Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

The Genome as the Biological Unconscious-And the Unconscious as the Psychic 'Genome': A Psychoanalytical Rereading of Molecular Genetics

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

The Genome as the Biological Unconscious-And the Unconscious as the Psychic 'Genome': A Psychoanalytical Rereading of Molecular Genetics

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION: THE YEAR 1900

1900 was a remarkable year--an annus mirabilis--for science. Several ground-breaking events took place: in physics and biology, but also in psychology. Max Planck introduced the quantum concept, the work of Gregor Mendel was rediscovered, and Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams. (1) These three events triggered the emergence of completely new areas of inquiry, all of which greatly affected the intellectual landscape of the 20th century, namely quantum physics, genetics and psychoanalysis. The quantum concept paved the way for the emergence of elementary particle physics, the discovery of anti-matter and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (where the 'hunt' for the inexorable Higgs-boson has apparently achieved its goal). The rediscovery of Mendel inaugurated the birth of genetics and the gene concept, thereby setting the scene for the rise of molecular biology in the second half of the 20th century, culminating in the sequencing of the human genome (1990-2003). And psychoanalysis, although grounded in late nineteenth-century neurophysiology, had a significant impact, not only on psychotherapy, but also on the humanities (from philosophy up to literature studies) and on culture and self-understanding at large. (2)

The question addressed in this paper is: what do these three developments have in common? They all have been truly revelatory in the sense of opening up new realms of research, significantly different from the familiar world of every-day human experience, namely the quantum world (as opposed to the macro-world of classical physics), the genome world and the molecular structure of genotypes (as opposed to the organismal and phenotypic world of traditional biology) and the unconscious (as opposed to conscious mental life and human agency). But otherwise, at first glance at least, these strands of intellectual development seem to represent worlds apart from one another:

[PHI]               B                       [PSI]

Max Planck          Rediscovery of Mendel   Sigmund Freud
Quantum concept     Mendel's laws of        Interpretation of
                      inheritance             symptoms / dreams
Quantum physics     Genetics                Psychoanalysis
The quantum world   The genotype /          The unconscious
                      the genome
Atoms               Genes                   Unconscious drives

Elementary          Molecular               Depth psychology,
  particles           biology,                psychoanalytic
  physics             genomics                humanities

And yet I will argue that, on closer inspection, they do have a number of key features in common. A remarkable 'family likeness' can be discerned between them, so that one can be used to further our understanding of the others, and vice versa.

Moreover, this family likeness has become more apparent as the 20th century unfolded. Notably, two key intellectual figures played a decisive role in discerning the connections between these (initially quite separate) strands of research, which I will refer to as [phi], [beta] and [psi]. First of all, I will build on the work of Erwin Schrodinger (1887-1961), a key protagonists of quantum physics who, after being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1933 for his discoveries in the field of wave mechanics in 1926 (resulting in the famous Schrodinger equation), gave a series of lectures in 1943 entitled What is life?, heralding the molecular turn in biology. This resulted in the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick ten years later (1953), thus establishing a (molecular) bridge between [phi] and [beta]. In the same year (1952-1953), the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) inaugurated a lecture series (the famous Seminaires) in which he reframed the Freudian conception of the unconscious with the help of contemporary research fields, notably linguistics, but also cybernetics, informatics and molecular biology--thus bridging [psi] and [beta]:

[PHI]                B                                  [PSI]

Planck (1900)                Mendel (1900)             Freud (1900)
Schrodinger (1943)  [right   Watson and       [left    Lacan (1953-)
                    arrow]    Crick (1953)    arrow]

Is there a (more than superficial, in-depth) affinity between these developments? …

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