that equates biology with a Darwinian (or more strictly. The source of the genotype/phenotype dichotomy lies in the Darwinian theory of variation under natural selection. the former referring to underlying rules and instructions (analogous to the genetic programme). it comes to be identified with the genotype. The statement then shifts its terms yet again. to ‘go underground’. many writers have taken to calling the elements of transmitted culture by the term ‘memes’ – a term coined by biologist and popular science writer Richard Dawkins. Society and Policy 2008. biology comes to be identified with the genes. www. but culture also. Once.23-37 we turn to non-human species. however. which are not supposed to have any culture.
he was not – or at least not yet – racist in his views. as set out in his monumental Primitive Culture of 1871. Society and Policy. I shall first outline each of these phases. a position with which Darwin himself _____________ Genomics. was founded on the doctrine of the ‘psychic unity of mankind’. analogous to the genes they carry in their bodies. one set of genetically transmitted programme elements (genes). since his brain simply wasn’t big enough to accommodate it. Some advocates of so-called ‘social Darwinism’ went so far as to argue that. Looking at the whole passage from the ‘statement on race’. I call these the Enlightenment phase. according to which all humans are alike in their basic potentials but differ in the degree to which these potentials are realised. but these capacities remained unfulfilled. It is possible to correlate these shifts. had all the necessary capacities to enable them to be civilised. Primitive people. then it becomes a property of individuals (referring to attributes in which they differ rather than those they have in common). First culture is identified as a property of groups (as opposed to individuals). but also that it continually shifts the goal-posts as regards the definition of culture. Darwin had argued that culture could only be as advanced as the brains that produce it.gspjournal. This is not. it should now be clear not only that it appeals to several notions of the biological or physical. From this point of view the biological part of man. No.4. Vol. Tylor changed his mind. however. otherwise known as ‘human nature’. In what follows. And when the ‘statement on race’ ends by opposing ‘cultural characteristics’ to ‘genetic inheritance’. Society and Policy 2008. following the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man. dating from the middle of the eighteenth century. The brains of ‘civilised nations’. constitutes a universal baseline for cultural development that has taken humanity from its primitive hunter-gatherer past to modern science and civilisation. it should be said. www. in the same measure that the latter were superior to the brains of apes. A decade later. It is important to stress that although Tylor was indubitably ethnocentric. Thus there was no way in which the savage could be educated into civilisation. he thought. the Consensual phase and the Interactionist phase. that have characterised successive phases in the history of anthropology.4. in judging every culture by the standards of western civilisation and in placing his own society unequivocally at the top of the scale. Vol. the best way to promote the advance of human civilisation was to do everything possible to hasten their demise. he thought.23-37 human being receives. This was Edward Tylor’s view. with three ways of thinking about the distinction – and the relation – between biology and culture. it draws directly on this notion of culture as intergenerationally transmitted information.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. No.com 30 . albeit rather roughly. and then go on to conclude by suggesting how a focus on human development might at last allow us to move beyond the distinction between biological and cultural dimensions of human existence. and another set of learning-transmitted programme elements (memes). down the line from its ancestors. since primitive peoples were destined to lose out in the struggle for existence. pp.1.Genomics. and finally it is identified with particles of heritable information that individuals are supposed to carry in their heads. From civilisation to consensus The Enlightenment phase. were superior to those of ‘barbarous tribes’.
No. that established what was to be the anthropological orthodoxy for years to come. Vol. and that heredity could account for nothing at all. is ‘a tablet that is written upon’: nature provides the tablet. culture the message that is written. Vol.1. arguing that the conditions of upbringing were everything. Galton had published an influential book entitled Engish men of science: their nature and nurture. but rather by factoring out behavioural traits that are apparently common to all human groups. which sought to improve the human race through controlled breeding. 24 Others took up the argument on the side of nurture. 23 In this view. the essence of human nature was to be found not by stripping away the accumulated achievements of culture to reveal the natural man beneath. Those traits. ‘Man’. or of culture having reached different degrees of development. 21 Kroeber insisted that cultural phenomena were ‘superorganic’ in the sense that they existed on a distinct and higher plane of reality with emergent properties of its own. Today Kroeber’s work.23-37 concurred. www. pp.4. the Japanese and the Australian Aborigines belong to nature. It is simply a matter of the inscription of different cultural messages upon the same basic substrate. 22 That. In 1917 one of the leading anthropologists of the day.Genomics. for example. Kroeber. is the foundation for what I call (following Clifford Geertz) the consensual view of the distinction between human biology and culture. And these differences were thought to be imprinted upon a common substrate of biological universals. Kroeber and his contemporaries argued that cultures could not be ranked higher or lower on any single scale. particularly in the United States. Francis Galton. Rather. published a paper under the title ‘The Superorganic’. most biologists and anthropologists now take the view that behaviour cannot be described as one thing or the other. It is not a matter of having more or less culture. as due to either nature or nurture. Society and Policy.4.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. they say.gspjournal. Interaction and development Kroeber was writing during the heyday of the so-called nature-nurture controversy – a controversy that was originally formulated in these terms by Darwin’s cousin. Racial categories could only apply to human beings as biological organisms. But the reaction. notably in the eugenics movement. which purported to show that scientific genius was innate. Society and Policy 2008. reasserted the independence of culture and race. Note that this is not equivalent to saying that the Australian Aborigine is somehow closer to nature than the Scotsman. it was also against the doctrine of evolutionary progress – the idea that the peoples of the world could be ranked on a single scale of absolute advance. those traits that differ from one group to another belong to culture. they were simply different.com 31 . once enormously influential. Human nature no more constrains cultural form than paper constrains what you write on it. 20 It was against this background that anthropologists of the early twentieth century. Kroeber wrote. Though the debate has carried on furiously for decades. No. and could not be accounted for in terms of the quality of upbringing. is all but forgotten – not because his views are no longer accepted but because what needed to be spelled out explicitly then is nowadays part of what most anthropologists simply take for granted. Against this. that are shared by the Scots. In 1874. in early twentieth century American anthropology. Alfred L. Yet it continued to resurface. was not only against racism. then. they had no purchase on the superorganic world. every instance of behaviour has to be seen as the _____________ Genomics.
do not inherit – in the genes – a programme for the development of house building.23-37 product of a continuing interaction between the components of heredity (nowadays known as ‘genes’) and the environmental conditions of development. is not dam-building behaviour but a programme of instructions for the development of dambuilding. the latter by learning.gspjournal.4. Kroeber asked rhetorically. into its innate and acquired components. No. Accordingly. in a paper published in 1964 entitled ‘The impact of the concept of culture on the concept of man’. And these instructions are encoded in what is commonly called culture. hunting lore. It has to be completed through the acquisition of additional instructions. I take Geertz’s paper as representative of the third phase in the history of anthropological thinking about the biology/culture interface: what I call the interactionist phase. in constructing dams. into a planning engineer?’ 25 Some fifty years later. ‘as to affirm that one generation or a hundred or ten thousand of example and instruction would in the least convert the beaver from what he is into a carpenter or a bricklayer – or. Let me quote the relevant passage: Beavers build dams. for human beings there is not just one _____________ Genomics. moral systems and aesthetic judgements: conceptual structures moulding formless talents. www. 27 Thus beavers learn to build dams and humans learn to build shelters. Society and Policy. But men build dams and shelters. Vol. ‘Who would be so rash’. For Geertz recognises that the beaver’s behaviour is not determined by nature rather than nurture.1. the work of the beaver. genetically prescribed potentials are ‘brought out’. which nevertheless depends for its realisation on specific environmental conditions. within the lifetime of the individual. with those of human builders. Vol. the programme for the development of the human organism in its environment is genetically underdetermined.4. In short. Kroeber had compared the feats of the beaver. 26 Clifford Geertz returned to the beaver/human comparison. they inherit a capacity to acquire such programmes. organise their social groups or find sexual partners under the guidance of instructions encoded in flow charts and blueprints. by appropriate environmental stimuli. and mice mate on the basis of forms of learning that rest predominantly on the instructions encoded in their genes and evoked by appropriate patterns of external stimuli: physical keys inserted into organic locks. Consider. In his paper on ‘The Superorganic’. This means that we cannot simply factor out human behaviour.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. Human beings. But the form of learning in each case is significantly different. His conclusion was that although the beaver’s dam may be as impressive as many a human construction. No. by contrast. baboons organise social groups.com 32 . allowing for his physical deficiency in the lack of hands. learning consists in the way in which given. locate food. What the beaver inherits. Rather. for example. To put it another way. the beaver and the human achieve their results by fundamentally different means: the former by instinct. a body of information that is transmitted across the generations by non-genetic means. bees locate food. or for that matter the behaviour of any other creature. with its genes. In the case of the beaver. pp. Society and Policy 2008. birds build nests.Genomics. But there was a significant difference. but is rather the product of an interaction between the two.
in the same paper to which I referred earlier. I do not believe it makes any more sense to reduce biology to genes than it does to reduce culture to analogous units of information (‘memes’) that inhabit the mind. Vol. 28 Advocates of the interactionist view often claim that they have long since dispensed with the dichotomy between nature and nurture. shared with other animals such as the beaver. and its precise form is liable to bear the mark of these activities. if we can call it that. in a womb. That is to say. he writes. or from biology to culture. ‘may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one’. what each of us begins with is a developmental system. If we ask what interacts with the environment. people are the producers as much as the products of their own history.gspjournal. both for themselves and for others. Even the skeleton. the answer is the people themselves. for example. Towards a relational approach I am not myself content with this way of thinking. So what do we begin with? What is already in place at the moment of inauguration of a new human life-cycle? The answer is not just a set of genes but a whole system of relations comprised by the presence of the fertilised egg with its complement of DNA. The behaviour itself is understood as the consequence of an ongoing interaction between the two.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. grows in a body that is actively doing things. No. Instead of dividing overt behaviours into those that are innate (such as the smile) and those that are acquired (such as the handshake). ‘One of the most significant facts about us’. in the body of a mother-to-be. And the growth of the body is an aspect of the very same developmental process by which we gain proficiency in the particular kind of life that we lead. 30 Human beings. under given environmental circumstances. Let me return for a moment to Clifford Geertz. There is the genetic channel. pp. The fact is that our bodily equipment. in a continuous process of social life. The dichotomy is still there.Genomics. what people do is not merely the effect of genetic. But in fact they have not. And human behaviour has to be understood as the result of a three-way interaction between both culturally and genetically transmitted information and the environment. nor are people and their behaviour the products of such interaction.4. But there is also a separate. In short. but has simply gone underground. www. is conceived as a movement from the universal to the particular. No.1. Genes and culture do not interact with the environment.4.com 33 . 29 Human life. Society and Policy. cultural channel. are not born biologically or psychologically identical. the division is made on the level of underlying instructions – between innate and acquired components of the programmes that guide all behaviour. There has to be something wrong with any explanatory _____________ Genomics. And through such interaction. I can only conclude that such a view is fundamentally mistaken. who is in turn alive and active within a particular environment. prior to their differentiation by culture. Society and Policy 2008. people actively intervene in shaping the conditions of future development. Vol. cultural and environmental causes. is not ready-made but undergoes continual formation in the course of our lives. or between the innate and the acquired.23-37 channel of inheritance but two. in this view. For in reality. then. entailing a gradual ‘filling up’ of capacities and ‘closing down’ of possibilities.
scientists claimed finally to have unravelled the human genome.Genomics. then. Contrary to what had previously been thought. all those specific abilities that have classically been attributed to culture – to walk in a certain way. In themselves. they mean this constant thing that is supposed to reside inside each one of us. and of what he or she does. and therefore that it is the genes that make us what we are. as properties of human organisms. raising their successors. in a particular environment. No. they are fully biological. In that sense.4. ranging from the mouse to the nematode worm. rests on a central idea. But within a few months all that was water under the bridge. Society and Policy. genes make no difference. somehow orchestrating our growth and development. they had made a new and even more radical discovery. Thus they seem to provide concrete proof of the existence of the individual human essence that we had always imagined. we were all told on television and radio. At the root of the problem is our obsession with the idea that for every individual human being there must be something fixed and stable. which is present right from the moment of conception and that remains unchanged for the entire duration of the life cycle. it is always supposed to be there. in turn. Instead. namely that there is such a thing as a human genome – in other words. for example. Now. For it soon turned out that the number of genes was simply too small to specify much of what makes a human being. and so on – are incorporated. Most often. the scientists proclaimed. When.com 34 . No wonder. 32 Clearly we have a major problem with ‘biology’ when it comes to human beings. in one form or another. Presidents and heads of state literally queued up to pile on the rhetoric. But – and this is the really crucial point – biological differences are not genetic. we were told. as human beings. No. How depressingly familiar all of this sounds! Far from ushering in a radically new conception of ourselves. the environment plays a decisive role in shaping human nature. They only make a difference in the context of the life histories of whole human beings. growing up and. This idea was well _____________ Genomics. The much vaunted human genome project.1. indissolubly body and mind.23-37 scheme that needs to base itself upon the manifestly ludicrous claim – in the words of the evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides – that ‘infants are everywhere the same’. when people in modern western societies speak of human biology. contemporary science has been rehearsing a nature-nurture debate that has been around.4. on a par with the discovery of fire or the invention of the wheel. would never be the same again. Pundits proclaimed that our conception of ourselves. through processes of development.gspjournal. In reality. Vol. that we were witnessing the birth of a totally new era in human understanding. they do not mean the scientific study of human organisms. Vol. that a context-independent. that we jump to the conclusion that our biology must lie in the genes. to sit or squat. 31 Even parents of identical twins know this to be untrue! The source of the difficulty lies in the notion that culture is an extra ingredient that has to be ‘added in’ so as to complete the human being. for centuries. the genes do not make us what we are. www. and in the newspapers. some years ago. hereditary specification of the essential form of humanity actually exists. Much of our fascination with genes lies in our understanding that they do indeed remain (virtually) fixed and unchanging for every individual throughout life. Society and Policy 2008. to speak a certain language. and that most of these genes are anyway shared by all kinds of other creatures that could hardly be more different from ourselves.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. pp. Regardless of what happens to the individual in question.
that the post-modern critique of the culture concept has so far had little purchase on anthropological endeavours to reintegrate ‘biology’ and ‘culture’. www. So long as it persists. tim. 2002. London: Routledge.ac. 5 A recent discussion of these issues is P. 1968. 381 fn. Society and Policy. By and large. for example.gspjournal. And we have to recognise that every one of us is forged in our organic being within this ensemble and plays his or her part in moving it along. Race. a whole ensemble of such projects – that we have to work at. My argument has been that in order to exorcise the spectre we need to wrest biology away from the stranglehold of geneticism. Stocking. Indeed behind the scenes. Racism and Speciesism. moreover – so long. Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives. Imagining Nature: Practices of Cosmology and Identity. Graves-Brown. K. see G. but because it is deeply embedded in the institution of science itself. UK. the few sociocultural anthropologists who continue to seek a rapprochement with biological approaches in the discipline remain committed to the modernist paradigm.uk 3 See. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. London: Routledge. 2002. pp. Ingold. then. against what is (rightly or wrongly) perceived as a militantly anti-scientific. it is not because it represents the peak of scientific achievement. No. as do biological anthropologists themselves.1.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. and to adopt instead a relational approach that focuses on the emergent and dynamic properties of developmental systems. In the context of these endeavours. Milton. 210251).23-37 established long before science in a recognisably modern form ever got off the ground. 6 See P. however. Palsson eds. T. _____________ Genomics. It is no surprise. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press. and I am optimistic that it will eventually prevail. 4 For an authoritative treatment of this history. Evolution and Social Life. 33 This is work that is actually set to revolutionise the way we think about ourselves. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood. a number of biologists. anthropologists and philosophers have been laying the foundations for just such an approach. Dwelling and Skill. Paper presented at the symposium What is special about the gene?. Wade. been subjected to extensive critique over the last two decades. P. Race. University of Aberdeen. Descola & G. 1996. 2000. 8 Modern anthropology’s concept of culture has. Loving Nature: Towards an Ecology of Emotion. New York: Free Press. To do so. the journal American Ethnologist recently carried a forum discussion on the theme of ‘genomics and racialization’ (American Ethnologist 2007.4. 54-55.ingold@abdn. pp. M. “The Ghost of Cain?” Neanderthals. No. 70: 978-981. Bubandt & Kalevi Kull eds. London: Pluto Press. It is debateable how many sociocultural anthropologists would still subscribe to the view that humanity comprises a mosaic of distinct cultures. 1968. Culture and Evolution. 1986.Genomics. Society and Policy 2008.4. can the spectre of race finally be laid to rest. Antiquity 1996. that the notion of genetic inheritance is wedded to an essentialist definition of the human sub-species – the spectre of race will not go away. Vol. However the contemporary critique of modernism has tended to exacerbate the split between the ‘biological’ and ‘sociocultural’ divisions of anthropology. 11th September 2007 2 Department of Anthropology. of course. Vol. If it continues to dominate our thinking about the advance of human selfunderstanding. T. we must acknowledge that our humanity is not naturally given as a hereditary endowment but is an ongoing historical project – or rather. 2003. New York: Free Press. Nature and Culture: An Anthropological Approach. Only then. W. Race.com 35 1 . 34(2): pp. 7 See G. Culture and Evolution. Stocking. London: Routledge. that is. In addition. postmodern humanism. A. away from the razzmatazz of media hype and billion dollar research contracts. 14. This commitment is commonly defended in the name of Science. 265-6. N. ‘culture’ is still taken to mean much the same as what it meant to the anthropology of fifty years ago. Roepstorff. Cardiff University. Ingold. W. pp.
