Anthropology in an Age of Genetics
Practice, Discourse, and Critique
M. Susan Lindee, Alan Goodman, Deborah Heath
On June 26, 2000, the rival scientific factions vying to complete the DNA sequencing of the human genome declared a truce. The race that might have been won by a single victor was set aside, and credit for completing a working draft of the sequence was to be shared by the Human Genome Project's international, publicly funded consortium and by Celera Genomics, a private company. At the press conference where this laying down of arms was announced, President Bill Clinton stood flanked by Craig Venter, the head of Celera, and Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health's Human Genome Project (HGP) in the United States. The sequence was front-page news; the top banner of the New York Times declared, “Genetic Code of Human Life Is Cracked by Scientists” (June 27, 2000).
This very public and reluctant coalition of a government-sponsored, transnational scientific program and a biotechnology industry heavyweight is just one node in a wide-ranging, heterogeneous network of human and nonhuman actors that constitutes genetics-in-action (pace Latour 1987; cf. Flower and Heath 1993; Heath 1998a, b). The knowable, manipulable human genome also belongs to health advocates living with particular heritable diseases, who raise research funding and run on-line forums (Heath et al. 1999; Taussig, Rapp, and Heath, chapter 3, this volume). It belongs to scientists in Japan, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, as well as to DNA “donors” (voluntary or not) from Iceland and the Amazon. And it is the province of essential nonhuman players, from centralized sequence databases and their search engines to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Genomes, human and other, are dynamic, emergent entities still under negotiation as territory, property, soul, medical resource, and national prize. Meanwhile, narratives of both technoscientific expertise and everyday life have come to be scripted in a genetic idiom deployed by laypeople and experts alike.