By CRG staff - interview with Dr. Priscilla Wald

Priscilla Wald, PhD, is a Professor of English at Duke University. She is the author of Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative and Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form, as well as numerous articles concerning the intersections between science,medicine and literature.

In your observations of the way science is represented in popular culture, have you found any particular portrayals of genetics or genomics that were especially insightful - or dangerous?

One film, actually, is Journey of Man. It was a film that seems to me - I don't want to say dangerous, that's a little too strong, but the film was very misleading about what genetics can and can't tell. I think it was making an effort to respond to the critics of some of the work on the Human Genome Diversity Project, and it was preparatory to the Genographic Project. Spencer Wells, in the narration, suggests that it would be very easy to pin down somebody's ancestry, and the film does not get into the complexity and the implications. What I've written about is how the narrative of it reinforces racist narratives. I'm not calling anyone a racist, I want to be very clear about that - the film was very explicitly made to be anti-racist - but the logic of the narrative of the film really reproduces the idea that 'civilization' moved out of Africa and 'progressed' westward. And it's a really disturbing film because I don't feel that whoever wrote it was fully in control of the narrative and the impetus of the film, so it takes on a life of its own, and I think does not convey the message that they were hoping to convey. Yet I think people watching it wouldn't necessarily pick up the inaccuracies if they didn't know something about genetics.

And that's the problem, right - that the science can get lost in translation, even if not on purpose.

That's the real danger. I write in general on depictions of science in mainstream media and popular fiction and film, and consistently the nuances of science get lost and other kinds of stories take over. And I think that in turn affects the science in all kinds of ways. Scientists read newspapers and popular fiction too; and in applying for funding, certain projects are going to get funded because of the anxiety level that they represent, for instance. Something becomes the new solution: we're going to find the gene for this or that - the gene that codes for schizophrenia, say - even if it's way oversimplified. When policy decisions get made, how much do the policymakers or the funding agencies necessarily know about these things? So the way people feel about the topics has a huge impact that we can't even chronicle.

But to answer your first question, the other film that I just taught that is very problematic is Gattaca. It's a fun film, but basically what it does visually and narratively - and I don't think this was in Andrew Niccol's or anybody's mind - is consistently set up genetics and genomics against religion, against the family, against justice. The message of the film is 'there is no gene for the human spirit.' A lot of scientists really like it - they see it as making the point that we shouldn't fall into genetic determinism, and that their research doesn't mean that someone's character can be reduced to their genes. But the logic of the film is anything but, especially visually. Everything is associating genetics with sterility, with the idea of living in a laboratory, with things that are dehumanizing, and I think it does a real injustice to the science. And then people get it into their heads. At one point the film says, "Whatever possessed my mother to put her faith in God instead of the local geneticist?" And you see a crucifix as he's giving that voiceover narration. It's telling us that there's an opposition between genetics and religion, and those are the kinds of messages that I find really disturbing.

So on the one hands there's something like Journey of Man - which both of my children saw multiple times in middle school and high school - really perpetuating false information about what genomics can and can't tell us about who we - "we," in quotation marks - are, and where we came from; and then there's something like Gattaca setting up genomics as this sterile, anti-human kind of science. Those, to me, are the two bookends, and equally dangerous.

A film that I think is really interesting, actually, is X Men. You think of it as cartoonish, but it's really about bias and human nature and the complexity of being gifted. It doesn't fall into the naïve categories of good guys and bad guys. It's a very interesting film that explores what it means to be gifted.

It seems that science fiction often actively undermines the romanticizing of science - are there exceptions to this that I'm missing, any scientific utopias?

I would say that X Men - or another interesting one, the TV show Heroes - are quite favorable in their depiction of science. Dr. Xavier is a brilliant scientist, and some of the main characters in Heroes are research scientists. They are very well intentioned and actually doing some very important work, presumably.

As for utopias … I've read so much science fiction, but nothing is coming immediately to mind, and maybe it's because I'm much more interested in perspectives that are about the complexity of something, not all bad or all good. If I see it going all in one direction I tend to go somewhere else.

I would also say a novel that's really interesting - certainly not utopian - is Darwin's Radio [by Greg Bear]. I think it's one of the most brilliant explorations of what happens when a widely held scientific theory is challenged. Another example - which is speculative fantasy, so it's not really exploring the science directly but more the issues coming out of the science - is Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis, or Lilith's Brood trilogy. She's writing in the late 1980s - and all of the things that are coming out of the Human Genome Project are things that she was exploring in really intricate and unresolved ways in that trilogy.

