GENEWATCH
 
THE GENOMIC IMAGINARY
By Patricia Williams
 

I teach a Justice and Bioethics class that, over the years, has attracted not only law students, but students from a grand variety of disciplines including medicine, engineering, biology, anthropology and journalism.  At the beginning of every semester I do a silly little exercise as a way of putting on the table all the romantic images they might be harboring:  I ask them to draw a cartoon depicting the DNA in their own bodies.  Very few draw molecular topology. Indeed, no matter how sophisticated their backgrounds in biochemistry or genetics, whatever they draw is almost always relentlessly pre-modern: little men scurrying about with messenger bags; "a womb inside each cell"; mini-drones circulating just beneath the skin; "a golden fully-formed-but-microscopic Me, floating in the thorax"; a Harvard beanie; Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man; a "biological Torah in the Ark of the body." 

The symbolism embedded in these framing metaphors and tropes-as delivered up by even the most secularly scientific minds-is intriguing.  These are images of faith and karma and alchemy, of holy text and of the resurrection of the body-as well as of entitlement and preordination. While I ask my students to do this exercise as a way of externalizing what might otherwise remain fairly unconscious associations, these filters are persistent.  They remain on the table, they do not go away.

When I contemplate the next few decades of genetic technology and research, I think of those students and what roads their chosen taxonomies will chart through the genetic forest, the mind-maps their nominations will impose upon our collective understanding.  In twenty years, I have no doubt that the actual science of genomics will have continued to expand explosively.  I have no doubt that we will have medicines that at present we would think of as miracles.  We will have access to our farthest ancestral links.  Governments, schools, employers and corporations will have access to our farthest ancestral links as well.  Recombinant and synthetic biology will revolutionize our conception of reproduction and the life cycle itself.

That said, the little gallery of drawings I keep convinces me that the most important questions we face now and will then are age-old:  how will we distribute the benefits of new knowledge?  Will this sudden source of power and wealth be translated into public health benefits, or hoarded by elites?  Will biologized notions of "endowment" displace or supersede notions of political equality?

The ability to read DNA quickly and cheaply, moreover, will put big holes in much of what we presently consider private as a matter of right. Similarly, the surveillance possibilities will give new meaning to the expression "You can run, but you can't hide." Finally, the delicate conceptual and jurisprudential relation between the historic sanctity or inalienability of human bodies and the body-as-product will be vexed; for if medical research is ostensibly the driver of many recent genomic discoveries, the designated funding behind that research surely exists in ambiguous tension with corporatized pharmaceutical interests.

What I hope we will have refined by then is our sense of urgency about the social justice issues presented by genomics. I hope that we will have embraced this science for what it teaches us about our common humanity and our interdependence with all other life forms. I hope that we will be guided by respect for the dignity of organisms and caution about unintended consequence, rather than by commercial profit, magical thinking, predestination, hubristic risk disguised as "progress," mutilation masquerading as "improvement," or eugenics doing business as...usual.

This is what I hope.  But that is also what I fear.

 

Patricia J. Williams, JD, is a Professor of Law at Columbia University and a member of CRG's Board of Directors. She writes a monthly column for The Nation called "Diary of a Mad Law Professor."


 
 
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