Tylor.52-7. Language. 165. On the differences between Tylor and Darwin concerning the educability of ‘savages’. Pringle (ed.. 49-50.J. It is shocking to find that at late as 1972. Boyd.org/positions/race.. see Ingold. Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. 11 On the misapplication of intelligence testing regimes in cross-cultural contexts. op. The ‘meme’ meme. when biologists do speak of collectivities of one kind or another. Outside the realms of advertising. Cambridge. note 7. op. perhaps the best evidence for the idea of the meme as a cultural replicator lies in the success with which the idea itself has caught on (see A.. 179. Kroeber. 15 See T. Vol. Current Anthropology 1994. Coevolution: Genes. Murray. 37-43.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. Cultural Dynamics 1991. Similar proposals have been made.: pp. p. 1874. p. see G. Richerson & R. New York: Free Press). pp. Darwin 1874. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.H.physanth. pp. American Anthropologist 1917. Darlington. Race. Ibid. for example.: Harvard University Press (Belknap). note 23. op. 22 ibid. however. Primitive Culture (2 vols. 45. cit.. pp.4. 14 American Association of Physical Anthropologists.gspjournal. 28 This is the foundation for the so-called dual inheritance model of gene-culture co-evolution. 362-4). 230-6.. however. pp. Costall. Herrnstein and C. See P.J. Perilous Ideas: Race. No. 1: 127-54.html. The population is understood as an aggregate of discrete individuals. 24 F. Darlington. Man (N. Oxford: Oxford University Press). 20 See E. for decades (these are reviewed in Ingold. 27 ibid. note 7. p. p.1.D. See C. Journal of the History of Ideas 1996. cit. that it has been most positively received (see S. Boas. one of the leading biologists of the day. 12 Among the most notorious of recent examples was R. People. Geertz 1973. 1991. 1972. Society and Policy 2008. London: John Murray. Dawkins. Mind. It is undoubtedly among cognitive psychologists. 25: 208-29. The Superorganic. and Culture. Culture. could still argue – in a lecture published by a prestigious academic press – that the ranking of classes in modern societies corresponds to hereditary differences in intellectual ability and should be preserved in the interests of civilisation. 217-18. see Ingold. 13 F. The Meme Machine. New York: Basic Books. R. and Alfred Kroeber on the latter. J. The Selfish Gene. 17 On the debate in American anthropology between those who saw culture as a property of individuals and those who saw it as a property of groups. The Interpretation of Cultures. note 23. C. 19: 163-213. The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think and Communicate. Wilson.1. It has not.4.. AAPA Statement on Biological Aspects of Race. 26 The paper is reprinted as Chapter 2 of Geertz. least of all among social and cultural anthropologists. 10 _____________ Genomics. Biological anthropologists have given it somewhat greater credence (see. English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. and Tylor’s change of heart. New York: Free Press. op.L. A Dual Inheritance Model of Human Evolutionary Process. Galton. Society and Policy. www.). 57(3): 525-45. W. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (2nd edition). Journal of Social and Biological Structures 1978. in J. 101: 569-70.com 36 . 1996. 1976. Ingold. Mass. also available at http://www. pp.S. cit. 1994. Vol. had much success in anthropology. Class and Culture. op. No.) Biology and the Human Sciences. and Culture. 57-8. cit. Wolf. 1940. p. 23 Geertz refers to it by the notion of consensus gentium. they commonly have resort to the notion of ‘population’. Cole. The novelty of Dawkins’s idea has been hugely exaggerated. Blackmore.: Harvard University Press. 1981. Durham. 29 Geertz. 18 On the origin of this distinction and its impact on the history of twentieth-century biology.. 35(1): 1-12. C.D. note 7. Mass. rather than as a group per se. 4(3): 321-335).O. The principal protagonists were Franz Boas on the former side. 4. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Genomics. cit. most of whom find the idea repellent. Gudding.S. note 21. Lumsden & E. Cambridge. 176. cit. 2002. see M. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 1996. I: Basic Postulates and a Simple Model.W.) 1990. See C.23-37 9 E. op. Genes. New York: Free Press. London: Macmillan.. 21 A. 1871. on and off. Stanford: Stanford University Press. C. 19 See R. Culture and Human Diversity. 16 That is why. pp. Aunger. 1999.B. The Phenotype/Genotype Distinction and the Disappearance of the Body. London: John Murray. An Anthropologist Looks at Biology. 25 Kroeber. pp. Race.
Oyama. E. The Psychological Foundations of Culture. L. Society and Policy. eds.gspjournal. anthropology and philosophy – see S. Griffiths & R.D. Goodwin.C. and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Ingold 2000.D. No. to say that a number of approaches are currently being pursued. The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and their Evolution. S. London: Academic Press. Cosmides.H. No.) Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. In H. Mass: MIT Press. 2005.23-37 30 On the concept of the developmental system. 225-246. Barkow. 1989. H. R. A. _____________ Genomics. p. Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom. P. Epigenetic. Mass: MIT Press. Evolving skills. Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Wartofsky. In J. Jablonka & M. W. inter alia.B. For other approaches. Vol.4. Lamb.4.T. 2005. Maturana and F. is that of the ‘developmental systems theory’ (DST) of Susan Oyama and her colleagues. ethology and ecology. Cohen and M.) The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Cosmides and J. see S. Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Tooby (eds. Cambridge. Mass: MIT Press. Society and Policy 2008. New York: Random House. Saunders.1. Archaeology and Psychology. S. and to which I have myself contributed. New York: Oxford University Press. www.C. see T. pp. Cambridge. Varela 1973. eds.Genomics. pp. Griffiths & R. pp. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Tooby & L. J. Ho & P. Cambridge. which have in common a concern to rebalance the relation between evolutionary and developmental processes. The approach with which I am most familiar. 2000. perhaps. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Sibatani & G. Gray (eds. For a representative sample of work in DST across a wide interdisciplinary field – including evolutionary and developmental biology.com 37 . psychology. eds. 1993. B. The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. away from the strict subordination of the latter to the former that is characteristic of contemporary neo-Darwinism. Beyond Neo-Darwinism: Introduction to the New Evolutionary Paradigm. Rose & S Rose (eds. 33. S. Carroll. Dynamic Structures in Biology. 1984. 1985. Vol. Gray. see. M-W. Behavioral. 1992. London: Jonathan Cape. From Complementarity to Obviation: On Dissolving the Boundaries Between Social and Biological Anthropology. Oyama. in S. eds. New York: Norton. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 33 It would be more accurate. 31 J. Ingold. Kauffman. 255-279.E.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. Webster. Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic. Oyama. Dordrecht: D.E. P.) Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology. On the application of the concept within anthropology.A. 32 T. 2000. Reidel.
Niels Bohr famously speculated that there was no way to bridge these two standpoints. they would be destined to co-exist independently. _____________ Genomics. Max Delbrück. on the model of the wave and particle in quantum mechanics. somewhat naively. Vol. even the simplest of living cells. Vol. space in which the Watson and Crick breakthrough was received a decade later. we still cannot predict when that feat will be accomplished.1.Genomics. For Schrödinger however. And unless and until it is accomplished (and maybe even after that) the study of the living will be uniquely burdened with the dilemma of whether to try to grab onto basic units or parts. No.gspjournal. unlike Delbrück. No. For all the indisputable success of reductionist approaches in biology we are still not yet so very close to being able to explain how an embryo develops or even how a single cell functions. and then proceed to work one’s way ‘up’ to the complexity of a whole living system. A protégé of Bohr. Schrödinger’s own point of departure. became a pioneer in structuring the physio-chemical investigation of life by way of an informationtheoretic outlook albeit with an on-going expectation that he would eventually hit up against the limits or ‘paradox’ that Bohr prophesized. out of purified parts. If biologists were able to build a living organism. hypothesize about it and take its measure in every conceivable fashion while yet preserving its integrity as a living system. took to be the standing view of the genetics of his time. that rather. however. 4 Schrödinger’s artful rhetoric did much to shape the terminological linguistic. the reduction of living complexity to bio-molecular information wasn’t a strategy for recovering the truth of Bohr’s complementarity at a more analytically refined level but rather was the entry-point into the promised land itself.4. pp. 2 which could well lead to the realization of new basic laws of physics. www. in a relation of perpetual complementarity.38-57 The Meanings of the Gene and the Future of the Phenotype LENNY MOSS 1 Introduction Grasping at Complexity How does one analyze a living organism? It’s not as easily settled a question as it may sometimes appear.4. Society and Policy 2008.com 38 . or to begin at some minimum level of intact living complexity and attempt to poke it and probe it. Society and Policy. and thereby conceptual. Good intentions and boastful ambitions notwithstanding. Erwin Schrödinger 3 proceeded to predelineate a new informational/linguistic vision of life with his anticipation of an ‘aperiodic crystal’ that would be the substrate of his so-called ‘hereditary code-script’. Inspired by Delbrück. already presupposed a preformationistic understanding of the relationship of the genotype to the phenotype that he. Earlier in the century. it would certainly do much to settle methodological and epistemological conundrums over questions of relative holism versus relative reductionism and presumably it would bring biology into a more seamless continuum with the physical sciences.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. Not that these need be mutually exclusive approaches – far from it. hypothetical or otherwise. But how to relate the one to the other also remains an open question – bold claims by behavioural geneticists notwithstanding.
1. Society and Policy.com 39 . the red and white flowers.4. Both Weismann in Germany. provided was not merely another gene-type concept but a way to put a gene-type concept to work.S. along the contemporaneous formation of a eugenicist social agenda. Society and Policy 2008. like red or white flowers. Wilson in the U. No. but the nature and scope of that something was by no means defined or circumscribed by Mendel’s findings. 8 Genotype. has been a subject of debate.38-57 In addition to purely epistemological complexities (as if these weren’t already hard enough). Whether Mendel himself had conceived of his ‘unit-characters’ as the basis of a thoroughgoing analysis of the organism or merely as a practical device for aiding plant breeders. there was no reason for him to do otherwise as it would merely have been a methodological shorthand.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. eg. rediscovered in 1900. Johanssen’s (non-preformationist) Gene The distinction between a ‘genotype’ and a ‘phenotype’—between that which is physically transmitted in the germ and that which comes to appear with maturation in the next generation—was introduced by the Dutch botanist Wilhelm Johanssen who. Of course many issues turn on just how the nature of that grasp is construed. Mendel himself did not even distinguish between that which is transmitted in the seed and the traits. www. the understanding of the nature of the living organism is far too closely linked to questions of human self-understanding. The concept of the gene ultimately has to be understood as arising in both epistemological and sociopolitical contexts.. 5 I will return to the question of the significance of biological formulations for anthropological self-understanding at the end of the paper. a fallacy that Johanssen never attempted to hide his disdain for. Johanssen laid the groundwork for genetics to become a modern. that eventually come to be seen. By distinguishing between a ‘genotype’ and a ‘phenotype’. By simply referring to the transmission of unit-characters. But if indeed Mendel’s intent was purely instrumental (as Falk as argued). that were transmitted in the seed he spoke in the idiom of preformationism. as if it these were the traits themselves. 6 anticipated a gene-like concept prior to the turn of the century. simultaneously introduced the term ‘gene’. B. Vol.4. is put forth as a possible handle with which to grasp hold of the complexity of the organism. environment and phenotype thus always constituted a triadic relationship for Johanssen. in 1909. an irreducibly normative affair. Vol. Johanssen distinguished between the genotype and the phenotype precisely to ward off the temptations of naïve preformationism. and E. A concept of the gene. it _____________ Genomics. as Rafael Falk 7 has argued. to be able to stand outside of the worlds of social and political interest. In other work I’ve suggested that the late nineteenth/early-twentieth century (re)turn to a preformationistic outlook in biology cannot be separated from the hardening and physicalization of social understanding expressed for example in the rising emphasis on race and racialized theories of history. pp. Notably. Mendel’s unitcharacter clearly opened a window onto something. No. although I will only be able to focus on the former in this instant.gspjournal. What Mendel’s paper. independent and basic empirical science concerned with elucidating the relationship between that which is chemically transmitted from one generation to the next and the contextually conditioned realization of a particular organismic outcome from within a certain genotypically prescribed possibility space termed the ‘norms of reaction’. no matter its particular formulation. There can be little doubt that by the end of the nineteenth century the time was ripe for something like a gene-concept to emerge.Genomics.
The pomace-flies in Morgan’s splendid experiments continue to be pomace flies even if they lose all “good” genes necessary for a normal fly-life. the exact nature and scope of the relationship of genotype to phenotype remained open and undecided. Vol. No.H. 9 If Johanssen’s phenotype/genotype distinction provided some conceptual leverage against encroachments of naïve preformationism.4. No. it is in most cases a normal reaction (character) that is the “allele” to an abnormal. allelomorphs. Society and Policy 2008.com 40 . by etherization… The rich material from the American Drosophiliaresearches of Morgan’s school has supplied many cases of multiple allelisms—most of all of them being different “abnormalities” compared with the characters of the normal wild fly… To my mind the main question in regard to these units is this: Are experimentally demonstrated units anything more than expressions for local deviations from the original (“normal”) constitutional state in the chromosomes? Is the whole of Mendelism perhaps nothing but an establishment of very many chromosomal irregularities.Genomics. Personally I believe in a great central “something” as yet not divisible into separate factors.. Let’s take a look at what he had to say: Certainly by far the most comprehensive and most decisive part of the whole genotype does not seem to be able to segregate in units.gspjournal. for example. pp.38-57 was this bit of conceptual housekeeping that quite likely induced T. detrimental to the welfare of this little friend of the geneticist. By 1923 it was clear to Johanssen. the possibility of dissolving genotypes into relatively small units. www. it would not have thereby denied genetics the status of being scientifically or medically interesting and worthwhile but it should have set certain limits upon what Mendelian genetics was in the business of disclosing. If Johanssen were right. be they called genes. and as yet we are mostly operating with “characters”. or something else. then genetics _____________ Genomics.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network.4. Vol. to ‘convert’ to genetics and become the leader of the new discipline. the green is an expression for imperfect ripeness as can easily be proven experimentally.1. Yellow ripe peas is normal. or if they be possessed with all the “bad” genes. which could not and would not be decomposed. that is. Bb and so on. e. This holds good even in those frequent cases where the characters in question may have the greatest importance for the welfare or economic value of the individuals. We are very far from the ideal of enthusiastic Mendelians. what it could be right about. disturbances or diseases of enormously practical and theoretical importance but without deeper value for an understanding of the “normal” constitution of natural biotypes? 10 Now if Johanssen were right. viz. for example. Morgan. the embryologist and Mendelian skeptic. Aa. which are rather superficial in comparison with the fundamental Specific or Generic nature of the organism.g. When we regard Mendelian “pairs”. factors. Society and Policy. that the phenotype cannot be fully decomposed down to an ensemble of separable units but rather that there was a core ‘great central something’ as he says.