For some people, science fiction needs to be truly engaging with the literal science; for me it's often the speculative fiction that is actually most deeply engaged with the science, because it's getting at the deep issues that are informing the research.

Do you see any marked similarities or fundamental differences in the way that genomics is represented in mainstream media versus science fiction?

I don't draw a huge distinction there, but I'm also looking for scenarios in popular culture that are being plucked out of the news. The popular depictions that interest me have tended to be amplifiers of some of the deep issues being brought up in the media - a sort of magnifying glass that takes some concept and really extends it into an ongoing scenario that allows us to really tease out the implications that are implicit in the stories that are emerging from the media.

You have been researching the idea of genomics as creation myth. Where do you see that happening?

I'm writing a whole book on that, but I'll try to give you a very quick version. As for the 'where,' the obvious place is the DNA ancestry testing going on. In Journey of Man, at one point, the book that Spencer Wells wrote from the script of the film - the film was first - he actually called it a creation myth or a creation story. At one point he says "we have our own creation stories too." And I think that's a very astute point - I don't know how he meant it, but he's referring to Western scientists, and I think it's exactly right.

I don't mean to be at all disparaging or dismissing when I use the term 'myths.' I think it is a mistake to associate myths with "primitive" culture. I think that everybody has myths, and I think myths are essential to our existence. Myths are stories about social groups and group identities; they give us purpose and give our lives a kind of poetry. They are also very hard to challenge, because we believe them on a very deep level, and they are kind of invisible. So when I call genomics a creation myth, I don't mean it to be dismissive - I'm certainly not antiscience or anything like that. At the same time, I think the science is getting incorporated into new origin stories that we are telling ourselves.

We have new ways of thinking about our interconnectedness at the same moment that we have a kind of pushback from an effort to have a science that is telling us that we can trace our ancestry, and we can go back to seeing our differences as well as our similarities.

So the surface message of people like Spencer Wells is that we're all the same, we're all mixed, there's more genetic similarity within groups than between groups and so forth; but at the same time, the message of the research is about going back and separating these strands of where we come from. And my question is: why are we doing this at this time? I don't mean that in a paranoid sense - I think there could be good reasons - but I think it's an important question to ask.

Part of what I'm arguing in my book is that whenever there is a convergence of a real challenge to previously accepted definitions of human beings coming out of both science and social thought, you tend to get new creation stories. I see that happening in the 18th century with the idea of natural rights (the narrative that accompanies the "Rights of Man"); I see it happening in the Victorian period around Darwinian evolution; and I see it happening after World War II, at the dawning of genetic research - which is also, and I think this is not irrelevant, the moment at which science fiction comes into its own as a genre. I think science fiction, deeply and theoretically, is engaging exactly those issues: the changing definitions of human beings and their relation to creation stories and myths.

You talk about myths being invisible in a way, and I can see how genomics can be invisible too - but at the same time, is it less of myth because genomics can claim this scientific grounding?

I think all myths do. Well, not all myths, obviously … but in early cultures, I don't think there's such a difference between myth and science. If you think of science as an effort to have a systematic observation of the world - myths are also an effort at explanation. Currently, we have a certain story about who we are and our origins which comes from Darwin, and that's based on scientific inquiry. But it still has a mythic dimension.

Our myths are grounded in, we could say, a more sophisticated science than the myths of 2000 years ago - but I think there's an analogy, and it would be arrogant for us not to think that if the world continues, our understanding of the world will be superseded by the understandings of others.

Because we don't know what the myth will be in a hundred years - we don't know how silly ours might sound.

Right, but none of them really sounds silly to me in the end; if I understand all of them to be about the poetics of collective identity, they become a lot more profound. So I'm not taking them at face value.

A world without myths would be a very dry world. Myths are beautiful; but they can blind us as much as they can illuminate and enlighten. That's true of any story, any ideology, any narrative or theory. Take something like Gay Related Immunodeficiency. That term, 'GRID,' made it easier for a doctor to identify the early signs of HIV in some people (specifically gay men). It also created terrible and destructive biases that both stigmatized populations in dreadful and counterproductive ways and blinded researchers to the full cause of HIV, which meant the blood supply went uninvestigated for way too long, and people who were not gay men were not suspected of having HIV. It illuminated certain areas and obscured others - and that's true of any theory, any definition. We have too much noise coming in; if we didn't filter, we would see nothing. But we have to be very careful of how we filter.

There are myths that are more dangerous than others, so what I advocate is just being attentive to the myths and figuring out which ones we want to keep going with and where we want to make changes.

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