Welcome to the Genomics Forum blog

Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Queequeg's Coffin or The Lifeboat

Before I get going, I want to think about this image for a second. This was how it was chosen to "market" the project for sequencing the human genome. We are contained and confined and defined by it. That's what it says. The gene is the essential us. Every branch of knowledge falls into its helical embrace.


Like every other "View of Life", genomics seems to me to be capable of being used in two ways: the way of Ahab or the way of Ishmael. A restless wish to master and control the experience of being alive... against a rather fluffier, more accepting, more systemic sense of being part of a continuum which we cannot seek to master. Religion, I think, has similarly bipolar potential.

What is wrong in the image above (and with almost all religions) is the idea that it's all about us. Take us out of the centre of the image, and genomics, I think, offers "us" liberation, not confinement. Freedom, not definition.

Like all good ideas, genomics is capable of being at least two opposite metaphors at the same time. But if you listen to the hype, genomics is all about mastery. Taking the stuff of life and making of it the raw material for commerce, for technical innovation. Oddly, the promise of total control of our biological destiny is the way this idea of life's interconnections and interdependence has been sold to us.

Now I'm all for enhancing our quality of life through an enhanced technical capacity. I don't believe I suffer from residual "essentialism", from any idea that life, as such, is sacred and not to be messed with. Far from it. If anything, my own "View of Life" is more rigorously material and relativist the more I find out about it through this residency. A molecule is just a molecule.

It's "mastery" I distrust as a metaphor for how we should regard ourselves and our relationship with nature. It's "truth" I distrust as a metaphor for our intellectual interactions with stuff. Including human nature. I don't think it's a coincidence that the financial technocrats whose delusions currently afflict us are referred to as the "masters of the universe", even if they had the plastic toys rather than the gods in mind. The track record of mastery in its financial manifestation is poor and the future prospects for that "view of life", if anything, are worse.

Bruce McKibben, in "the End of Nature", one of the founding texts of modern environmentalism, put forward the idea that our metaphor of being actors upon a stage...humanity in nature...was no longer tenable. Specifically, that "man made global warming" undermined our "stewardship" of this ball of rock and water we call home. That we are living in the Anthropocene era...that we are causing such fundamental changes in the climate, (and, if the 1 October edition of New Scientist is to be believed, in earth's geology as well) that we need to adjust our thinking to a different kind of reality. A different metaphor, in our terms. To quote David Cameron, that we are all in it together. But we have to mean it.

The temptation is to see ourselves as the devil. But we're no more the devil than we're God. It's the separateness of the ideas of "human" and "natural" that is being rendered incoherent by the new demands on us for living in the world consciously.

Genomics, I think, fundamentally challenges both sides of the "Human/Nature" dialectic. It integrates our biology fundamentally and practically with biology tout court. It fosters, as does the threat of environmental catastrophe, a systemic way of thinking about "life" which radically de-centres humanity, humbles us, in fact, while at the same time demanding of us urgent self-protection. To see ourselves as an accidental and temporary evolutionary product dramatises the contingency of our civilisation. Both terms, both metaphors - human and nature - are now of questionable utility in getting us to do what we need to do.

A very narrow window for "life as we know it" opened at the receding of the ice from the middle east 10 000 years ago that can just as easily and dramatically find itself closing. Human exceptionalism, like American exceptionalism, is a fantasy in the mind of Michelle Bachman. Rather the reverse of exceptionalism is more and more overwhelmingly the case, both in terms of how we hope to survive as a "civilisation" and of how we see ourselves, what metaphors we use to describe and think about ourselves.

I suspect that the fact that climate change denial joins manifest destiny and "the right to life" on every Republican platform is itself a response to the slippage of mastery as a tenable image of our relationship with nature and with each other. Fundamentalists of all stripes are insisting so loudly that "we are who we say we are" that one suspects that they secretly doubt it.

My last three blogs have all been heading in the direction of some sort of synthesis. Between Cezanne's renunciation of the joys of perspective, to Andrew Knoll's bacteria-centric model of "life" to Carl Sagan's celebration of the immensity of time, I think there is a liberating and emotional connection.

We are time and environment limited. Only by learning how not to be God, only by learning that we are not the centre of everything can we learn to be the centre of ourselves. We have to learn a new way to value ourselves and each other that not only does not seek to deny our contingency and material commonality with "nature" but takes inspiration and purpose not from our imaginary strength and uniqueness, but from our actual, demonstrable weakness, fragility and dependence.

For this purpose, may I offer a small selection of equivalences in the hope of their utility.

Complexity is evidence of improvisation
Natural selection is intelligent chance.
God is Dice.
Mastery is illusion.
We do not and cannot live in the world the way it really is.
Metaphors are how we make things useful to us.
To observe is to act upon the world.
There is no one but ourselves who cares to save us.
The measure of everything is everything
The measure of "man" is whatever we want it to be
Ishmael survived.
Ahab went down with the whale.

Shantih Shantih Shantih

Oh...quick recommendation, next time you hear someone describe Hitler as a Darwinist, (and hence Darwin as Hitler), send them this.


Peter Arnott is Resident Playwright at the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, Peter will be hosting a number of public engagements as he explores ideas and seeks inspiration for a genomics related play.

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