Vol. While defined by a predictable relationship to a phenotype. is not an expression of the ontology of preformationism but only of an instrumental deployment of it. but one would be mistaken. one is using a concept of a gene that is defined and specified by its relationship to a phenotype.4. a child of the seventeenth century. however. there were a definite certain something that was transmitted between generations and that dictated a _____________ Genomics.38-57 would still be providing a certain kind of grasp-hold onto the complexity of the organism. The proper contemporary use of Gene-P. and I will make some gestures in the direction of what the consequences this may hold for our theory of evolution and for our anthropological self-understanding.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. The P in Gene-P stands for ‘preformationist’. Johanssen. that each discloses something about the phenotype. is indeterminate with respect to DNA structure. but limited perhaps to certain relatively superficial aspects of it. To speak as if the transmission of a gene were tantamount to the transmission of a phenotypic trait is to speak in the idiom of preformationism. I will argue that on the basis of strictly current scientific and clinical usage that there are two distinctly different senses of the gene.com 41 . I will then go on to consider some of the implications for our understanding of the phenotype that are derived from these gene concepts taken separately. Rather. Vol.gspjournal. taken to its extreme would hold that all of the traits of the mature organism are already determined and present at birth. Gene-P versus Gene-D So what is this distinction? And what are these two gene concepts? When one speaks of a gene for blue eyes. could not possibly have foreseen the breakthroughs that molecular biology has provided for grasping onto the inner-workings of the organism and yet there is one current meaning of ‘the gene’ consonant with what Johanssen articulated that continues to stand up to critical scrutiny. I will also suggest that much of the hyperbolic talk about gene as program. ‘Gene-P’. One may want to surmise that Johanssen. what will be argued is that precisely on the basis of the best contemporary understanding can we most fully appreciate just how prescient Johanssen’s insights really were. No. I call this sense of the gene. To speak of a Gene-P for a phenotype is to speak as if. Society and Policy. If Johanssen were right then the truth of genetics would not be that of the wholesale genetic decomposability of the organism qua phenotype—and thus other ways of grasping onto that central core something would still be ultimately required. by contrast. and the like which has been very successful in finding its way to the public ear. Invoking Johanssen’s perspective is meant to serve as a kind of cognitive/perspectival resource.4. Society and Policy 2008. Finally I will suggest that we are at the threshold of a new transformation in our understanding of the phenotype. www. with regard to specific nucleic acid sequence. but that.1.Genomics. but only as if. What allows something to satisfy the conditions of being a Gene-P is some predictable relationship to the appearance of a certain phenotype. or for Marfan Syndrome. is the result of an illicit conflation of these two meanings. Preformationism. of course. No. that is. Gene-P. pp. was expressing what is simply become an outdated view. the gene for breast cancer. blueprints. properly understood. writing thirty years before Watson and Crick. or for cystic fibrosis. neither suggests that the phenotype can be decomposed down to an ensemble of genes – indeed quite the contrary. My interest in this matter is not particularly historical but rather pertains to how we now should best understand the relationship of genes to phenotypes.
but because a Gene-P is indeterminate with respect to sequence. The genes of classical genetics were Genes-P.com 42 . If some stretch of DNA provides the template out of which a strand of RNA of complementary sequence is produced. Genes-P can be of great medical and or economic significance but they are essentially. Whereas Gene-P is associated with. How can this be? Would it not simply be a matter of empirically fleshing out what the structure of the physical referent would be? The answer is no. is that it is not the presence of some specific sequence that correlates with the appearance of a phenotype. In the medical genetics clinic.4. traditional family pedigrees can be supplemented or even replaced by the use of molecular probes. No. but Gene-P is no longer limited to classical methods. finds in cases of Gene-P. because a Gene-P is characteristically based on the absence of some sequence. working at the cell and molecular level. however it is that they may be lacking it. is defined by molecular. But why would that be? And again. To heritably lack the wherewithal for producing brown-eyes is thereby to possess the Gene-P for blue eyes. by contrast. over 900 different documented DNA sequences that may show up as ‘the gene for cystic fibrosis’.Genomics. No.38-57 distinct phenotypic outcome. probes can only probe for particular ways of not having the normal sequence and never fully rule out the possibility of some other way of not having the ‘normal’ sequence. this counts as a gene. allelic abnormalities that do not provide the basis for decomposing the core of an organism. The disciplinary context in which the meaning of the gene as GeneP is the most clear-cut is the medical genetics clinic. indeed defined by. As Johanssen suggested. Vol. What genetic probes can do is to survey some set of the relevant ways that a “normal” sequence may be absent. There are. Gene-P is used as a predictor of phenotypic outcomes such as the likelihood of having a child with cystic fibrosis or of contracting breast cancer given a family history. for example. ie. then for a biologist. It is indeterminate with respect to its DNA sequences and so there is not a certain something that is being transmitted. What is inherited. the lack of a normal resource for producing brown eye pigment. If there are 900 documented ways for the normal sequence to be absent resulting in a Gene-P for cystic fibrosis. pp. Gene-P is indeterminate with respect to its physical referent. and there are always many ways for something to be absent.4. In the modern genetics clinic. but rather the absence of some ‘normal’ sequence resource that is at issue. Likewise. And the reason the answer is no is that what one almost always. DNA. But as we’ve already said. the assurance that two blue-eyed parents may be given that a child of theirs would also have light-colored eyes is based upon the assumption that neither blue-eyed parent has the genetic resource for producing brown-eye pigment. sequence but is indeterminate with respect to phenotype. Society and Policy 2008. what is passed on. but rather an uncertain something. if not always. Society and Policy. Vol. might it not be the case that the lack of an ability to specify a phenotypic trait on the basis of DNA sequence is just due to a lack of knowledge? _____________ Genomics. To count as a Gene-D entails this and nothing about the ability to predict a phenotypic outcome.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network.gspjournal. Gene-D. is the lack of something.1. Molecular probes are targeted to a specific sequence. a phenotype and thus brings the notion of the ‘phenotype’ into the semantic reference space of the word gene. www. then it would require 900 different probes to exhaust the possibility of there being a Gene-P for cystic fibrosis given current knowledge – although in practice this is modified by statistical data pertaining to the frequency of particular mutations in different populations.
pp. 12 In the process of synthesizing an NCAM protein. Vol. As a taste of things to come. The ‘D’ in Gene-D stands for ‘developmental resource’ and is meant to evoke exactly this type of reasoning. and why it is indeterminate with respect to phenotypic consequences. and contribute to. Whereas Gene-P does its conceptual work through offering a peformationist standpoint. phenotypic outcomes and thus can never be adequate to the task of narrowing down.Genomics. Like the great majority of molecular genes. or specifying. phenotypic outcomes and cannot in itself determine which phenotypic outcome it will ultimately contribute to. which of these would come to be the case. a myriad of different. and other vertebrates. Hundreds of different isoforms of NCAM in mammals have been identified.1. www. and even antithetical. a great many of which have been identified at the messenger level. the cell-adhesion molecule called DSCAM found in Drosophila. Humans. My example called NCAM (for the neural cell adhesion molecule) is representative of a very large class of Genes-D called ‘cell adhesion molecules’ of which more will be said when the lessons or implications of Gene-D are discussed.000 different isoforms. pertain to which isoform is expressed. the famous fruit fly. as the best we can do in the absence of a full-fledged molecular developmental account of an often pathophysiological outcome. The character of Gene-D.4. But there are no NCAM proteins that contain the products of all 19 exons.gspjournal. No. that is. but only instrumentally and predictively. is capable of giving rise to 38. 13 Characterizing the scope of variability of isoforms derived from differential splicing is still in its infancy and will ultimately have much to say about the relationship of genomes to proteomes. Gene-D assumes a causal-explanatory framework which seeks to elucidate exactly that full-fledged molecular-developmental account.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. Society and Policy. 14 These isoforms are found on the surface _____________ Genomics. in-principle explanation for why a DNA sequence does not determine a specific phenotypic trait would be that any particular DNA sequence can in itself only contribute to any number of different. have only one Gene-D for NCAM in their genome (although as diploid organisms we would have two copies of it). Vol. NCAM is a member of a very large family of homologous genes called the Immunoglobulin Superfamily (IgSF). Study upon study at the cell and molecular level shows that any particular Gene-D can participate in. Society and Policy 2008. The NCAM gene consists of nineteen exon units.4. But there are multiple ways in which the very same genetic template can be put to very different uses. 11 The IgSF is one of three such families of related genes associated with cell-adhesion functions.38-57 A possible. Genes-D. first an mRNA transcript is produced in the nucleus that contains all 19 of the NCAM exons. The contingent functional specification of the product of a gene begins with the splicing out of certain exons from the RNA transcript – a process that is not and cannot be determined by the gene itself. which depends upon the complex of proteins that are involved in splicing. which is the point of this example. There are many different ways in which cellular context makes all the difference with respect to what the effects of NCAM gene expression are going to be in any situation. and often even antithetical.com 43 . NCAM is composed of multiple exons which are the modular units that actually contain the template information for synthesizing messenger RNA and thereby protein. The first of these. but in order to do so must abstain from delegating causal privileges or priorities prior to the achievement of the empirical account itself. is best illustrated with the help of an example. the other two being called the ‘cadherins’ and the ‘integrins’. we’ve already seen. No.
is the consequence of whether or not the product of the fifth exon domain becomes decorated with large negatively charged chains of polysialic acid (PSA). pp. those that are designated as ‘180 KDa’ in size. In the brain of the adult rat. if there is no synaptic stabilization.4.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network.38-57 of embryonic retinal cells as they extend outward in the exploratory formation of synaptic connections in the development of the compound eye of the fly. The NCAM protein is associated with the cell membrane. the Editors summarily observed that ‘In general. the cytoplasmic compartment of the cell. in regions associated with new learning. As each of these domains carries its own functional portfolio. the cellular context can greatly influence the adhesive and signaling properties of a given molecule. and the same is true for integrins and other adhesive proteins’. and whether. Society and Policy 2008. the form they take will make all the difference as to whether they are contributing to the stabilization of synapses. ie. The fact that a single Gene-D can give rise to a greater number of isoforms of a protein than there are genes in the human genome should be quite suggestive as to where post-genomic biology will be heading. then stable behavior patterns could not become established. and memories could not be retained. The loss of PSA-NCAM (polysialylated NCAM)—a change that is independent of any changes in the Gene-D for NCAM itself—is associated with the loss of neural plasticity. _____________ Genomics. ie. the olfactory bulb is a hotspot for structural rearrangement. variation in the domains expresssed will have direct and indirect ramifications on the phenotype. neural development simply could not take place in the embryo but neither could new learning take place in the adult. No. The same cadherin behaves differently in different cell types. NCAM isoforms lacking the eighteenth exon domain but heavily decorated with polysialic acid predominate through embryonic development. Vol. whose world is principally disclosed through the olfactory sense.Genomics. But how and why does variation in isoform matter? The different domains of NCAM that are coded for by one or two exons are associated with different biochemical and physiological activities. For the rat. In the 2003 volume of the review journal Current Opinion in Cell Biology.gspjournal. or to synaptic plasticity. However. www. ie. with most of its length extending outside of the cell where it may come into contact with other cells. polysialylation is found only in regions that continue to undergo structural rearrangement.1. The largest of the NCAM isoforms. in the issue dedicated to the biology of cell adhesion.com 44 . How the NCAM is spliced will affect how. the protein is attached to the cell membrane and also how much of the protein will extend into the interior. 15 Without the ability to form new synapses. skills and habits could not be learned and acquired. however. the ability to form new synapses versus neural synaptic stabilization. Far more dramatic. unlike that of the visually-dominant human. and in either case as to what kinds of synapses are being formed.4. contain the domain coded for by exon number eighteen and contribute to synaptic stabilization as that domain interacts with cytoskeletal components within the neuronal cell. No. Society and Policy. 16 What is true for NCAM is true for Genes-D in general and for other cell adhesion molecule genes in particular. Of central importance in the developmental physiology of neural tissue is the balance between neural plasticity. Vol. Cell and developmental context will influence not only what structural form of a cell adhesion molecule is realized from a multivalent genetic template but even how any particular isoform will function. Now even though all of the NCAM proteins come from the same Gene-D.
as we’ve seen. it is precisely the empirical knowledge gained within the disciplinary context _____________ Genomics. and thus the arrival of Gene-D. Vol. during the last half of the twentieth century. No.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. heir apparent.4. Vol. of the genotype as the means for understanding the phenotype had been based largely on the de facto conflation of Gene-D with Gene-P. www. This enterprise took a new turn with the characterization of DNA as the heritable source of templates for synthesizing protein. that is specified simultaneously by its nucleic-acid sequence and its phenotypic consequence. the continued primacy. was dead certain that it would not. certain evolutionary psychologists. The sequencing of the human genome and the move to genomics can well be seen as the culmination of an enterprise and the exhaustion of a research strategy. does not and cannot determine a phenotypic trait in itself.gspjournal. Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker as well as large numbers of science journalists. Ironically. in the second half of the twentieth century it has been the conflation of Gene-P with Gene-D that has given rise to the idea of the master-molecule. beyond the conflation of Gene-P and Gene-D. that underlies the genecentered conceptions that have been advanced by certain evolutionary biologists and philosophers. Following Mendel’s lead. ie. then how. It is this conflationary view of the gene.4. began with those zealous Mendelians that Johanssen took to task. then what is it that causes the phenotypic outcome that defines Gene-P? What has to be the case about an organism for Genes-P to exist? And what is the relationship between Gene-P and Gene-D? Throughout most of the twentieth century elucidating the genotype had been the central strategy for understanding the phenotype. However. and so long as no more powerful approach for understanding the phenotype came on the scene. or blueprint. which borrows and blends from two categorically different disciplinary contexts within biology and medicine. classical genetics parsed the phenotype into traits precisely according to whether such parsing was serviceable for further elucidating the genotype. and which has been given a broad public exposure by the likes of popularizers such as Richard Dawkins. nothing stood in the way of continued attempts to decompose the organism into so many Genes-P. one may well wonder. While the idea that the phenotype could be fully decomposed into a conglomeration of genes. Despite the de facto independence of Gene-D as an organizing concept in molecular-level biology. pp. so long as classical genetics could see an open road ahead for further elaboration of the genotype qua Gene-P. Parsing the phenotype according to the rules of Mendelian inheritance gave birth to Gene-P. each of which roughly codes for a trait.1. No.com 45 . Society and Policy.Genomics. the phenotype itself has become poised to take center stage. perhaps. For many ‘Systems Biology’ has become the research programme. Society and Policy 2008.38-57 What Must be True about Organisms for Genes-P to Exist? If a gene. empirically understood as a piece of cellular chemistry that has the capacity to serve as a template for RNA synthesis. Looking ahead into twenty-first century post-genomic biology. can it even be possible for a Gene-P to exist? Is Gene-P a special subset of Gene-D? If not. as a Gene-D. There was nothing in the experience of classical genetics that warranted the assumption that a phenotype would be fully decomposable into genotypic units and Wilhelm Johanssen.
