Genetic Reduction Theories And Biopower

This is a simple form of what Michel Foucault called biopower—the regulation and government of individuals through a twofold process of defining them through biological characteristics and then monitoring them through tracking these characteristics and controlling them (Foucault, 1980, ch.9). Foucault got this idea through consideration of the advent in the nineteenth century of public health initiatives (through which the state inter venes and creates society in defining and monitoring "normal" behaviours, not only "deviant" or "criminal" ones) and police detection techniques including fingerprinting (which arises out of anthropometry). In medicine, genetic screening could be used to contribute to a new public health politics simply by tracking genetic traits systematically. This is already done in a small, local way when a genetic disorder is identified in one individual and then tracked through a family. At present this is done only in a piecemeal way, because the choice to be screened rests with the patients, whose autonomy is deemed final. One can choose not to know, and confidentiality requirements require the information not to be passed on by the screener to others, even if they are "at risk". This situation is under pressure, however, from insurers, who may require such information in order to set premiums, and from some tendencies in public health, that regard communication of risks as more important than individual privacy.

The significance of genetic positive theories rests on two non-positive features: the use to which the information is put, and the theory of reduction invoked to connect phenomenology and genetic information. Is it possible to have an abstract theory of reduction of the P-list to genetic Q-list? Or, put the other way around, does the genome project make sense under the description that it is a theory to completely specify a generic genomic Q-list and derive a generic positive P-list? That is, is there a class of individual properties that we can derive from the generic Q-list which do not depend on normed selection? This is immensely unlikely.

Consider the reduction of chemistry to phySics: in principle it can be done (and the principle is all that matters), but in practice we cannot do chemistry by doing physics—in part because we cannot solve the three body problem in classical physics, never mind in quantum physics, so we cannot get an exact theory of the helium atom, never mind the rest of the table. On the other hand, we can, by doing physics, get a reasonable guide to the sorts of chemical entity we might expect, and some their associated phenomenology. Consider also proposed physicalistic reductions of mental to physical phenomena. The reductions propose that we consider the class of mental phenomena and work out what the physical mechanisms must be, or at least, be like. In a "final theory", it may be that we could use the reduction predictively. Critics of such reductions may use the strategy of showing that no such predictive reduction could work, in order to discredit the project of explanatory reduction. But no one else is much interested in the idea, save perhaps artificial intelligence workers. Both these examples suggest that the idea of a pure genetic normed theory is at most a project, not a reality.

Parts of the theory do exist. Successful genetic reductions of phenotypic characteristics are fairly common. But if we consider the sorts of reduction that are proposed, we find different sorts: PKU disease, in which presence of a "wrong" gene means that a certain enzyme is not synthesised, so that a certain amino acid cannot be metabolised, so that it builds up, toxically, and so that another chemical is not made which is required in cortical development. Here we have a step by step mechanism, in which we can be confident of a successful reduction which is both explanatory and predictive. In some breast cancers, which appear to "run in families" a certain gene seems to be implicated in the process, which regulates (or fails to regulate) the "programmed cell death", the failure of which causes the cancer. But the mechanism of this regulation is not well understood, its onset is not immediate (onset of breast cancer can be very young, but it can also be very late in life), and not all women with the gene express the cancer, nor do all women without the gene fail to express it. The association between the cancer and the gene has some explanatory power in some cases, but the predictive power is—as yet—small. Finally, consider traits like homosexuality or aggression. Here some researchers believe that there must be a genetic component to these traits. But the identification of these traits is, to say the least, description-sensitive. The mechanisms that could lead from gene—or interaction of genes—to behavioural expression are very obscure, and likely to remain so. Again, consider reductions in the philosophy of mind. Here, we know what characterises mental phenomena (say, intentionality), and we know what physical system we want to use as a source of explanatory factors. Neither of these features are available for behavioural traits. Reduction in these cases, at the present time, is at best a promissory note, and most commonly an ideological programme (Schüklenk, Stein, Kerin and Byne, 1997).

One strategy for reductionists—which I would commend—would be to try to characterise the types of phenomena which are, in principle, explicable by genetic reduction. We could then decide whether some given trait fell into one of these types, and then the possibility of a genetic positive theory which talked about them would at least make sense. But imagine that homosexuality did fall into one of these types. Two things would then arise. First, we would be considering a topic in which the normed and positive theories had the same structure, and the only difference between them would be the implicit or explicit evaluation of the trait under the normed theory.

Second, because, as discussed earlier, genetic normed and positive theories are effectively static, we would be implying that the expression of the trait would be necessary (even if not immediate). The positive theory makes of the trait something objective (evaluation independent). Hence the subject with the gene can be regarded as Being Homosexual, even if no behaviour is ever expressed. In other words, through a genetic positive theory of behavioural and other traits, the subject is constituted: and the truth of the subject is their list of reducible traits. In discussions of disability, precisely this constitution of the subject is resisted. Am I a deaf person first, with other characteristics later? Or a person, who, among other characteristics they possess, is deaf? Politically and tactically, I may choose the former description. But that does not mean that I wish to be fixed under it. Disabilities can often also be understood as maladaptations of society and its physical arrangements to certain individuals (Rioux, 1997). So even apparently objective physical traits, which look like natural candidates for reduction in a positive theory, must also be understood as candidates for reduction in a normed theory.

But which normed theory? It may be that a positive theory is available that reduces homosexuality. This need not be a genetic theory, but even supposing there is one, this does not entail that the normed theory should be a genetic normed theory too. At present, there is a common belief that if a certain trait has a genetic reduction then it is essentially "genetic". So, in thinking about its importance to actual or future subjects, the appropriate stance is to adopt a genetic normed theory about it.

As I said before, genetic normed and positive theories tend to be static. The reason for this is that genetic theories inherit the model of "coding" instructions which was used to derive many of the properties of DNA in the late 1950s, at the same time as modern computing was getting off the ground (Rose, 1991). In effect, a genetic mechanism is regulated by something rather like an "instruction", albeit one implemented physically and through self-assembly rather than stepwise. The idea of an unambiguous programme which regulates the cells of the body and their development proved useful in research and in understanding the mechanisms at work in disorders like PKU (how much progress in genetic research has actually been provoked by research into disorders?). So if we have a genetic reduction available, we have a cultural pressure on us to think of it as the effective implementation of a programme, which cannot be stopped, short of reprogramming or system shutdown. More complex disorders arise out of the effects of different kinds of programme interacting, as in cancers. Persons with such disorders are subjects with bugs in their programmes. This is not a standpoint which would curry much favour with evolutionary biologists!

So, under a genetic normed theory, we are encouraged to see individuals as constituted by their programming. When we learn something about this programming, that is, when we discover something about our genetic information in the narrow sense, we make the reasonable inference that we have found out something immutable about our P-list under the normed theory. That is, that we have learned something about the constitution of our selves, that is, about the set of properties we evaluatively select in thinking about what makes me, me, and in determining what makes life worth living (or not) for me now, or for me "over again", or for individuals (actual or possible) like me.

Moreover, the static genetic normed theory, because of its "necessitarian" features does seem to carry over into decision-making about the life worth living in general. Most normed theories do not easily allow us to judge that if some P makes my life intolerable, then it would make yours intolerable too. It can do in some cases, perhaps, and this would be true in certain genetic disorders where the mechanism is well-understood, predictively reliable and fatal. But in most cases these conditions are not met. And the conclusion that we are obliged, morally, to find out about our basic properties (under the genetic theory) and to tell others (insurers, the state, lovers) does not follow.

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