New Literary History 31.4 (2000) 681-708
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Grammar, Genes, and Geography
Priscilla Wald *
When asked to describe the human genome initiative, James Watson remarked, "we used to think our fate was in our stars. Now we know, in large measure, our fate is in our genes." 1 No comment has been quoted more often in the literature concerning medical ethics and the initiative. Watson, who served as the first project director of the National Institutes of Health's Center for Human Genome Research from 1988 until 1992, has played a leading role in the genome mapping initiatives, and his comment, quoted in a Time magazine article about the Human Genome Project in 1989, has come for many to signify the objectionable hubris that has made the project so controversial among scientists, ethicists, and the general public. Funded by the United States Department of Energy and the NIH in October 1989, the Human Genome Project has as its goal the complete mapping and sequencing of the DNA molecule that constitutes human genetic material, which scientists hope will give them better information about the functioning--and misfunctioning--of human bodies. Genetics as a science can certainly not be reduced to the Human Genome Project, but, if coverage in fiction, movies, and the press is any indication, the project has captured the popular imagination, becoming the most visible manifestation of the possibilities and dangers of genetics. In the scientific and popular media, these initiatives have been hailed as the harbinger of medical miracles, but they are greeted equally with apprehension about their social consequences, sketched out in dystopic scenarios of the impact of genetics on human relations and dignity.
Geneticists are in many ways, probably more than most scientists, near kin of literary critics, yet they are also cartographers of a sort. Texts and [End Page 681] maps are the two most common metaphors for the interpretation of genes, and they represent two different and competing relationships to their material. Like literary critics, most geneticists eagerly acknowledge the mutability of their "texts" and their own interpretations, yet their efforts to map what they are finding suggest an increasing sense of command over the terrain. The writings of most geneticists--at least those offered to a broad audience--register a constant tension between the desire to establish meaning (create a definitive map, find the right reading) and the recognition and even celebration of its proliferation: the poetry of the gene. Journalists often write their uncertainty out of the story. Bold declarations make better copy, and the general public seems to want (even as it mistrusts) scientific authority. Yet, the uncertainties as much as the expectations account for the particular scientific and popular fascination with genetics. Especially riveting are the controversies surrounding the effort to define foundational concepts like humanness and relatedness in the language of the genes, which is accompanied by the shift from psychosocial and environmental explanations of behavior and personality to genetic ones. Those changes are the subject of this essay, for it is in them, rather than in "our stars" or "our genes," that science and popular culture are most dramatically rewriting human destinies.
I begin with an example of how scientific reporting in the popular press mischaracterized a scientific hypothesis: the possible genetic connection between the HIV virus and the bubonic plague. The discrepancies between the scientific and journalistic accounts of the hypothesis demonstrate how social narratives incorporate (and distort) scientific theories. Yet, such incorporation is rarely a complete departure from the original hypothesis, and this case is no exception. Typically writing the complexities and hesitations out of the hypothesis, the journalistic accounts nonetheless expressed and extended assumptions embedded in the methodologies through which the geneticists formed their hypothesis and the representations through which they presented them. While this example does not illustrate inevitable or unalterable biases in the science of genetics, it offers insight into some of the possible social implications of the emerging genetic explanations of human development. The move to an increasingly genetic explanation of human behavior and human history is underway, and no contemporary discussion of...