Genetic theorists assert that we can explain human characteristics, health, and/or behavior, to a significant degree, by the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) sequence present in the genes of a person or of a group of people presumed to have meaningful genetic similarity.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, when they rediscovered the earlier published work of Czechoslovakian monk Gregor Mendel, Western scientists have agreed that recessive and dominant factors of heredity govern numerous human traits (such as eye color). Two contributing alleles determine these traits, one from each parent, with dominant factors always physically expressed, as they have the power to mask recessive ones. Scientists call these factors genes—although this term was (and some argue still is) quite imprecise—and they conceptualize genes as clustered together on chromosomes. By the 1950s, biologists had demonstrated that the DNA within genes influences heredity, and in 1953, scientists James Watson and Francis Crick published their famous double helix model, which is still used today, to conceptualize how discrete strands of DNA interlock with matching base pairs of adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine.
Today, common agreement exists that a gene is a stretch of DNA that produces a code specifying the amino acid sequence of one of the many proteins essential to the structure and function of the human body. DNA sequences in genes (the genotype) have some relationship to the physical expression of the human organism (the phenotype). However, disagreement persists about the degree of influence biological heredity has in determining who people are and how they behave. Some geneticists, biologists, and other scientists assert the dominance of a genetic paradigm in explaining human phenomena at both the individual and the societal level. Critics often argue that such assertions are greatly exaggerated and that factors such as family, natural, and social environments and economic and political structures have much more explanatory value. “Nature versus nurture” and “genes versus the environment” are frequently invoked shorthand terms for describing the tension between these points of view.
In the early 21st century, the pendulum between nature and nurture inclines quite steeply toward the former. Genetic explanations figure prominently in dominant understandings about what differentiates humans from one another as well as what determines health and behavior. Nonetheless, what is asserted by some as genetic knowledge is contested by others as genetic theory. This struggle over definitions and explanatory power is an ongoing social problem with both practical and theoretical implications.
Debates About the Fundamental Assumptions and Politics of Genetics
Behind debates over particular genetic issues lie several fundamental assumptions that are themselves contested. One is the premise that we best generate meaningful knowledge by examining the smallest parts of organisms—the DNA on genes. Proponents of genetic theories assert that the information gathered in this process can reveal the very essence of human life in an objective manner buffered from social or political influence. An opposing point of view is that reducing people to tiny parts (“reductionism”) does not allow for a more holistic and useful understanding of humans as complete and relational beings. Reductionism has been central to most traditional forms of scientific endeavor, but many view genetics as its ultimate expression. Critics also extend to genetics a long-standing critique of scientific objectivity, arguing that all knowledge is in fact constructed through such processes as deciding how to define issues, what questions to ask, and how to examine and interpret data.
A second contested point is the relationship between knowledge and concrete interventions to improve human health. Much genetic research receives broad public and political support on the assumption that knowledge about micro processes in the body will benefit all through targeted tests and medical interventions. Critics counter that the ability to test for and diagnose real or predicted problems has always been far greater than the capacity to treat them and that there is a problematic tendency to produce tests and use them as the capacity to do so emerges, without adequate consideration of the ethical, legal, and social consequences of such actions.
A third issue is the exercise of human agency. Do genetic theories lead to a sense of fatalism because genetic endowment cannot be (and should not be) controlled by individuals? Or conversely, do they lead to a sense of hope because they may ultimately lead to greater control over intractable diseases, over the kinds of babies people have, and over what can be predicted about people’s behavior and talents?
Also at stake in debates about genetics are questions about the allocation of social resources. Genetic research of all kinds, like many forms of scientific research, successfully attracts enormous financial investment. Are these dollars well spent, or might they yield greater benefit if they were used to address other problems?
Genetics and Genomics
In 2003 scientists completed the multibillion-dollar Human Genome Project, which resulted in a description or “map” of all the genes on all the chromosomes in a prototypical human body. With this massive enterprise came a shift in scientific discourse from a focus on genetics, characterized as single gene disorders or characteristics, to a focus on genomics, which takes into account both the interaction among genes and the complex interaction between genes and the environment. This shift opened the door for genetic theories to move from explanations featuring direct, linear causality (i.e., gene X causes manifestation Y) to more complex hypotheses. Recognition that the way many genes will express themselves is integrally connected to environmental factors is a particularly notable aspect of the movement from genetics toward genomics.
However, some argue that the shift to genomics greatly expanded the reach of genetic explanations and bolstered assumptions that genomic research can best illuminate and address ever-larger arenas of our social world. For example, genetics traditionally focused on relatively rare disorders, such as Huntington’s disease, which are associated with mutations of just one gene. Genomics, in contrast, focuses on the genetic component of nearly all common illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, schizophrenia, and cancer. The concern is that emphasis on the genetic component of these conditions detracts attention and resources from factors that exert greater influence over health outcomes, such as poverty and environmental toxins.
Genetic Issues in the Early 21st Century
Genetics and genomics are central to a growing number of emerging practices across arenas as diverse as medicine, criminology, special education, employment, and informatics. Two of the most salient of these issues will illustrate how genetic theories apply to concrete social problems.
Predictive Screening and Resting
Predictive screening and testing is perhaps the most tangible form genetics takes in the lives of individuals. These tests identify genetic mutations or information that is presumed to meaningfully predict a person’s “risk” for disease. For example, pregnant women now routinely test their fetuses for various mutations and make deliberate decisions about which babies to have and not have. Women identified with the “breast cancer gene” (BRCA1 or 2) may increase the frequency of visits to doctors for screening, or they may have prophylactic mastectomies. Parents whose babies get positive newborn genetic screens may act to prevent, mediate, or even anticipate disease. Proponents argue that these tests illustrate the promise of the genetic revolution. Critics argue that both the accuracy of the tests and the availability of effective treatments or prevention strategies are highly questionable, as increased testing results primarily in greater numbers of people who think of themselves or their children as sick or deviant despite no manifest symptoms of disease. Further, critics contend, mass testing programs function not just as medical procedures but also as mechanisms for categorizing individuals (e.g., as “normal” or as “deviant”).
Genetics and Race
Genetic theories also play a prominent role in contemporary debates about race. On the one hand, the Human Genome Project’s discovery that little genetic variation exists among people (about .1 percent) received extensive publicity. On the other hand, research on what genetic differences do exist among people continues at a rapid rate. Examples include studies to determine genetic components of health disparities; studies to develop “race-based” therapeutics such as BiDil, the first drug to be developed and marketed specifically for blacks; and the Human Genome Diversity Project, which is looking at DNA from groups around the world to understand evolutionary history. Despite care taken to differentiate contemporary genetic theories about race from historical precedents such as Nazi eugenics, such theories do continue to assert that we can meaningfully understand the differences among people through analysis of DNA. Critics contend that social inequality is a much more useful frame for analyzing difference and promoting equality and that genetic theories about race are both scientifically questionable and socially misguided.
- Duster, Troy. 2003. Backdoor to Eugenics. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
- Hubbard, Ruth and Elijah Wald. 1999. Exploding the Myth: How Genetic Information Is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators and Law Enforcers. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Kevles, Daniel and Leroy Hood, eds. 1992. The Code of Codes: Scientific and Social Issues in the Human Genome Project. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Nelkin, Dorothy and Laurence Tancredi. 1994. Dangerous Diagnostics: The Social Power of Biological Information. New York: Basic Books.
- Rothman, Barbara Katz. 2001. The Book of Life: A Personal and Ethical Guide to Race, Normality and the Implications of the Human Genome Project. Boston: Beacon Press.
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