thin stature. a gene for a certain phenotype and thus a Gene-P. Marfan Syndrome is also known as Abraham Lincoln disease. we can now ask what is illuminating about Gene-P and about Gene-D? Listening to Gene-P The Case of Marfan Syndrome Examining two very different examples of Genes-P will help to address the questions that I’ve posed about the nature of Gene-P. with the culmination of this enterprise in genomics and with the disambiguation of Gene-P and Gene-D a new horizon presents itself. There are at least 150 mutations of the Fibrillin-1 gene (Gene-D) associated with Marfan Syndrome. Other features include a breastbone that is either pushed in or pushed out. What makes a gene a ‘gene for MarfanSyndrome. considered separately.38-57 of Gene-D that allows us to definitively disambiguate and de-conflate Gene-P and Gene-D.Genomics. As is typical of a Gene-P. a propensity for scoliosis. its relationship to Gene-D. It is the result of a failure to properly incorporate the connective tissue protein fibrillin-1 into the microfibrils of developing connective tissue throughout the body. Most characteristic of Marfan Syndrome is a tall. showing no preference with respect to region. The two Genes-P that I will discuss are the genes for Marfan Syndrome and BRCA1. joints that are unusually loose and somewhat injury prone.1. Society and Policy 2008. albeit very different windows. and what kind of window onto the phenotype each gene concept provides when no longer conflated with the other. off-center lenses in the eye and myopic vision and—the medically most significant trait—is susceptibility to aortic aneurism that can only be detected by an echocardiogram. 19 Any of these could ‘show-up’ as a Gene-P for Marfan Syndrome. It displays a cosmopolitian range of distribution. 18 Marfan Syndrome is a disease of connective tissue. While it isn’t known whether Abraham Lincoln was in fact a Marfan. Marfan syndrome 17 appears in one in ten thousand individuals worldwide.com 46 . onto the complexity of the phenotype. Society and Policy. No. pp.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. the gene for breast cancer. It was first characterized by Antoine Marfane in 1896 in a five-year-old girl possessed of unusually long tapering fingers. both Gene-P and Gene-D can provide new points of entry into the construction of a theory of the phenotype. any of these genes for Marfan Syndrome can be tracked by pedigree analysis or by molecular analysis given the right molecular probes. it is from these features that the association with Abraham Lincoln is derived. the expression of which are highly variable (pleiotropic). Like the five-year-old French girl mentioned above. nationality. Marfan individuals will frequently have unusually long limbs with long and tapering fingers and toes. No. The analysis of the genotype can longer be taken as a substitute for that theory of the phenotype that we have yet to realize. But let us consider just what is the relationship of a gene for Marfan-Syndrome to the phenotype.4. Vol. sometimes athletic. Gene-P and Gene-D. What is it that causes the characteristics associated with the phenotype? Is there any good sense in which a gene for Marfan Syndrome can be construed as carrying information or coding for a trait? Does the _____________ Genomics. or gender. Beyond conflation. is its predictive relationship to a phenotype. Marfan syndrome is characterized by a set of traits. Where for a century much of biology has been structured around the attempt to understand the phenotype on the basis of the genotype. The face tends to be narrow and the palate high. Unburdened with the shackles of conflation. Vol. www.gspjournal. each opens a window.4.’ that is.
the normal gene. Marfan Syndrome is an expression of the polyphenism of the human phenotype. there are numerous mutations (at the BRCA1 locus) that meet the criteria for being a gene for breast cancer. pp. The features of Marfan Syndrome. BRCA1 has been the flagship gene for the enthusiasts of germ-line genetic testing.com 47 . Gene-P. or microfibril assembly can lead to the same type of polyphenic outcome. this capacity. As is the case with other Genes-P. Owing to the interest that BRCA1 _____________ Genomics. are the results of what human bodies do in the absence of a certain otherwise typical molecular resource. www. a Marfan phenotype may be found in individuals without a mutant fibrillin-1 gene at all. No. and what it is that a Gene-P reveals about the phenotype. for the developing phenotype to developmentally ‘style itself’ in a recognizable way. genetic or otherwise.4. Society and Policy. does not. BRCA1 or the gene for breast cancer is a Gene-P. Within a context of ‘family resemblance’. that is. There is no gene that codes for an Abraham Lincoln phenotype.Genomics. Defined by this phenotypic prediction. there is no corresponding normal gene with specificity for a phenotypic contrast class. but Marfan Syndrome reveals that the systematic properties of the human phenotype are such that. Now what about the Gene-D for fibrillin? If the example of Marfan Syndrome has made good on the claim that a Gene-P is indeterminate with respect to molecular structure or sequence—and that it is only an instrumental predictor of the phentotype it is associated with—what does the Marfan example have to say about the claim that any Gene-D will be indeterminate with respect to phenotype? As is the case in relation to any. yet some individuals with the same mutation will also differ and some individuals with different mutations will present a great deal of resemblance. The wherewithal for responding to this absence is inherent in the complex systematicity of the phenotype. are quite consistent. Society and Policy 2008. given a certain class of perturbations. because any perturbation. In addition.38-57 gene for Marfan Syndrome tell the developing body to be tall and lanky. The Gene-D for fibrillin-1. its ability to phenotypically shift directions while yet retaining its overall integration as a functional system.1. or to have a high palate or to be near sighted? Certainly not.gspjournal. The Case of BRCA1 BRCA1. transport. 20 A positive result with a molecular probe test for the presence of a BRCA1 gene correlates with an 85% likelihood that a woman from a family with a history of breast and/or ovarian cancer will contract breast cancer at some point during her own lifetime. The Gene-D for the fibrillin-1 template sequence can be used in many different ways in different contexts and it will always be the larger developmental context that will determine toward which phenotypic outcome the gene-product will contribute. favor a short and squat phenotype any more than it favors a tall and slender one. or almost any. No. in its adaptive plasticity.4.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. The Gene-P for Marfan Syndrome reveals this systematicity. given a certain constraint or perturbation. properties that simply cannot be decomposed down to atomic units. for example. Vol. Individuals who differ with respect to which of the 150 mutations they carry are seen to show phenotypic differences. provides another useful example because it differs from the gene for Marfan Syndrome in all its particulars and yet the take-home lessons about the relationship between Gene-P and Gene-D. some set of Marfan characteristic will result. like that of blue eyes. Vol. the ‘gene for breast cancer’. that interferes with fibrillin synthesis. ie. Marfan individuals will vary with respect to specifics.
whereas only 7% of proteins have 15 or more links. Vol. from social networks. while present and active in every type of cell in the body. is the Gene-P for breast cancer giving us a porthole. becomes: why do mutant germline forms of BRCA1. In other words. yeast species have evolved the ability to metabolize new substrates. It has been typical of Barabási’s studies of networks of all kinds. the molecular biology of the Gene-D. but like any Gene-D is indeterminate with respect to phenotype. has been intense since it was first identified over 20 years ago. which alas is also called BRCA1. of the single-celled organism yeast. that is the entire ensemble of expressed proteins. Vol. pp. 25 In further examining yeast. the deletion of only a small percentage of the weakly _____________ Genomics. Not surprisingly. 23 In studies of the proteome. The interesting question. Barabási and coworkers found that 93% of proteins have five or fewer links. The distribution of BRCA1 with respect to tissue type and developmental stage is described as ‘ubiquitous’. which is secreted into intercellular space and becomes a structural component of the body’s connective tissue. but onto previously invisible. 21 The tips of the BRCA1 protein have the capacity to bind to the RNA polymerase enzyme.Genomics.4. Society and Policy. show up as a Gene-P specifically for breast cancer? 22 What does this Gene-P disclose about the nature of the phenotype (and perhaps about cancer as a potential inherent within the phenotypic possibility space)? The BRCA1 protein in the nucleus of the cell has been shown to serve as a kind of platform upon which other proteins assemble in stage. whereas the remaining 20% are linked to many other nodes and thus constitute the ‘hubs’. Barabási and co-workers 24 looked at yeast proteins simply in terms of the number of the other proteins that any particular protein interacted with.gspjournal.and it is apt to be found in every cell in every tissue in the body. www. Unlike fibrillin. No.38-57 has garnered since first being identified.1. and the middle region of the protein has been shown to bind to a wide variety of both transcriptional enhancers and transcriptional repressors. usually around 80%.and tissuecontingent ways. airline flight patterns and the Internet. investigators have found that systematic adjustments take place in the metabolic network such as to enable the diameter of the network to remain constant. BRCA1 (the protein) is active in the nucleus of the cell. nor does it show any specificity for breasts at all. for example. network-theoretic properties of the phenotype? We will borrow from the scale-free network analysis developed by the physicist Albert-László Barabási. chromosome remodeling. Just as the Gene-D for fibrillin is not a gene for short and stocky phenotypes. What becomes suggestive is the possibility that what may best account for why germline mutation in the BRCA1 gene shows up as a Gene-P exclusively for breast cancer can be best approached in terms of the role of the BRCA1 protein in a complex network of interactants. to living cells. then. BRCA1 is a large multi-modular protein that has been implicated in several different functions within the nucleus – transcriptional regulation. can be reckoned in terms of the maximum number of links that it would take to connect any two nodes in the system. network-wise. not onto the decomposability of the phenotype. The ‘diameter of a system’.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. and the targeting of proteins for intracellular degradation . Hubs would clearly play a critical role in maintaining a fixed diameter of a system and when. DNA repair.4. have only small numbers of linkages to other nodes.com 48 . No. Society and Policy 2008. to find that most nodal points. The number of proteins that interact with BRCA1 has been described as astronomical. the “normal” BRCA1 is not a gene for healthy breasts.
for something to show up as a Gene-P. occur before puberty and most often occur beyond a woman’s childbearing age. Gilbert distinguishes these as ‘Population Genes’ versus ‘Developmental Genes’. the developmental biologist. and thus indivisible.38-57 linked proteins proved to be lethal to the yeast. First of all. it cannot be a developmental-lethal. Society and Policy. The population genes. about the systematic. Vol. _____________ Genomics. it is wholly plausible that an otherwise ubiquitous molecule could play a distinctive role from a network perspective. properties of the phenotype resident in every nucleus in every cell of the living body. across taxa. Interrogating Gene-D Finally. were thought to be atomistic units responsible for distinctively different enzymes and structural proteins that would result in distinctively different phenotypic traits with different fitness values for adult organisms competing for survival. Although purely speculative at this point. or Evo-Devo. Because the post-pubescent mammary gland will constitute its own distinctive biochemical context. provides a perspicuous comparison between the beliefs about genes held by the population geneticists who advanced the ‘Evolutionary Modern Synthesis’ and those of the contemporary molecular biologists who are trying to advance a new evolutionary-developmental. textbook author. whose physical referent were hypothetical. 26 writing in a largely pluralistic mood. pp. its absence would likely be lethal and so not show up as a Gene-P at all.4. but seldom if ever. and to be context-dependent parts of a pathway rather than acting in a context independent atomistic fashion. but. It could turn out to be the case that BRCA1 isoforms play a sensitive role in maintaining something like a uniform network diameter in the nuclear regulatoryprotein system of post-pubescent mammary cells. to be most significant in their expression not in the adult but in the embryo. not difference. Breast cancers associated with germ line mutations of BRCA1 are quite variable in terms of age of onset. whereas the deletion of the majority of the hub proteins proved to be lethal. No. then it would simply be a kind of quirk about the systematic relationships of regulatory proteins in the nucleus of mammary cells that would result in BRCA1 mutations showing up as Genes-P for breast cancer. being characterized by molecular biologists interested in evolution have been found to show great similarity. and historian of biology Scott Gilbert. I will just pick out some of the more salient features of his comparison.1. Society and Policy 2008. quite to the contrary. not about the decomposability of the phenotype. but it would be a quirk that could allow this Gene-P to reveal something hitherto invisible and unimagined. suddenly we have a completely new model for what a Gene-P might be revealing about the phenotype. www.gspjournal.4. the developmental genes. as the population geneticists had assumed. what window or windows onto the phenotype might be revealed by Gene-D when no longer burdened by conflation with Gene-P? In a recent article entitle ‘Genes Classical and Genes Developmental: The Different Use of Genes in Evolutionary Syntheses’.Genomics.com 49 . No. synthesis. Should this prove to be the case. or in any developmentally vital process. Vol. By contrast. to be associated not with enzymes and structural proteins but with signaling and the regulation of transcription and splicing. If a gene product served as a ‘hub’ in every tissue.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network.
A systematic comparison 30 between the DNA sequences of human chromosome 19 and those of the homologous chromosomal regions of the mouse suggests that the ensemble of Genes-D that constitute a genome fall into two distinct categories. In comparing the human and mouse _____________ Genomics. for example. elegans. the output of genome projects is simply compendia of Genes-D.38-57 It should be evident at this point that what Gilbert has described as the presuppositions of population genetics about the nature of the gene are exactly what I’ve described as coming to constitute the conflationary view. No. the answer to these questions appears to be yes. single copy-genes that are dispersed through the genome. C. So. Can the window that Gene-D opens up on the phenotype give us any more insight into how this expansion of the use of genetic modularity is distributed? Is it. www. No. have only at most twice as many Genes-D as invertebrates. 28 Comparative Genomics and Gene-D When we look at organisms of different levels of complexity. Vol.4. there are unique. are composed of modular units called exons.gspjournal.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. we can supplement the characterization that Gilbert has provided with a comparative analysis of the findings of different genome projects and other studies that have made evolutionary comparisons from the point of view of Gene-D. what kinds of changes in the genomes appear to coincide with changes in the complexity of the organism? The Human Genome Project upset traditional expectations by revealing that humans have only twice as many genes as the fruit fly and only one third more than the tiny nematode worm. including humans. does the lumpiness have a meaning that we can interpret? By the looks of some recent studies. the complete set of expressed proteins derived from the vertebrate genome appears to be at least five times as great as that derived from the invertebrate genome. as we previously discussed. Society and Policy. 27 But in seeking to clarify the further implications of Gene-D for understanding the phenotype. and it turns out that even this very moderate difference in gene number is based largely on the reshuffling of old exons to produce new combinations.com 50 . After all. What we see at the level of comparative genomics becomes greatly magnified at the level of comparative proteomics. What Gilbert has described as the developmental gene is exactly what has emerged out of the disciplinary context of Gene-D. So. On the other hand. mouse to human. The difference between genome size and proteome size would be largely accounted for on the basis of the ability to generate multiple isoforms through differential RNA splicing. and one way of asking what Gene-D can tell us about the nature of the phenotype is to see how these compendia change over evolutionary time. as we’ve already mentioned. Vol. On the one hand. single-celled to multicellular. evenly distributed across the genome or is it lumpy? And if it is lumpy. we now know that phenotypes of different levels of complexity are composed of largely the same set of modular resources. fish to mammal. Society and Policy 2008. what we see at the level of genomic differences is that what appears to correlate with changes in complexity is not gross increases in novel genetic resources but rather the intensification of the ability to use the same basic resources in a greater number of ways.Genomics. 29 Genes-D. invertebrate to vertebrate. but are used in increasingly flexible and nuanced ways. pp. there are families of closely related genes that are grouped together on the chromosome in tandem clusters.1. with less than 7% of the increase in gene number based on apparently new modules.4. While vertebrates.
