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Biography 24.1 (2001) 185-196

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Genome and Genre: DNA and Life Writing

G. Thomas Couser

The mouse contains most human genes.

--Leroy Hood (149)

"The Holy Grail," "the Code of Codes," "the Book of Life," "the Book of Man," "the autobiography of a species"--the human genome is often referred to in terms more appropriate for texts, even sacred texts, than for the tiny strips of DNA of which it actually consists. As these phrases suggest, the genome has become a contemporary icon to which many look for the unraveling of the mysteries of life and for the solution to many human problems. We regularly hear of milestones in the progress of the Human Genome Project: periodically we are informed of the discovery of the gene for "X," and not long after the arrival of the new millennium, the completion of the sequencing of the entire genome was announced, to predictable media fanfare. Partly as a result of extensive media coverage of the Project, we live in an era when genetic influence is given unprecedented credence as an explanation of human behavior.

I half expect that in the not-too-distant future, scientists associated with the Human Genome Project will announce that they have located the gene for autobiography. This idea may seem amusing to those who consider life writing far too complex a behavior to be "genetic," but behaviors seemingly as complex are commonly referred to as legitimate and plausible products of genetic influence. Consider alcoholism, criminality, poverty, and homelessness. More and more people consciously or unconsciously subscribe to the proposition that genes "r" us. Humanists are to some extent condemned to fighting a rearguard action against the spread of genetic determinism, but the Human Genome Project is a phenomenon we cannot afford to ignore.

What is the relation between what is commonly referred to as the "Book of Life" (the human genome) and what I think of as the "book of life" (what [End Page 185] we might call "the human scriptome"--autobiography and other related forms of life writing)? Let me note at the outset several separate but overlapping senses in which DNA functions as a kind of nonverbal life writing: first, the sense in which genes themselves may decisively influence one's identity and life course; second, the sense in which gene tests may influence one's sense of identity and life course; and third, the way in which the cultural construction of genetic information may influence identity and life course. The Human Genome Project represents a significant new development in the tendency inherent in biomedicine toward diagnosis and prognosis that are independent of the patient's testimony or even cooperation. 1 It represents the achievement, without literal penetration of the body, of the most metaphorically invasive of exposures: it bids to decode the very stuff we are made of, to spell out--to spill out--secrets we didn't know we had. 2 If it can trace our genealogy, predict our future, and give us news about our actual present condition (as distinct from our subjectively experienced condition), DNA analysis has serious implications for life writing.

The complex multistage process of DNA "fingerprinting" (to employ the inevitable metaphor) involves producing what is known as an autoradiogram. In this process a stretch of DNA is washed with a radioactive element that binds to it and is then exposed to X-ray film; the result is a kind of X-ray of the individual's DNA (Lander 192), whose most prominent features are dark bands very much like those in a barcode. If we extend the term "autoradiography" from the laboratory technique to the entire process by which an individual's DNA may be gathered, sampled, exposed, decoded, and "translated," it is apparent that autoradiography is a powerful form of life writing (albeit not of self-life-writing). The idea of DNA as the ultimate and definitive identifier of the individual is especially interesting because it arises in a post-modern era in which academics have deconstructed the subject and many seemingly constitutive physiological characteristics--such as sex and...


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