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The certain scientist and the uncertain gene

26 August 2011
Appeared in BioNews 622
Philosopher Langdon Winner rather poetically refers to scientific public engagement as 'technological somnambulism'. The image he invokes is that of a vast network of societal sleepwalking; interacting but not engaging. This is especially true within a biomedical context.

Whenever an inventive entity creates novel technologies, he or she inspires and develops two important constructs. The first is the physical instrument, or perhaps something less concrete, such as an idea or methodology. This construct is publicly visible, ideally reproducible, and may be marketable. The second construct is more powerful, but far more subtle. It is a social metaphor. It is the way that the instrument's users and the innovator's audience make sense of the technology, apply it to their cultural epistemologies, and make it fit into the complex structures that pervade the way in which groups of people have come to know how the world works.

A problem, as I see it, with Western empiricism and the dissemination of science to the public, is that the developers, owners, and users of Western science are acutely aware of the former construct, and all too often completely ignorant of the latter. Developers of Western medicine so often rely upon the robust products of empirical methodologies for their authority that they hastily assume the metaphors constructed by their audience will be equally robust. They have plans for their products to be socially prescriptive, but, as the social theorist Donna Harraway has mused: 'The cultural and material authority of biomedicine's productions of bodies and selves is more vulnerable, more dynamic, more elusive, and more powerful than that'.

I have conducted fieldwork in the Middle East, studying indigenous perceptions of genetics and genetic susceptibility for disease. Local health authorities in Abu Dhabi and Dubai encouraged the work. They had intended to decrease skyrocketing rates of type 2 diabetes, and to lower increasing rates of consanguinity among the Bedouin and coastal Emirati population by educating them about the disease. However, indigenous categories of race, kinship, and cosmology, have had an unanticipated transformative effect on the role of biomedicine in the Gulf community.

The introduction of genes as an Arab signifier, and as agents of disease, has instead contributed to an increase in diabetes and higher rates of consanguinity. The intricacies of genetic understanding in the region are complex, but even a hasty examination shows that the relationship between the development of genetic practices and the cultural understanding of science is reciprocal rather than linear. Genetic dissemination has not particularly informed gulf society. Rather, it continues to be reimagined by indigenous groups to provide a biomedical language for what many Gulf Arabs already knew. The concept of genes has become a category of fate or of Arab tribal citizenship, and yet for many it remains quite independent from familial kinship. Genes become ambiguous and impartial entities that may act as antagonists to human well-being, but they do not necessarily contribute to phenotypic appearance.

Part of the problem is the way science was presented. Projects on the 'Arab genome' were introduced in an effort to show that local groups may have a propensity for certain conditions. It was assumed that people would then take a more active role as agents of their own well-being. However, by presenting genetics as inherent and prescriptive entities, health initiative programs ignored the shades left by history; they failed to remember science's more subtle construct. This phenomenon is, of course, not isolated to the Arabian gulf, but is a pattern repeated cross-culturally, and across the globe.

Knowledge of genetics is particularly open to social metaphor because of its potential to redefine the concept of the self, and so its public dissemination should be especially scrutinised. Only in extreme circumstances do we 'wake up'. A salient example is the public controversy surrounding James Watson's 2007 book tour in the UK. As one of the forefathers of modern genetics, Watson was more poised than most to affect the public engagement of molecular biology. The epistemology of science, however, can be a powerful thing. After proposing arguments akin to modern day eugenics, Watson appeared shocked that the Western world labelled him a racist. The man who elucidated the double helix was publicly disgraced and forced to resign from his laboratory. I wonder, however, if a voice quieter than Watson's would have slipped through. Would we have been awake enough to notice? In what ways might it have subtly informed our understanding of the world, and in turn, how would it then inform the further development of genetics?

My simple anthropological point is that whenever a foreign or novel knowledge system is introduced into any social body, the complexities of the local epistemologies provide consequences for these systems, and so too they have transformative effects on these systems. Historical shadows, cultural legacies, and semantics matter. To ignore them is to sleepwalk; to suddenly find that our science is unrecognisable from our intentions.

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