Waiting at the checkout yesterday, I noticed a special issue of Time: “How DNA shapes your life.” “Having tried to harness the power of DNA for decades,” the introduction begins, “we’re finally getting somewhere.” The special issue and its articles are clearly optimistic, even boosterish, without much nuance, at least in their titles for I have yet to read and digest the substance and style of the articles. I did, however, start to mull over what it would take to make a special issue that delved into the range of meanings of genes and genetic, that treated the audience as capable of thinking about the complexities that surround the application of genetic knowledge. (Analogous to my thinking many years ago after reading Sally Ride’s book for children about the space shuttle about how to explain why astronauts begin to feel weight as they return from orbit. Ride said it’s because of gravity and getting close to the earth, which is not the reason — see the first part of this essay.) This led me to start listing the variety of reasons one might look for the genetic basis of something and, for each, think about issues that confound or complicate the situation or claims being made. (My previous list of different meanings of genetic helped.) As the list got longer (it’s up to 40 already), I thought of the title and decided to begin a series of posts.
Just how these will be organized is not yet clear, but one important distinction will be between “two aspects of heredity—the transmission of traits to offspring…: how does an offspring develop to have the trait in question at all, e.g., its eye color, and how does the outcome of the development at some point in the lifespan differ from that person to the rest of the family or population” (p. 2 of Nature-Nurture? No).
At the same time, the length of the list got me thinking about Atsushi Akera’s picture of the history of research (in his case, around computers) where “[t]ensions and differences often produced redundant, over-ambitious, and incoherent research programs” (p. 10,Calculating a Natural World). History of technology, he contends, needs to value the study of failure and to “make the notion of failure relative if one’s goal is to document the less linear paths of innovation” (p. 338). If that image fits genetic research, we might puzzle over why the public image of genetics is of a “relatively smooth process.”
Anyway, stay tuned for the whys, the pros, the complications, and exploration to organize the list and conceptualize its length.