Saturday, April 04, 2009

Current Controversies and a Response to Ian Hacking

I know I haven't posted in a while, but I thought of my gentle readers while replying to an academic blog today. The renowned Ian Hacking spoke at our university the last two days and we'll be having breakfast with him tomorrow morning. To prepare for this breakfast, Hacking posted a short blog entry for us to engage:

This entry can be found at the "" website.

“What will commercial genome-reading – from cheap 23andMe to costly but complete Knome – do to middle-class conceptions of personal identity?”

Say the name Knome out loud, not in one syllable but as two:– “know-me.” The corporation unabashedly offers “Know thyself” at the masthead of its Home Page.

I accept the implied invitation to connect modern technology with the Delphic injunction. “It is a matter of placing the imperative to ‘know oneself” … back in a much broader context of questioning that is either implicit or explicit. What should one do with oneself? What work should be carried out on the self?” That is Michel Foucault, talking about the “techniques or procedures … that are suggested or prescribed to individuals in order to determine their identity, maintain it, transform it.”

Are the direct-to-consumer online genome services forging a new technology of the self? There are quite a few good companies that go beyond specific ancestry tracing or specific risk evaluation (say for breast cancer). The very name of the global-Icelandic deCODEme invites “decode me so that I can know me”, but I shall focus only on the two American firms mentioned. Note that in these names it’s “me-me-me” at the end: personal identity is only a stone’s throw away.

Knome differs from 23andMe in many ways, starting with the fact that it offers your complete genome, while 23andMe is partial, looking at particular sites. More important: 23andMe encourages sharing your genetic data, while Knome emphasizes privacy. Hence they bear on your identity, as a person, in different ways.

23andMe does health and ancestry, but creates, as a byproduct, new biosocial groups. That is a phrase I adapted from Paul Rabinow, and explained in my “Genetics, biosocial groups & the future of identity.” Families are biosocial groups in which the proportion of biology ranges from zero to 100% (from an always-single person with adopted children, to an idealized nuclear family). So are races. In both cases the biosocial group can be integral to the identity of members of the group. Start saying who you are and you will soon be referring to biosocial groups. To create new ones is to generate new possibilities for new biosocial identity.

A few weeks after you have paid your $400 and sent in your spit, 23andMe writes back with a link to your genetic profile. It does not say “Welcome” but welcome to you. It is “You”, that’s Me, all the way. The implication is clear, you are about to learn about the real you.

Next, we are urged to “explore, share and discuss” our DNA. It is like Facebook. I get to join groups of fellow subscribers with whom I share some DNA commonalities, be they connected with health or haplotype. For some, these will be support groups of those said to share a significant risk of something awful. For others it will be a new way to forge genealogical links. New groups are formed, almost a parody of the idea of biosocial identity that I envisaged in the piece at the link above.

At first glance this looks like a pretty thin type of identity, not deserving of a connection with the grander philosophical ideas of the self. Yet the ways in which people come to think of themselves in terms of their support groups or their extended families cannot be exaggerated. Don’t underestimate the Facebook mode. It should be recognized as a contemporary public forum in the same business as the confessional, a device, which, from the Church to the analytic couch, has played an integral role in forming the Western idea of the self. The story, it may be suggested, continues with the “sharing” of identities on online within the framework of the likes of 23andMe. Of course, the traditional confessional was a private, two-way street, so let us turn to the private.

Knome incarnates a far stronger impulse to self-knowledge than 23andMe. It is the first company to offer a complete sequencing of your genome for cash (now down to $99,500). One sales pitch is an unabashed appeal to narcissism. Four human genomes have been sequenced with public funds (Ventner, Watson, unknown Han, and an unknown Yoruba.) Now you can join with a few more individuals whom Knome is sequencing. For a short time only, this elite group will be less numerous than astronauts who have stood on the moon. That is temporary fluff. Costs will drop radically. Complete sequencing will become a middle class luxury option. What’ll it be, honey, that week in Paris or our genomes?

The week in Paris seldom leaves much of a trace, but the genome surely will. The picture is, that you have learned your essential you. That is why the small investment will be “suggested or prescribed to individuals in order to determine their identity, maintain it, and transform it.” To determine, in the sense of find out their identity, to maintain (first in the sense of prevention of disease), and finally to transform themselves, in manifold senses.