Now. The Immunoglobulin Superfamily (IgSF). of which I said NCAM is a member. each of which specializes in binding some subset of that same range of ligands. While there are doubtlessly interesting things to say about all four of these categories.A. I will focus briefly on one of which we’ve already introduced. All indications are that the comparative findings for other cell adhesion gene families. It is estimated that the number of isoforms of proteins from the human IgSF alone would exceed the entire genome size of both fruit fly and nematode worm. let us imagine that we now _____________ Genomics. what was found was an “overwhelming” conservation of sequence of single-copy genes and extensive differences in genes residing in tandem familial clusters.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. drug detoxification. and that each of these receptors can then transmit a different signal. Society and Policy 2008.com 51 . But what might this tell us about the nature of the evolving phenotype? To answer this question. Rather they report that ‘genes associated with immunity and defense. J. let us compare this to two other scenarios. thus one of ten different signals. And let us say that when the receptor binds to the ligand.1. found that the expansion of gene families comes about through an incomplete duplication of genes. Given what we have already observed. www. Might it be the case that exactly those genes that provide the templates for basic enzymatic and structural capacities that the population-theoretic architects of the Evolutionary Modern Synthesis assumed would be the basis of evolution.4. there are 765 IgSF genes in the human genome compared with 140 for fly and 64 for worm.Genomics. In the second scenario (cell #2). Is there any specificity to which gene-families are found to expand in relation to apparent evolutionary increases in organismic complexity? In their 2002 report in Science magazine. Bailey et al. we now have 10 different receptors. Cell adhesion molecules constitute an important subset of those gene families associated with cell surface interactions. it can transmit a signal into the cell that results in some change in the physiological and/or transcriptional state of the cell. a little bit of extrapolation would not be out of order. referred to as segmental duplication. would be quite similar. No. 32 Let us consider what one can construe about the nature of the phenotype through the porthole that the Genes-D of the IgSF provides. Vol. What appears to be the case is that a core set of single-copy genes has been a constant throughout the animal kingdom going back to the most primitive stages. Whereas humans have only double or fewer the number of genes overall than the fruit fly or worm. pp. imagine first that a cell (cell #1) has a single receptor on its surface that is capable of binding to some closely related range of ligands (a ligand simply being a molecule with which a receptor may bind).38-57 sequences.gspjournal. Society and Policy. would come under the heading of two of the groups cited above – membrane surface interactants and genes associated with immunity and defense. let us imagine that for the same range of ligands that our one receptor could bind to. membrane surface interactions. and growth/development were particularly enriched’. to the interior of the cell. Vol. that results in the reshuffling of modular exon units and thereby the production of greater protein diversity. the cadherins and the integrins. For our third scenario (cell #3).4. are precisely those that have by and large not evolved at all? The evolutionary history of Genes-D appears to be associated with the expansion and contraction of differentiation of families of closely related genes or ‘gene-families’ that are found to be present in tandem clusters on chromosomes. 31 They found that such segmental duplication is not distributed randomly throughout the genome. No.
their ‘world. Vol. Phenotype First? The analysis of Gene-P and Gene-D aspires to provide a perspective with which to break bread once again with Johanssen and rethink the meaning of genes and phenotypes from their roots up.com 52 . What Gene-P and Gene-D both reveal. Society and Policy. somewhat light-heartedly. Beyond the Gene in Developmental and Evolutionary Biology. Taken together. A developing organism’s developmental trajectory is largely realized through the interaction of its cells with each other and with aspects of their environmental surround. and thus a massively greater capacity for phenotypic flexibility.4. but only with respect to the signal that they transmit back to the interior of the cell.4. I will mention a few of the more salient examples. Without even attempting to survey exhaustively the relevant sources. In the ‘Millennium Issue’ of the prestigious molecular biology journal Cell. 33 I’ve been speaking of the cell as if it were a kind of microcosm of the whole organism in its relationship to an environmental surround.’ Where an organism is composed of cells that have evolved the capacities of cells #2 & #3 (as opposed to merely that of cell #1) there would be an enhanced capacity for making fine distinctions about their surround. www. theoretical biologists Gerd Müller and _____________ Genomics. In their anthology Origination of Organismal Form. In their more recent The Plausibility of Life. 34 criticize the limits of the machine metaphor in biology. pp. ie. Kirschner and Gerhart 35 draw on the latest findings in cell and developmental biology to explain the active role of organisms (ie. and in a measure of increased autonomization. whereby the internal state of the cell can determine which receptors to use to probe its surround. a property that could also be described as increased ‘detachment’. is that there are systematic. and adaptability. Society and Policy 2008. for executing internal-state-dependent ‘choices’ about how to respond to even the same stimuli. Vol.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. The evolutionary expansion of the repertoire of cell-surface adhesion and signaling receptors with the IgSF and other gene-superfamilies can be seen as a key factor in the evolution of ‘world-openness and ‘detachment’ ie. and structured neither on the basis of the machine metaphor nor that of genetic information.1.38-57 have ten different receptors that vary. Marc Kirshner and Tim Mitchison of Harvard and John Gerhart of Berkeley. and describe their postgenomic proposal for an integrated cell and organismal physiology.gspjournal. as ‘molecular vitalism’. of phenotypes) in ‘facilitating’ the production of evolutionary variation. properties that could also be described as an increased ‘openness’ of the organism to its environment or its world.Genomics. No. No. nor for that matter any gene-centered approach at all. scenarios two and three (cells #2 & #3) represent a marked increase both in the sensitivity of the cell to nuanced differences in its surround. I argued that from at least two different angles we can see why the question of the phenotype is back on the table. self-organizing capabilities of the phenotype which will not yield to the kind of decompositional approach that has held sway during much of the past century. responsiveness. not with respect to their binding specificity. as what we experience as increasingly complex forms of life. albeit in different ways. What is not light-hearted for them is the idea that the phenotype needs to be understood on its own terms. but let’s also think of it as the unit of multicellular development.
first of all. These stages are as follows: 1.38-57 Stuart Newman. not through the evolution of a new species. however. Polyphenism may be a source of both de novo evolutionary innovation or the redeployment of phenotypic forms already present within a latent developmental and/or ecological phenotyperesponse repertoire. pp. in West-Eberhard’s model. Vol.4. A polyphenism is the ability of an organism to undergo radical shifts in its phenotypic expression. for example. Society and Policy. If genetic it would be in the sense of Gene-P. Phenotypic Accommodation: The organism draws upon its plastic. The colonization of land was achieved in her view. but rather by way of polyphenic adaptations by a species already invested with facultative air-breathing capability. for example. This often involves shifts in developmental timing that can have drastic effects on the phenotype including the entire loss of a later stage of development. West-Eberhard’s goal is nothing less than a radical transformation of our theory of evolution based upon a phenotypecentered biology. 2. understood in a Gene-D kind of way. that undergo metamorphosis.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. www. ie. The most sustained and impressive effort of all. 38 whose 800 page tome is entitled Developmental Plasticity and Evolution. There are. 36 along with contributors to their volume.1. No. has been that undertaken by biologist Mary Jane West-Eberhard. Vol. contributors to the recent anthology called Cycles of Contingency 37 share the inclination to recontextualize genes. Society and Policy 2008. She suggests a four-stage model of adaptive evolution in which genes may play two decidedly different roles. which in the case of humans means cultural institutionalization. To this I would add the suggestion that the phenotype-illiciting input could become stabilized as part of the organisms ‘constructed niche’. Much of West-Eberhard’s painstaking study is devoted to documenting the ubiquity of polyphenisms across all living taxa. constitutes the principal source of evolutionary innovation. as one resource among many. New Input:The phenotype is exposed to some form of perturbation that could be either environmental or genetic. 27 genera of fish with facultative airbreathing capabilities. 3. in conceptualizing the dynamics of developmental systems. correspond well to my GeneP/Gene-D distinction.gspjournal. polyphenic capability to respond adaptively to the challenge.4. The loss of a later stage of development is known as neoteny.Genomics. and it has played a major role in various evolutionary events and transitions (including human evolution as discussed below). Likewise. of the phenotype. The systematic capability of the phenotype to undergo adaptively plastic transformations in response to a new input. Recurrence or Initial Spread: The phenotypic shift spreads through the population either due to the recurrence of the initial input or the spread or other means of inducing the phenotypic shift. Of the 113 species of salamander. thus shifting much of the adaptive and innovative centre of gravity back to the systematic capacities of the organism itself. as it happens. No. _____________ Genomics. These roles. by genera of fish most of whom did not give rise to land inhabiting species. The capacity for breathing on land was already ‘anticipated’ and multiple times.com 53 . and that genes are secondary factors whose role began largely as that of stabilization. 37% of these species are found to have adults that do not always undergo metamorphosis. have been exploring the idea that organismal form originates with the inherent properties of living tissues.
1. tightly coupled. sensu West-Eberhard. is exactly in tune with the characterization of Gene-P. as is the symmetry she depicts between such a mutation and an environmental shift (ie. pp. How an organism deploys its repertoire of cell-adhesion molecule variants is a problem in the regulation of a complex system.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. with cell-cell recognition and adhesion. and she may well be right. b) adjusting the form of the trait. there arose a ‘philosophical anthropology’ that located the natural basis for the higher cognitive faculties of humans not merely in a new adaptation but in a full-bodied.gspjournal. genetic accommodation takes places at multiple loci (this would now be the Gene-D sense of genetic). but are now competing in the ability to best achieve it. for example. to change the frequency of expression of the trait or conditions under which it is expressed.com 54 . Society and Policy. Gene-P and Gene-D. but she considers a genetic mutation to be a relevant candidate as well. systematic breaking away—a loss of organismic specialization. Vol. These early perceptions were given a more firm empirical foundation by the German _____________ Genomics..38-57 4. Genetic Accommodation occurs simply by way of natural selection (i. Genetic accommodation.4. Genetic Accommodation: Unlike the initial input. The genetic heterogeneity is that which was already present in the population prior to the phenotypic shift. it is all the more easy to appreciate West-Eberhard’s proposal that in evolution it is the phenotype that leads the genotype. c) reducing disadvantageous side effects. With Gene-P. No. Vol. a general developmental underdetermination and underdevelopment. independently has a determinate relationship to the resulting phenotype. This depiction of a mutation constituting. specialized relationship to particular natural surrounds. which could be a single mutation or an environmental cue. www. differential survival) occurring within the context of the new selective regime introduced by the phenotype. Perhaps the best way to conceive of the process of genetic accommodation is to recall the clustered groups of related genes associated. a weakening of the body. shouldn’t be too difficult to discern. as she understands it. and thereby detachment from a stable. Genetic accommodation improves the novel phenotype in three or more different ways. which is also to say that none of the loci. The resonance between West-Eberhard’s model and my distinction between. Society and Policy 2008. entails selection at multiple loci. that triggers the phenotypic shift. The process of genetic accommodation. two types of ‘perturbations’) that could trigger the same response. Minute differences in both coding and non-coding regions of DNA could confer relative advantages or disadvantages in a wholly complex and context dependent fashion.Genomics. but a perturbation to which the phenotype responds in a coherent systematic fashion. These are: a) adjusting regulation. West-Eberhard thinks that the most likely source of the initial input is environmental. Selection may be thought of as akin to that of multiple parallel processing systems that have already been entrained toward realizing that outcome that the adaptive phenotype had established. its integration and efficiency. not new information for the phenotype. a loss of directed skill. Developmental Clues and the Origins of the Human Phenotype Beginning with Herder and Kant in the mid-eighteenth century. a weakening of the senses.4. and Gene-D clearly distinguished.e. is about Gene-D. No. The improvement and stabilization of the new phenotype would be a complex function of many regulatory nodal points. and analysis of. and no longer conflated.
a slower rate of maturation after birth. lighter bones. Similarities with the juvenile chimp but not the adult chimp include the vertical attachment of the head to the spinal column. No. Society and Policy. the everted lips. No. With the upper body developing prior to that of the lower body. the sparseness and pattern of distribution of hair.gspjournal. like humans. higher foreheads. The empirical case to be made for the neoteny-based-evolution of the hominid line has only become more compelling over time and has been persuasively represented in a popular book by Clive Bromhall 39 entitled The Eternal Child. to mate face to face.4. culture and cognition had been almost univocally devoted to piecemeal models of adaptation in which domain specific cognitive modules had been hypostatized very much in the image of conflationary genes taken to another level. pp. such as Helmuth Plessner and Arnold Gehlen.38-57 philosophical anthropologists of the mid-twentieth century. big rounded skull. more rounded skulls. and the retention of the more frontal position of the vulva that allows bonobos. What we need and are beginning to find in the human brain are the bases whereupon humans can be susceptible to each other. higher voices. Vol. Those who have been looking for language and reason in the brain (and the genes that code for them) have been looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place.1. www. more flattened face. more upright walking. are distinguished from chimps by their female dominant social structure and a polymorphous sexuality that serves as the social glue of an essentially non-violent system of social relation. The case for neoteny is put forward both by demonstrating the far greater similarity of the adult human with the very young chimp. the retention of the outer labia and the hymen and the lack of the penis bone. Society and Policy 2008. cross-module ‘executive’ capacities for leading our own epigenetic formation. but unlike chimps. late twentieth century thinking about the biology of human psychology. much of the morphological transition associated with the evolution of the upright posture and bipedalism can be accounted for on the basis of extending the growth phase during which legs are formed and lengthened. with domaingeneral. suffered a starcrossed fate. German philosophical anthropology. interactively. Despite stunning evidence for the role of polyphenism in general and neotinization in particular in human evolution. In recent years however there has been a coalescence of recognition coming from disparate directions of the essential sociality of the human organism. It is interesting to note in this regard that bonobos.com 55 . Vol. who while closely related to chimps. bonobos have more delicate facial features. Language. who associated these traits with the idea that the hominid line arose by way of neotinization (or juvenalization) from our ape ancestor. in and through the socio-cultural matrix. it evolved in socio-cultural space. longer legs. and despite the fact of philosophical intuitions about human detachment and underdevelopment that date back 250 years. As compared with chimps. the low position of nipples. and by considering the systematic consequences of retarding the rate of maturation at different early stages of development. the frontal position of the vulva. didn’t evolve in the ‘brain box’. Neotinization was by no means the entire basis of the evolution of the human socio-cultural capacity but it may well have been a necessary point of departure. as Merlin Donald 40 has taught us. a small jaw.4. lie between humans and chimps on the scale of neotinization. and thus participants and co-producers in the ever-changing games of language.Genomics. reaching its apex between the wars. In the image of the _____________ Genomics.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. failing to succeed in gaining a foothold in the Anglophone philosophical world.
