Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

From Secrets of Life to the Life of Secrets: Tracing Genetic Knowledge as Genealogical Ethics in Biomedical Britain

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

From Secrets of Life to the Life of Secrets: Tracing Genetic Knowledge as Genealogical Ethics in Biomedical Britain

Article excerpt

The burdens of genealogy: from where does talk about the medicalization of kinship come?

It is widely said by both popular and scholarly commentators that the substance of DNA reveals the 'secret of life': indeed, this has become a ubiquitous cliche in contemporary Western scientific discourse. Where once it was possible to find linkages between secrets of life and secrets of death in the intertwined strands of the double helix and the nuclear fall-out of the Abomb (Keller 1992: 40), today the same dialectic of secrecy shapes cultural ideas about the social value of genes, genomes, and technoscientific futures. If, however, the spectre of human reproductive cloning meets its apotheosis in popular concerns over biological terrorism and germ warfare destruction, then, by the same token, it is now much harder to determine where for one person life may be said to begin, and for another death happens to take over. Focusing less on dystopian images than on certain lived realities, this article delimits an altogether different trajectory of 'bio-secrecy': one that is grounded in some of the everyday kno wledge dilemmas that people in contemporary Britain have already experienced in relation to changing conceptions of their genes, bodies, and persons. At the same time, it seeks to identify and challenge some anachronistic survivals of older anthropological ideas and associations.

What I have in mind here is the tradition of objectifying genealogical knowledge in terms of the 'scientific'- propagation of tree-imagery (see Bouquet's critique 1993). Let me begin by bringing together one received claim which still enjoys widespread legitimacy amongst genetic scientists and a series of critical counter-claims from the social sciences.

The received claim would begin with the conventional narration of one particular scientific 'discovery' in 1953 in Cambridge, UK. Envisioned as the base pairing of the double helix, and passed on to us through James Watson's and Francis Crick's identification of the mechanism of genetic replication, the genetic code is said to hold nature's revelatory logos and more. We have before us, ostensibly, the simple mechanics of a self-replicating molecule, of 'Life Itself'. (1) The counter-claim refuses to reproduce these abstractions, Why should the rhetorical power of such secrets appear to carry almost universal biological and social resonance stabilizing the construct of 'man' across cultures and time, as though all human beings ultimately begin and end their lives in similar ways? How could scientists once have believed that it is by the governance of the pre-programmatic code that human form silently takes shape, bringing persons to life as degrees of sentience or, as nineteenth-century social evolutionists o nce reckoned, as the varying degrees of civilized virtue?

Recently, cultural historians and feminist biologists have argued that objectivist viewpoints about life and the abstraction of life's secrets were facts that came to be naturalized within singularly Westernized representations of heredity (Doyle 1997; Kay 2000). In the mid-twentieth century, life as a sequence of secret nucleotide chains was a story that was being written by a number of mainly American and British male research biologists. According to these laboratory-based scientists, secrets inhered within a mute and authorless form of 'genomic textuality' (Kay 2000: 331), a textuality that both challenged and augmented previous scriptural representations. Kay's critical historiography shows how certain informational idioms came to be imported into Cold War biology from the post-war obsession with cryptanalysis, cybernetics, electronic computers, and simulation technologies. 'Hereditary material', she comments, 'became informational, and the informational representations of the code were literally materi alised' (2000: 7).

For the interested anthropologist, this Euro-American play on the transmission of 'scientific' knowledge as sources of 'secret' power looks like a near-perfect reproduction of any one of a number of locally conceived non-Western 'origin myths'. …

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