Today a vice-president of Knome will take you through the hoops, but in a few years, competitors will outsource phone consultations that will not much differ from the useful chat you had with the tech person last time your computer broke down. Incidentally, Knome already outsources its sequencing to Shenzen, where the Beijing Genomics Institute has outstanding facilities. Even it seems to have an eye on the “me” market. In February it had a training workshop whose theme, in awkward translation, was “BGI&Me—Innovation Development Guided by Scientific Concept of Development.”

I am a conservative reactionary. I know that although my genetic inheritance constrains my possibilities of action and choice, I do not believe it is my essence or constitutes my identity. My question could be put: how long will it take before this attitude becomes extinct? We know that the genomic revolution will radically change the material conditions of life for soon-to-be-born generations. My question is: what will be the conception of self for those people soon to come?

-Ian Hacking

Here is my reply to the above article, which was submitted after many other (more worthy) academics replied...

Would this make me the lone liberal anti-reactionary?

We can all agree that identity probably can not be reduced to a digital code, even if this code comes from every (nucleated) cell in our bodies. Yes, most of us have seen GATTACA and we don’t think a digital sequence is the end-all of self identity. Because of this, I’m going to avoid the “genomic reductivism” trap. However, as a historian, I cannot help but think that the genome testing doesn’t really do anything truly revolutionary. Instead of offering a novel concept of self, genome sequencing offers “updated” arrangements of old identity categories. The newer arrangements certainly create some interesting questions, but people have identified themselves through scientific and biological categories long before the “discovery” of genetics.

I’ll give one quick example. Just to shake it up, I’ll use an example where people found empowerment and validation through biological identity (for better or for worse). In the late Victorian period, sexologists formulated an evolutionary description of “homosexuality” and “sexual inversion.” These scientific and medical descriptions of “the homosexual,” complete with case studies, reached the masses through various books. Not long after, individuals replied to the sexologists (the most notable being Ellis, Krafft-Ebing, and Hirschfeld) via letters. These readers, in essence, were writing to tell the evolutionary scientists that they read the medical book and joyously decided to adopt the new identity as defined by the sexologist. For the first time, these people found a commonality (and a shared evolutionary identity) with others even though they did not know these other homosexuals in person.

When genetics overtook older evolutionary-biological categories, the biological homosexual identity didn’t disappear. Instead, this category eventually transferred into the hotly-contested Xq28 allele, also known as the gay gene. Before one jumps to say “of course the identities shifted,” I should point out that not all evolutionary identities survived the molecular genetic shift. For instance, poverty and class were almost completely abandoned as biological categories. However, the genetic category of homosexual (and, therefore, heterosexual) remains a bio-political group identity. Again, many individuals choose to identify with this newly-genetic identity, much like they did when it was an evolutionary identity around 1880.

I’m going to make a bit of a leap because I don’t want to make this post too long, so please bear with me. The adoption of genetic identities shows a dual aspect the image of the self. On one hand (one that is emphasized in white American culture), we have an internal source of the self. Identity is found within us somewhere, whether this is in our cells or within our psyches. On the other hand, we have the self that is external. Here, identity is found through social labels given to us by others. This happens in two ways: not only do we seek commonality with others, but others label us with or without our consent.

There is no way to avoid the Janus-faces of self. However, the two versions of self do not constitute an identity. Instead, identity is formed from the navigation between the external self and the internal self. Furthermore, genomic identity potentially changes both types of self. You are AT LEAST categorized by others when your sequence becomes public information. However, most of us would identify as Tay Sachs carriers if we were told that we were by a geneticist, so there is a great chance that genomic identity influences internal self as well.

Can this genetic information tell us everything about us? No. However, it does influence our identity in PROFOUND ways (the final “P” to genetic identity, to paraphrase an American GINA congressional hearing). Not only does the information tells us about ourselves, it also tells others about our children and our ancestors in a different way than evolutionary identities did in 1880. Like any type of identity, sometimes this can lead to discrimination. Other times, this can lead to empowerment and new ways of relating to others.

Perhaps we should talk about who establishes these identities (for instance, why is there only one gay gene? Could there not be multiple types of homosexuality?), scientific authority, genetic information confidentiality, and how we use these new identities to establish our conception of the state (or the citizen). Whether we like it or not, genetic identities are here to stay so long as we accept the genetic “central dogma.” Our genomes (and our bodies) give us a new form of self, one that’s, in some way, beyond the self we can create in our own psyches; our genotypes don’t change the same way our desires and fantasies do. I believe that genomic identity is more than a happ-ME-ness fad. Genomic identities are just one chapter in a historical and deeply-rooted human phenomenon.

We'll see if this rouses any interest. Oh, yes, and I was recognized by The National Academies for my work in science education recently. yay.


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