Bock. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. Isis 2005. A. 7 R. Polysialylated neural cell adhesion molecule promotes remodeling and formation of hippocampal synapses. 4:133-141. 5 L. _____________ 56 2 1 Genomics. Povlsen. Rønn. Schrödinger. RNA 2004. 1944.ac. The Struggle of Genetics for Independence. 2003. Dityatev et al. 9 R. Human Nature. Journal of Chronic Diseases 1955. albeit not inevitabilities. What Genes Can’t Do. 12 G. Vol. Experimental Gerontology 1998. International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience 2000. Gunning. Zipursky. Some Remarks About Units in Heredity. D. V. op. Roll-Hansen. Vol. Society and Policy 2008. Cambridge MA: MIT Press. What is Life? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. McKusick. The Dominance of Traits in Genetic Analysis. Miller. Bringing Physics to Bear on the Phenomenon of Life: The Divergent Positions of Bohr. 28:219246. Treatment of Aortic Disease in Patients with Marfan Syndrome.4.The neural cell adhesion molecule in synaptic plasticity and aging. Maienshein. Krieg. 18:193-199. Clemens. McKaughan.. 17 V. Kaur. D. 10 Johanssen.4. 6 J. The molecular genetics of Marfan syndrome and related mircrofibrillopathies’ Journal of Medical Genetics 2000. The Application of Complementarity to Biology: From Niels Bohr to Max Delbrück.1. Rønn. Membrane proteins with immunoglobulin-like domains—a master superfamily of interaction molecules. Falk. Hereditas 1923.gspjournal. Berezin & E. Neurochemical Research 2003. Robinson & M. Society and Policy. Pyeritz. Journal of the History of Biology 1995. 30: 417–42. ed. 96: 507-529. University of Exeter. Journal of Neurosciences 2004. 15 L.Genomics. The neural cell adhesion molecule (NCAM) in development and plasticity of the nervous system. 37: 9-25. 13 A. 33:853-864. Gravely. Godfrey. 41 Suffice it for now to suggest that the shift to a new phenotype-centered biology will bring with it also opportunities. pp. Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 2000. Developmental Biology 1992.com . Delbrück. Heritable disorders of connective tissue. H. Developmental Regulation of Alternative Splicing in the mRNA Encoding Xenopus laevis Neural Cell Adhesion Molecule (NCAM). Johanssen. I have begun to explore elsewhere the implications of this work for philosophical anthropology and social theory. L. 28: 127-141. UK Lenny. neurologically based advances in social capacity could have been drawn out of the vast hominid phenotypic possibility space and stabilized in socio-cultural ritual that would be selectively advantaged in an environment of inter-group competition. Dietz & D. Moss. D. Circulation 2005. No. III The Marfan Syndrome. The organization and evolution of the Dipteran and Hymenopteran Down syndrome cell adhesion molecule (Dscam) genes. 10: 1499-1506. Department of Sociology and Philosophy. 111:e150-e157. The Influence of Niels Bohr on Max Delbruick: Revisiting the Hopes Inspired by ‘Light and Life’. 2:609-644. Milewicz. 18 D. Journal of the History of Biology 1991. No. Falk. Bock. Ditlevsen. 19 H. the Genetic Fallacy and the Philosophy of Anthropogesis’ Jahrbuch 2004 of the Kulturwissenschafliches Institut. 4:1799-1809. Dietz & R.Moss@exeter. Domondon. Jorn Rusen. cit. 8 W. Bock. 37: 433–88. S. 1987. B. A. Human Molecular Genetics 1995. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 2006.38-57 new appreciation for the role of group selection in the evolution of sociality. Zorn & P. Berezin & E. Moss. P. 14 B. 4 L. www. 2004. Barclay. 24: 457-484. Intracellular Signaling by the Neural Cell Adhesion Molecule.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. 3 E. and Schrödinger. 149:197-205.uk see N. V. 24: 9372-9382. Rowen & J. Mutations in the Human Gene Fibrillin-1 (FBN1) in the Marfan Syndrom and related disorders. Defining Biology: Lectures from the 1890’s. L. 15: 215-223. for new and renewed shifts in anthropological self-understanding with all the ethical and socio-political implications that that might entail. note 8 11 A. Seminars in Immunology 2003. Hartz & E. 16 A.
Developmental Plasticity and Evolution.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press. Nature 2001.com 57 . P. Oyama. Drenthen. S. J. West-Eberhard. One. Jeong. Many Genes. 78: 57-67.N. note 28. op. Moss. Society and Policy. 297:1003-1006. No.A. Gerhart.gspjournal. Gilbert. Moss. 23 A-L.4. Molecular “Vitalism”. Vol. 2006. 29 Ibid. Monteiro. Plasticity. Genomics and the Nature of Being Human. 22 B. BRCA1: a review of structure and putative functions. Vol. Baily. 32 Barclay. Cell 2000. Origination of Organismal Form. Cambridge MA: Perseus.. 227: 1-7. 60: 139-149. Griffiths & R. Müller. 2003. Agricultural and Food Ethics (in press). Gerhart & T. Barabási. 13: 261274. The Eternal Child: Has Evolution has Made Children of Us All. Dehal et al. 37 S. 38 M. Kirschner. No. cit. A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. 20 _____________ Genomics. 30 P. Paterson. transcription. 2002. 39 C. (Eds) 2001. Network Biology: Understanding the Cell’s Functional Organization. Miki. op. 34 M. New Formations 2007. 33 Moss. Mason & A-L. 2008. New York: Norton & Company. L. Recent Segmental Duplications in the Human Genome. 5: 101-114. Falk & Rheinberger (Eds). pp. Barabási & Z. The Plausibility of Life. 411: 41-42. 2001. 95: 866-871. cit. Mitchison. Moss 2008.4. & S. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution.Genomics. 2003. Springer International Library of Environmental. and Detachment: the Implications of Comparative Genomics for Evolutionary Thinking’ Philosophy of Science 2006. Cancer Letters 2005. and cell cycle in response to DNA damage’ Cancer Science 2004. note 33. cit. Barabási. Yoshidia & Y. Detachment. 293:104-111. Two (Too?). 2003. Bromhall. 41 L. BRCA1 in breast and ovarian cancer predisposition. Keulartz. 28 L. 25 A-L. Moss. Moss. Gray. Human Chromosome 19 and Related Regions in Mouse: Conservation and LineageSpecific Evolution. The Quarterly Review of Biology 2003. Science 2001. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press. 35 M. Nature Reviews Genetics 2004. 2000. Science 2002. op. Kirschner & J. Linked: The New Science of Networks. In New Visions of Nature: Complexity and Authenticity. 21 K. Newman (Eds).1. 24 H. Role of BRCA1 and BRCA2 as regulators of DNA repair. note 11. Disease Markers 1998. Lethality and centrality in protein networks. Society and Policy 2008.J. Contra Habermas and Towards a Critical Theory of Human Nature and the Question of Genetic Enhancement. 100:79-88. Redundancy. 26 S. 36 G. Beurton. 73: 930-946. Genes Classical and Genes Developmental: The Different Use of Genes in Evolutionary Syntheses’ in The Concept of the Gene in Development and Evolution: Historical and Epistemological Perspectives. Proctor (Eds).38-57 J. Oltvai. Donald. 31 J. 40 M. Oxford: Oxford University Press. New Haven: Yale University Press. 27 L. www. Beyond the Gene in Developmental and Evolutionary Biology. Billack & A. London: Ebury Press.
which presumably arose early in the modern species and has reliably persisted in all individuals until today. _____________ Genomics. 1 Introduction: Individual differences in linguistic ability It is indisputable that there is variation in individuals’ ability to produce and use language effectively. However. making their role in language complicated to unpick. to the heart of how we conceptualise our human linguistic heritage. and there is a primary level of equality across all individuals. We have all met the tongue-tied. Vol.4. loathers of poetry. The proposed syntactic basis for equality has been a genetically-determined ‘language faculty’.58-73 Genes and the conceptualisation of language knowledge ALISON WRAY 1 Abstract While it would be difficult to dispute that individuals vary in their facility with both their native language and with foreign languages. pedants. No. diplomatic negotiators. those who can remember the numbers but not the letters on a car registration plate. if there are languages that permit structures that should be prohibited. and how we explain and address diversity. But where does that variation come from? Since so much of our linguistic behaviour is evidently determined by our environment—by our education and experience in particular—naturally we will first look there for explanations of difference between individuals. genes are the authors of both similarity and difference. and it provides a socially acceptable approach to studying language form and function. and fluent gossipers. or if some individuals are less adept at managing purportedly universally understood configurations than others? How might culturally augmented features in language structure be inappropriately influencing claims about what all languages are like? These questions are directly relevant to those engaging with genetics because of the growing opportunities to explore the relative roles of environment and genes in determining aspects of our language knowledge and performance. though? Does it matter if a key feature is not observed in unwritten languages.1. punsters. those who struggle to grasp words on the tip of their tongue. How much fundamental uniformity of language knowledge is there. However. Syntactic theory and sociolinguistic theory have both contributed to the maintenance of this view. talented wordsmiths.com 58 . they present an uncomfortable challenge for how we should handle evidence of genetically-based differences in fundamental language ability. More generally for society. particularly now with focus on how genes and environment might interact. 2 This new research offers linguists interesting challenges that extend beyond the domain of language description and modelling.Genomics. www. No.gspjournal. Society and Policy 2008. Society and Policy.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. polyglots. people who can’t remember jokes. should we find it. Vol.4. pp. the role of genes is increasingly under examination. a central tenet of modern linguistics has been that such variation is secondary.
through observation. desirable to capture the essence of a language system as a logical description of its properties. while others are peripheral. being bipedal. 4 Theories of language that are based on emergent properties. and to have a logical shape that can be described. and this makes them all equally acquirable by children. that the role of cultural transmission. No. because intervening. but a simple underlying structure may appear very different. The native speaker’s intuitions. Vol. These intuitions are assumed to represent those of all native speakers (see later discussion of this point in section 7. On account of the language faculty. 5 would either deny.1 The ‘language faculty’ One approach to understanding the nature of human language. In contrast. Over time. www.1). The language faculty is rather like the operating system. Vol. Universal possession of this faculty means that all human languages are constructed according to its specifications. Not only might some aspects of the system not be reflected in their usage at all. and how a given sentence can be grammatically re-expressed. is central to debates about _____________ Genomics. 6 One can see. assumed to be the same for a given set of users. an ‘operating system’ that is independent of what users do. repeated movements carried out standing up—can be attributed to physical and other characteristics shared by the dancers that are not themselves about dance (eg. but it does not exist independently of the dancers. in this approach.Genomics. even from these two very imperfect analogies. begin to pick up the patterns.gspjournal. most strongly championed by Noam Chomsky. Thus.4. and others pick the dance up from them. 3 Compare how people engage with their personal computers.com 59 .1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. Society and Policy 2008. may actually use it in rather odd ways that reflect the experience they have had with it. That it always remains a dance—that there are consistent fundamental features such as rhythmic. ascribes to us all a uniform ‘language faculty’ (described further in section 3). No. However.4. Judgments about what sounds right. and what they need to achieve. language as it is used in communication is considered a poor window on the underlying system. it is. as opposed to genetic predisposition. There is a ‘system’ in the sense of a patterned dance. since various effects of production and performance intervene to present a partial and distorted impression of it.58-73 1. Society and Policy. and this is achieved using the linguist’s intuitions about what constitutes a grammatical sentence. offer relatively direct access to it. while certainly exploiting aspects of its structure and bound overall to operate within what it permits. reveal complex patterns of. having procedural memory). who use the faculty to navigate a fast and reliable route through their input. to language-specific knowledge.1. as well as a more general cognitive tendency to latch onto certain kinds of features as central. on the other hand. and other dancers. the novices become the experts. pp. and it may change over time. in usage. on the other hand. Someone starts doing some steps. and constraints on. or downplay the importance of. less fundamental operations disguise it. even countermanded. A more appropriate analogy for them might be how a dance is learned. configurations that do not always reflect maximum expediency in the communication of ideas. people using it. the Chomskian argument is that the linguistic output of speakers is too channelled by circumstantial interventions to be an effective way of understanding the underlying system.
in comprehension and speech. I contextualise the discussion by exploring perceptions of genes as agents of similarity and difference. This leads to a testing. in section 7. what could re-emerge. The essential humanness of language is not unduly diminished by evidence that apes can make quite a good job of language comprehension 8 and that parrots display. including our social unease when it comes to challenging the entailment of the language faculty account. www. and consider the extent to which the role of environment in creating the appearance of genetic uniformity may have been under-estimated. Extending upwards.com 60 . The different positions can be characterised by imagining a generation that did not use the computer. No. we also recognise how certain genes. 7 In section 2. pp. even though they may be spoken to equally and in not dissimilar ways.4.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. I itemise some evidence of variation at the fundamental level. genes explain why a child acquires language while the family dog does not. make us like our family. particularly but not only those responsible for visible traits.gspjournal. 9 for there is no real evidence as yet that nonhuman species have grasped the key features of human language structure (see section 3). and different from each other. I note the current interest in genetic variation in language performance. but most of them are inherited and have only the appearance of uniqueness. At the species level. Individual characteristics can be the result of a random mutation or copying error in our DNA. our genes make us human and other species non-human. we acknowledge that our genes give us visible physical characteristics that make us look more similar to people in some populations in the _____________ Genomics. and how similar would it be to what had previously existed? 1. Much has been published on this topic already.2 Engaging with similarity and variation In this paper I want to explore some of the assumptions and claims about the role of genes in defining the nature of human language. Vol. In section 5. No. Finally. Society and Policy. and in section 6. because no one else in the family happens to have expressed the trait. in which case differences must be explained another way). but different from those outside the family. This is because I want to focus on some issues that have been less often brought out. 2 Genes as agents of similarity and difference Genes make us the same as each other.1. and the offering of an alternative explanation. Society and Policy 2008. even in the face of potential counter-evidence. we see our genes as part of the reason why we are different from even our siblings (unless we have an identical twin. Vol.4. 10 At the same time.58-73 language. that all humans have an equal capacity for language at the fundamental level. Sections 3 and 4 deal with claims regarding the uniformity of our fundamental capacity for language. in section 8. Between the two extremes of shared human-ness and individuality.Genomics. an impressive command of semantics. of the assumptions underpinning the interpretation of apparent evidence for genetically-determined uniformity in language. and why it is attractive to maintain this belief. and rather than rehearse existing arguments in depth. or did not observe the dance: what would be left. At this level. explanations for the origins of uniformity are considered. I shall often simply note their existence and move on.
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world than others. Thus, our perception of the role of the gene contributes to how we construct our personal and social identity as a combination of differences from, and similarities with, others. Where in this picture, then, do we locate differences in people’s language ability? Are they reflections of those genes that make us individual—perhaps genes directly determining some aspect of our capacity for language—or are they a superficial, environmentally-determined layer atop fundamental uniformity for language ability? Or both? Generally, there has been a tendency to acknowledge that differences in aspects of our language ability can have a genetic basis, but to view the genetic component as non-linguistic, with linguistic consequences. For instance, poor memory or low concentration could affect the ability fully to benefit from opportunities for learning the finer skills of language presented experientially. Such explanations seem more comfortable for us than proposing that particular genes directly determine why our vocabulary size is different from someone else’s, or why we are particularly good, or bad, at learning other languages. Research evidence so far appears to concur. Although a single-point mutation of the FOXP2 gene has been associated with language deficits, the gene’s role seems to be in regulating brain development, with knock-on effects for language, rather than directly supporting articulation or grammar. 11 It may be feasible to explain everything about language in terms of the interaction of environmental influences and genetically-endowed abilities that are not of themselves specifically linguistic. What is uniform about how we engage with linguistic structure would, then, be a natural consequence of how these factors interact. However, proponents of the language faculty believe otherwise—the faculty is construed as a uniform, language-specific genetic inheritance. 3 Structural arguments for language uniformity Over some 50 years, Noam Chomsky has maintained that humans possess a “language organ” whose “basic character is an expression of the genes.” 12 According to Chomsky, our basic genetic endowment determines an “initial state of the language faculty”, “a ‘language acquisition device’ that takes experience as ‘input’ and gives the language as an ‘output’ … that is internally represented in the mind/brain.” 13 The language faculty is logically necessary, Chomsky claims, to explain how children acquire their first language with such extraordinary speed and consistency, irrespective of the quantity and quality of the input and, in particular, how they are able to infer certain grammatical patterns on the basis of only negative evidence. The faculty ensures that children know what to look for in the input, in order to make structural sense of it. 14 In recent accounts just two properties lie at the heart of this universal knowledge of language grammar: structure dependence and recursivity. After briefly reviewing the nature of each, we shall also consider one of the properties claimed to be consequential on them, Subjacency.
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3.1 Structure dependence In structure dependence, small units of language combine into larger units, and units maintain their underlying integrity if the sentence is reformulated. To briefly exemplify, turning the statement in (1) into the question in (2) entails the recognition that the ‘was’ that moves to the start of the question is the second one in (1), not the first one. The clause ‘that was seen in the River Thames’ is a unit embedded in another unit, ‘The whale was a juvenile’. The question formation involves this outer clause, not the embedded one, so that it is the verb in the outer clause that is fronted, not its identical counterpart in the embedded clause. 1) The whale that was seen in the River Thames was a juvenile. 2) Was the whale that was seen in the River Thames a juvenile? Chomsky argues that if children did not come to language acquisition already knowing the principle of structure dependence, they could all too easily infer, from simpler examples such as (3) that the rule was ‘move the first verb to the front’, an adequate way to generate (4), but also leading to the creation of the ungrammatical (5). 15 (The asterisk on (5) indicates that the sentence is classified as ungrammatical). 3) The whale was a juvenile. 4) Was the whale a juvenile? 5) *Was the whale that seen in the River Thames was a juvenile? The ubiquity of structure dependence in language, and its possible non-linguistic precursors in our species, as indicated by counterparts in animal cognition, 16 mean it is hardly contentious to suppose that humans possess some sort of innate disposition towards it. However, many, including Newmeyer, still see it as specific, in its instantiation, to the language faculty: “The structure dependence of grammatical rules might well have its evolutionary antecedence in some general human (or, more likely, biological) preference for structural solutions to complex problems. But structure dependence in grammar is a highly specific adaptation of this general preference.” 17 3.2 Recursivity Recursivity is the single feature identified by Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch as making human language unique. 18 Recursivity in language means that the output of one grammatical operation can act as the input for another. The effect is that there is no logical bar on the complexity of sentences. It is, for instance, grammatical to embed one clause inside another, then another inside that, another inside that, and so on (610). 19 6) The mechanic tells fortunes. 7) I know the mechanic tells fortunes. 8) I know the mechanic the tailor saw yesterday tells fortunes. 9) I know the mechanic the tailor who makes those suits saw yesterday tells fortunes. 10) I know the mechanic the tailor who makes those suits you were thinking of buying saw yesterday tells fortunes.
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3.3 Subjacency: a consequential property In Chomsky’s models until the mid-1990s, certain additional properties of language were considered universals in their own right. One of them was Subjacency. Subjacency constrains grammatical relations arising from embedding. When one clause is embedded inside another, grammatical dependencies can arise across them. An item in one clause may cross-refer to an item in another; an item in one clause may be deleted because it also exists in another, setting up a dependency between the explicit item and the gap where the deleted item was; or an item may be ‘moved’ into another clause in order to fulfil a particular function, as in English when wh-questions are created. Subjacency prevents the linked items—in the case of a wh-question, the moved wh-word and its original location (or trace)—becoming impossible to track, by constraining the amount and type of structural material that may intervene. The effect is to allow (12) but not (13) as grammatical developments of (11), even though (13) is simply a wh-fronted version of (14). 11) Elsie bought a coat. 12) What do you believe (that) Elsie bought? 13) *What do you believe the claim that Elsie bought? 14) You believe the claim that Elsie bought what? Chomsky’s Minimalist Program simplified the notion of Universal Grammar, by making principles like Subjacency a logical consequence of the two core features— structure dependence and recursivity—plus language-specific rules. 20 Thus, “the learning child … minimally needs a notion of hierarchical structure plus an understanding of transformations and constraints on them.” 21 Adherence to Subjacency is ensured if the child knows that the progressive stages by which a ‘transformed’ sentence such as a wh-question is constructed must occur sequentially, in “‘successive cyclic’ movements, each of which cross a minimal unit of structure.” 22 Violations of Subjacency occur when one or more of the individual cycles cannot be completed, on account of an item occupying a slot that must be empty when that cycle takes place. In section 6 we shall consider the claim that Subjacency cannot be construed as ‘universal’ since it does not manifest in all languages. 4 Social arguments for uniformity Although syntactic models of language knowledge and sociolinguistic descriptions of language behaviour have generally had little to say to each other, they have common socio-political foundations. Sociolinguistic theory has maintained over many years that varieties spoken by uneducated groups, typically viewed by the establishment as aberrant consequences of ignorance, are in fact no less complex or expressively rich than the standard variety. 23 These observations are consistent with the egalitarian Chomskian position: we all start with the same genetically endowed language faculty and use it to treat our input. Since our language faculty obliges us to shape our input data in particular ways, it follows that all output will be of the same fundamental complexity. Therefore, while socially imbued contrasts between languages and varieties cannot be denied, they are only that. Change the social conditions, and the
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24 Socially induced differences (education provision. ‘races’. capability for language. Vol. in heavily affected populations.1. languages spoken by populations in which many individuals have some difficulty in processing tone will tend to lose their tonal _____________ Genomics. It is clearly socially problematic to suggest that one speaker group is in any way fundamentally disadvantaged for language relative to another. access to books. gender or disability. whereby it was presumed that the ‘noble savage’ possessed a lesser (or occasionally greater) capacity for language than the European. www.4.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. than others. classes or. on the culturally transmitted linguistic code. As with intelligence. most undesirably of all. In the account above I have focussed on the least desirable scenario. not all differences entail inequality. Society and Policy 2008. However. No. The association of invisible traits with visible ones is invidious because unless both are equally ubiquitous (and anything socially interpreted will tend not to be) the one is not a reliable index of the other. it is socially unacceptable—and for good reason—to look at someone’s appearance and infer thereby that they will be less intelligent or a less able language user than someone else. with an impact. That is. family groups. No.gspjournal. and thus much more comfortable to downplay any notion of fixed ceilings of achievement. cultural priorities) can be put right through social policies.” 29 and that the relationship is causal—“the genetic structure of a population can exert an influence on the language(s) spoken by that population. and it is defined according to particular social values. visible trait such as skin colour. To put it crudely. Society and Policy. 27 Yet genetics research is increasingly likely to demand answers to difficult questions. Research by Dediu and Ladd 28 suggests that a particular pattern of genetic variation (derived haplogroups of two genes) explains the distribution of tone languages around the world. It would be different indeed to suggest. where some populations are viewed as better at language. 26 It is anathema to modern western society that anything construed as desirable should be entirely unattainable. in some sense.com 64 . Dediu and Ladd propose that “[t]hose areas of the world where the new alleles are relatively rare also tend to be the areas where tone languages are common. The uniformitarian perspective on language arose in response to racialist attitudes.Genomics. Vol. whereby some genetically-determined variation creates ‘inequality’. and that different races could be located at different points on a directional evolutionary continuum. for instance. whether associated with random individuals. that members of a particular group had encoded in their genes a different type of language faculty. in a way that parallels the claims for systematic differences in IQ levels. age.” 30 They hypothesise that the genetic effects on brain structure determine how tone is handled during the process of language acquisition.4. That is. pp. and one line of recent research indicates the scope for challenging the notion of uniformity without an associated social stigma. or greater. that predisposed them to lesser. Tone languages use patterns of pitch change to differentiate meanings.58-73 variety viewed as most ‘ignorant’ could become the one considered most correct and desirable. 25 language ability is an invisible and contingent trait: it is not known unless it is measured. Such traits are particularly socially sensitive because of the ease with which their presence can be inappropriately inferred by association with a proxy.
and how it is that humans today still all have it. However. while less than crucial for survival on its own. It is unproblematic to find languages without Subjacency. No.com 65 . as we shall see in section 8. we must not forget that society often interprets variation judgmentally. there is place for examining the relative roles of genes and environment in the variation found across a wide range of aspects of language knowledge and performance. As we saw in section 3. therefore. In order to avoid the complications of polygenesis. previously identified as central to Universal Grammar. A third is that the genetic basis of the language faculty is highly conserved. and that possessing it gave the ancestral sub-population a distinct survival advantage over contemporaries without it. one had found evidence that the theory of Universal Grammar was invalid. because the language does not use sufficiently _____________ Genomics. including Subjacency. 5 Explanations of uniformity Chomsky’s claim that all humans possess the same fundamental language knowledge draws us inexorably to the question of when and how that knowledge arose.1. They are careful to note that “there is no evidence that tone itself confers any advantage or disadvantage on speakers. this knowledge relates to two core features of language.” 31 so this particular effect should be socially neutral. of the claim for a language faculty. For the present.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. 32 we assume the language faculty arose once only. 34 It is for others to weigh the plausibility of these and other options. No.4. pp. remarkably resilient to mutation. One is that selection pressures ensure the failure of anyone without the language faculty to survive and reproduce. Newmeyer 36 promotes the weaker version of UG theory that the Minimalist Program makes possible. that agenda arises separately. prejudice may follow.58-73 features.Genomics. Vol. 33 As to explaining its uniformly reliable persistence. www. so long as this is only because there is no scope for it to apply (eg. so evidence challenging the extent of that uniformity (see section 6) potentially impacts on our understanding of what evolved and how. structure dependence and recursivity. It need only be noted here that such evolutionary accounts are predicated on the assumption of uniformity today. The most plausible answer to the first part of the question is that it arose in the small sub-population of humans whose descendents we all are.4. there are at least three options. is tied into other basic human functions without which an individual could not survive and reproduce. some time before modern man dispersed out of Africa around 100. 35 6 Evidence for variation What sort of variation in language knowledge or performance would directly challenge the claim that we have a genetically-endowed language faculty? Although. Vol. However. and a range of consequential features.gspjournal. and where systematic difference is once found.000 years ago. Another is that the language faculty. and somewhat independently. that is. Society and Policy 2008. the question is whether variation can be adduced in relation to the language knowledge that the innateness accounts have construed as immutable. Society and Policy. Before Subjacency and other similar principles were ‘down-graded’ it was reasonable to argue that if one could find a language without Subjacency.
for instance.gspjournal. the relevant semantic dependencies are not expressed at all. even if it was not there. _____________ Genomics. any instantiation of (iv). ii) Evidence of languages failing to apply recursion.1. No. 43 Kalmár 44 reports a marked increase in grammatical subordination in Inuktitut after decontextualised writing. There is evidence that it does not even hold uniformly for English. In the weaker version of the Universal Grammar hypothesis. Society and Policy 2008. on account of having no written tradition. However.4. 37 Meanwhile.” 39 In relation to (ii). Swedish and Icelandic in which systematic violations of Subjacency are possible. the absence of embedding is inconsequential if. iv) Evidence of languages failing reliably to demonstrate structure dependence. Regarding (i). like Ong. No.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. Everett 40 has claimed that Pirahã. became more common. and this constitutes one part of his claim that Pirahã stands outside the scope of predicted ‘possible’ languages. Culicover notes that “there are languages such as Italian. Mithun suggests that “[l]anguages and speakers vary considerably in the exploitation of this syntactic device” 41 and. then it will apply. does not display recursion—it has no embedding. iii) Evidence that individuals given examples of complex sentences cannot reliably understand them. Evidence of variation in people’s capacity to understand complex embedded sentences (iii) has been offered by Chipere. Less extreme claims have been made regarding other languages. though it must be borne in mind that the assumption of structure dependence is so basic a notion to us.com 66 . Society and Policy. Vol. by proposing that communication is not always reliant on rulebound forms. 42 she sees subordination as a feature of writing rather than speech. www. and translation from English. There is not. eg: i) Evidence of the grammatical acceptability of Subjacency violations in languages that do have adequate levels of embedding. pp.Genomics. But Everett proposes that Pirahã does express the meanings that other languages achieve through embedding. to my knowledge. The weak Universal Grammar hypothesis challenges its opponents to offer a more compelling kind of evidence than simply the absence of Subjacency in languages without multiple embedding. Wray 38 provides (incidentally) a means of explaining away any examples that appear at odds with structure dependence. 45 His experimental stimuli were sentences like (15).58-73 complex embedding). that it would be difficult to describe a new language without doggedly pursuing the expectation of it. even when expressing appropriate semantic dependencies. in the sense that sentences which would be judged ungrammatical in English are judged grammatical in these languages. a language spoken in the Brazilian Amazon.4. Vol. Formulaic expressions can become and remain irregular by being processed as single lexical entries. it is vital for the theory that when the language develops the additional clausal complexity that provides the forum for Subjacency to apply. The other three proposed types of evidence are apparently attested.
Grace 48 outlines dangers inherent in a culture-centric approach to language description. Vol. He also found that individuals unable to remember or understand the stimuli responded well to training. it is obviously necessary to ensure that there is no bias in the sample. the version they acquire is frequently treated as culturally inadequate.1. lest one attribute universality to some feature that is a secondary accretion peculiar to the sampled languages. using “syntactic formulae.Genomics. He found non-graduate native speakers less able than native and non-native speaker graduates to take into account the various parts of the structure when responding to comprehension questions. for as long as these beliefs are only beliefs.58-73 for which he solicited both direct repetitions and answers to comprehension questions (eg. English. explaining his results by means of Ericsson & Kintsch’s proposal that “in skilled activities.gspjournal. 47 Possible implications of Chipere’s proposal are considered in section 8. is in many respects an artificial language. locked into writing. … impose[d] top-down on the input”. acquired memory skills allow [the] products [of interim operations] to be stored in long-term memory and kept directly accessible by means of retrieval cues in short-term memory. is required to master the niceties of specific varieties elevated as ‘correct’. What does the doctor know? and What surprises Tom?). Since the features of this ‘correctness’ have accreted over time—mostly as expressions of preferences imposed by intellectual adults 49 and often emulating patterns in Latin and Greek—there is no reason why the standard forms of English. though then extrapolated back as an educated spoken code. Society and Policy. so that additional training. it is not unreasonable to examine only a small number of languages in order to identify the features of that capacity. It has a long history of literary development and of standardisation. without which it is more natural to interpret them by analogy. Society and Policy 2008. www. The kinds of sentences at the heart of Chomskian accounts of complex grammar might therefore be ‘unnatural’.” 46 Chipere suggests that training in how to understand complex sentences supports the development of a rule-based strategy for unpacking them. Chipere suggests that explicit instruction in the grammar of English (of which the non-native graduates would have experienced most and the non-graduate native speakers least) is of assistance in understanding complex sentences. Vol.com 67 .1 Cultural enhancements of language If one believes that all languages are essentially equal in complexity. No.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. pp. Since the non-native speaker graduates actually gave the most accurate responses to some questions. through education. all the natural product of a species-wide language capacity. 15) The doctor knows that the fact that taking good care of himself is essential surprises Tom. should reflect all and only natural patterns.4. 7 Causes and effects of variation 7.4. While it remains ‘natural’ in the sense that native speakers acquire it. _____________ Genomics. However. the language most often drawn upon for modern linguistic analysis. No.
the idea that we have innate linguistic knowledge the detail of which has diverged in the course of evolution is too important to set aside. In theory. no one would notice. many or all _____________ Genomics. over the many millennia during which—if Wray & Grace are right—embedding was barely in use. when it is not in use.0 Less than black and white A few years ago people talked simplistically of a ‘language gene’. understood the principles of structure dependence and recursion. as explored in the final section.000 years ago. whether it were a trait in random individuals across all populations. who by virtue of slightly different innate language knowledge. Vol. augment a less ambitious default version of language structure in the direction of greater explicitness and regularity. were we to become satisfied that a feature of language such as recursion was not equally represented in the innate knowledge of all individuals. Society and Policy 2008. Our earliest modern ancestors. let us imagine. languages have not been under the cultural pressure that augments their form in these directions. Wray & Grace 50 offer a model of how cultural demands. Even so.4. www. No. we should probably not wish to hypothesise the undoing of something originally ubiquitous at all. and when no disadvantage ensues from its absence. My aim is not particularly to suggest that the universality of an original language faculty actually has been undermined by silent genetic variation. Let us further suppose that they understood structural relations in multiply embedded sentences after the movement of constituents—even though their spoken language(s) never provided a context in which to exercise that knowledge.com 68 . 7. and that made it easy to conceptualise all humans as equally linguistically endowed. so much as to indicate that we need to explain why it could not have been. or one passed down in family lines. One outcome might be a greater use of embedding for encoding complex meaning relationships in a retrievable way. But the accepted view now is that our capacity for language is determined by many genes.gspjournal. 8. or on account of some difference in how they approach information processing and storage.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. or a particular coherent population—we are back on socially sensitive ground. 51 Why. Let us suppose that a dedicated language faculty did arise in our species some time around or after 200. Wray & Grace propose that for most of human evolution. might not some humans emerge. Although this provides a uniform starting point for our species. No. Society and Policy.58-73 In an application of Grace’s ideas to the question of language evolution.2 Genetic variation over time The evolutionary origin of language also offers another potential explanation for variation between languages at the fundamental level. and it raises interesting issues for consideration. under what circumstances would that uniformity remain? Two hundred thousand years is a very long time for a trait to be maintained with 100% reliability across the human population. In actual fact. find embedded structures more difficult to compute? At the time. it could even come to characterise one gender more than the other. particularly the need to talk to ‘outsiders’. pp. Vol. unless there was no other way to explain the origins of its vestiges in the species.Genomics.4.1.
if it did. it is now increasingly recognised that genes and environment interact.Genomics. Chipere’s 55 work offers one candidate type of knowledge—the processing of complex embedded structures using long term memory. Society and Policy. Most research discusses whether or not the phenomenon of language can be explained without recourse to a universal language faculty. Such circumstances could play a role in creating and sustaining differences in social and material attainment. and whether. in epigenetics the expression of the gene is determined by an environmental trigger. bootstrapping would be entirely feasible. Were both true. invariant faculty dedicated to language is a topic of continuing debate. For example.58-73 of which might exist in variant forms. As for perceptions of the role of the environment. if it did exist. the harder it is to be sure on what basis we can safely judge a feature of language to be truly invariant across all normal humans. they too have become more complex. while the associated educational system was less than vigilant about teaching that ability to those not immediately adept.59 Twin studies can help separate _____________ Genomics. could have variant forms. 58. Vol. Specifically. versus only with.gspjournal. For this reason there is an urgent need for research into the genetic basis for the many aspects of variation in language knowledge and aptitude—as now being undertaken for Specific Language Impairment. but in this paper I have focussed on two different questions—whether the faculty. the language features could have led to positive selection for that gene expression in subsequent generations. it could mean that what one person did through innate knowledge. 52 Nettle 53 tentatively suggests another kind of gene-environment interaction in relation to Dediu and Ladd’s findings for tone languages. 56 Inherited predispositions to handle complex embedded structures without. I have explored the possibility that our cultural engagement with language influences our linguistic knowledge at the most fundamental level. 57 and through twin studies.4. No. training would constitute a very subtle distinction of no consequence.4. Since the skill was learnable. Irrespective of the plausibility of this particular scenario. No. www.com 69 . we would be able to tell. until cultural practices arose that prized the ability to encode and decode complex language. but effort would be entailed if one were to match the natural abilities of those with the innate disposition. Although it remains likely that much of the variation in language and languages is culturally-determined and maintained. Vol. Where they propose that a particular genetic expression may have influenced the properties of a pattern in the languages spoken by the affected people.1. described earlier. in return. pp. another could learn to do. Nettle additionally proposes that. and I have considered whether our evolutionary development could have supported a bifurcation (or more) in people’s innate knowledge about language. Society and Policy 2008. variation between individuals in relation to what we term ‘language aptitude’ or ‘flair for language’ does exist and may not be easily explained in terms of environment alone. as the result of genetic variation. 54 The more complex the genetic and environmental factors determining language are seen to be. Whether defining language as a ‘complex trait’ obviates the possibility that there lies at their heart some special.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network.
1. Centre for Language and Communication Research. writer of Roswell. www. Cardiff University. Chomsky. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. 7 The assumption of uniformity in humans leads to assumptions about uniformity in languages. The other is learning to cope with all of the possible outcomes of such research. Language and genes: a new perspective on the origins of cultural diversity. which Tao & Meyer (2006) describe as “one of the most extensively studied syntactic constructions in English” (p.ac. www.629 clauses that were structured appropriately to permit gapping. CT: Yale University Press. A striking example of a structure that Generative grammars predict but which is very rarely attested is gapping. and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance”.uk 2 For some discussion. that _____________ Genomics.129) but one that is very rarely found in corpus data. 2006. Acknowledgements The Cardiff symposium ‘What is special about the gene?’ provided the impetus for developing many of the ideas in this paper. pp. Constructions that are attested in usage but are outlawed by intuition include the one underlying What's the one episode that you wrote. see D. but do view them as complementing the dedicated language faculty. In the ICE-GB corpus (1 million words) they found 17. however. 104 (26): 10755-10756.com/sfw/issue234/interview. Society and Policy 2008.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. UK wraya@cf. The tendency for an idea to become commonly accepted without adequate evidence is exemplified by Pullum and Scholz in relation to another common claim in linguistics. Vol.4. MA: MIT Press. 60 a fact that complicates assumptions about genetically identical input being expressed identically in different individuals even in the early years of life. George Grace. S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2007. Society and Policy.4. p.Genomics.R.58-73 out the genetic contribution to variation from that partly or entirely due to environment. 5 eg.199 that are increasingly being challenged (see later). A.7%) that actually had it. eg. and two anonymous referees.gspjournal.com 70 1 . No. No. Constructions at Work. See for instance. I ate fish. Eugène Mollet and Mike Wallace.scifi. in a completely homogeneous speech-community. Establishing the role of genes in determining our language abilities is only one part of the challenge. it just blew you away? (interview with Ronald D. It is claims like “we find the same basic structural properties in every human language”. 4 Examples of constraints that do not seem to translate into use include the one that outlaws *The asleep girl as a re-expression of The girl is asleep (compare The expensive car as a re-expression of The car is expensive). 2004. chapter 1. that not only postnatal but also perinatal environmental factors play a role in how language develops. Cambridge. The paper has benefited from helpful comments and advice from Alison Sealey. N. Doctor Dolittle’s Delusion. Bill rice and Harry roast beef. on strongly defensible cultural grounds. Goldberg. but only 120 (0.3. that when you saw it. we would rather believe were fundamentally invariant. A mature society needs a means of dealing with the discovery of genetically-based differences in capabilities that. New Haven. School of English.01. 1965. p. Nettle. however. to all of whom I express my thanks.08). 6 Chomskian models do not exclude a role for general cognitive influences. Naomi Wray.E. who knows the language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions as memory limitations. accessed 27. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Vol. and from discussions with Tess Fitzpatrick. I am grateful to Stephen Pattison and Andrew Edgar for their invitation to participate. Evidence suggests. Moore. Anderson. 3 “Linguistic theory is concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-listener. Communication and Philosophy. distractions. Construction Grammar. shifts of attention or interest.htlm.
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Proceedings of the Groningen Assembly on Language Acquisition. Basingstoke: Palgrave. naming. cit. Available at http://www. 1982. 102 (30): 10604–10609. eds. op. Newmeyer. Vol. cit. is explored at length in Wray op. Groningen. auditory processing.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. 2007.1.R.J. Adaptive Learning and Concrete Minimalism. something that could logically extend to the present scenario too.Genomics. Their account explores the effect on languages of many individuals in a population exhibiting a particular trait. Society and Policy 2008. 1996. op.01. 38 A. In Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society 1984. see discussion in A. Formulaic Language and the Lexicon. Oxford: Oxford University Press. The Mind of Primitive Man. Grace. however. though not used for language. In A. p. 1-11. 2003. 359-375. 543–578. Kintsch. Society and Policy. social interaction. Formulaic Language: Pushing the Boundaries. etc.211. op. No. assigning thematic roles to participants in clauses. remembering. Wright and N. 493–523. 45 N. This argument. Methuen. op. note 11. see G. Literacy. In A. cit. 211–245. p. 4 (23) http://www2. Understanding complex sentences. Center for Language and Cognition.W. Journal of American Folk-Lore 1901. of course. 137. Wray. Are there really no primitive languages? In D. Language and Learning.gspjournal.08. offer another. The consequences of talking to strangers: Evolutionary corollaries of socio-cultural influences on linguistic form. For an overview. But language emergence after the dispersal from Africa obviates a monogenetic origin for language. 2002. p. No. 148–166. 57 Abnormalities in language can take many forms. 49 The difference between how adults approach the identification of language patterns. 39 P. Boas.) The Transition to Language. Monaco. not all linguists by any means believe that there is a ‘language faculty’ as such at all. cit.01. F. London. Wray. Hildyard eds. note 28. 2002. www. 56 Dediu and Ladd. 48 G. 34 Vargha-Khadem et al. and opportunities for both speaker rehearsal and multiple hearings. Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã. 46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Epigenetic differences arise during the lifetime of monozygotic twins. planning. op.) has entailed the presumably independently motivated evolution of many different abilities. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Olson. was vital for something else. and all linguists accept that the language package as a whole (including speech. may also display structural complexity. compared with children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2005.58-73 the first cultural evidence of language (eg. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. cit. op. 117. Koster and F. cave art). entails that the trait is not part of a dedicated language faculty. and they are generally attributed to impairments in one or more component of the complex package that supports the hypothesised language faculty (eg. Speech and language disorders. pp. p.4.180. Current Anthropology 2005.08 40 D. 43 Some culturally developed types of spoken language. Long term memory. Vol. production processing. Grace Collateral damage from linguistics? 3: The role of culture-centrism. Lingua 2007. last accessed 28. accessed 28. Uniformitarian assumptions and language evolution research. _____________ Genomics.pdf. Chipere. note 45. 41 M. Torrance and A. 1985.ling. 47 Chipere. 51 It is. 1995.F. 46 K. Kalmár. to “divest himself entirely of opinions and emotions based on the peculiar social environment into which he is born”. 55 Chipere. 165-174. 509 42 W. or planning actions.4. As with the present account. Psychological Review 102.edu/~grace/elniv23. possible that the trait. Groningen Assembly on Language Acquisition (GALA 1995).com 72 . Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.A. such as oral epics. religious rituals. Ericsson and W. 2. 35 Of course. 50 A. Barnby and A. Also F. 37 Compare Boas’ advice to the anthropologist. note 38. 4: 621-646.ohio-state. forthcoming. Fraga et al. and polygenesis naturally weakens the claim for uniformity across all languages. Culicover.html. cit. note 52. N. cit. In C.edu/~culicove/Publications/GALA. note 45. reading). Wijnen. Everett. such as organising thought. Wray (ed. Mithun. M.W. How to avoid subordination. 14 (52). 53 Fraga. Wray and G.hawaii. they propose that the variation would not be sufficient to disadvantage an individual. memory. Ong. Ethnolinguistic Notes 2002. Oral literature is characterised by repetition. 44 I. note 17. 52 eg. 36 eg. a creative mix of familiar formulae and new material. 54 This process is known as the Baldwin effect.
Vol. 647-723. pp. Cognition 2006.1 (2008) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. No. No.1. see K. 60 K. and linkage studies. funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and in collaboration with the Twin Study at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. though it is far from clear what one should look for in identifying an affected person. 469-487.gspjournal. The heritability of language: a review and meta-analysis of twin. is applying a wide range of language profiling techniques to essays written by identical and non-identical twins in a state-wide school examination. Stromswold. 58 For a comprehensive review of published studies.4.Genomics. Why aren’t identical twins linguistically identical? Genetic.Sept 2008). Vol. 59 My own current project (April 2007. www. _____________ Genomics. pp.4. Stromswold. Society and Policy. Genes and Common Diseases: Genetics in Modern Medicine. 333-384. 4. Language 2001. So far there has been no convincing evidence of impairment to just a ‘language faculty’ in the narrow sense defined in this paper. 77. 101.58-73 Hastie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. adoption.com 73 . eds. Society and Policy 2008. prenatal and postnatal factors.
'The Meanings of Genetics'.1. Lines: A Brief History (Routledge). His 2003 book What Genes Can’t Do (MIT) has just been published in Japanese. biology and history.ac.4. He has carried out ethnographic fieldwork among Saami and Finnish people in Lapland. His latest book. Society and Policy. Lenny. Ethics. He is joint co-ordinator with Andrew Edgar of the interdisciplinary humanities project.ac. edgar@Cardiff. tim.uk Andrew Edgar is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy in the School of English Communications and Philosophy at Cardiff University. Society and Policy 2007. UK.uk Lenny Moss is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Exeter.email@example.com Tim Ingold is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. human ecology. Trained in both cell biology and philosophy. and Practice in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham.ac. language and tool use. Science and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Writing was published by Cambridge University Press in 2007.gspjournal. Other interests include evolutionary theory in anthropology. bivinsre@Cardiff. on both of which topics she has _____________ Genomics. His research has been in twentieth century German philosophy and in the philosophy of medicine. Vol. He is editor of the journal Health Care Analysis. art and architecture. s. and has written extensively on comparative questions of environment. Her particular interests are the psychological and social determiners of formulaic language use and the evolution of language.Genomics. and on the interface between anthropology. the philosophical elucidation of a ‘phenotype-first’ biology and its implications for a general philosophy of nature guided by the idea of ‘natural detachment’ as an immanent teleology.uk Roberta Bivins is Associate Professor in the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick.uk Alison Wray is a Research Professor in Language and Communication at Cardiff University.com 74 . where he is also Director of the Research Institute for the Humanities. Other work has examined the cross-cultural transmission of medical expertise.ac. She is currently researching the impact of postcolonial immigration on medical research and healthcare delivery in the US and the UK. and environmental perception and skilled practice. www.74-75 Author Biographies David Amigoni is Professor of Victorian Literature at Keele University. No.1@bham. Cults and Evolution: Literature.Moss@exeter.ac. was published in 2007.ac. d.4 No. Vol. pp.uk Stephen Pattison is Professor of Religion. his current research interests include: a renewal of the enterprise of philosophical anthropology based upon a new synthesis and dialectical interpenetration of philosophy and the empirical sciences. archaeology.1 (2007) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. the role of animals in human society. He is currently writing and teaching on the comparative anthropology of the line. technology and social organisation in the circumpolar North.ingold@abdn. He researches the literature and science relation in the Victorian period and his monograph Colonies. a philosophical reconstruction of the history of philosophy from the perspective of an ‘expressivist’ anthropology.pattison.
gspjournal. Society and Policy 2007.74-75 published widely.Genomics.4 No.1.com 75 .4.1 (2007) ISSN: 1746-5354 © ESRC Genomics Network. as an index of linguistic knowledge and of learning and processing strategies. Vol. Her present empirical projects focus on new approaches to profiling variation in language performance. pp.uk _____________ Genomics.ac. wraya@Cardiff. No. www. Society and Policy. Vol.
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