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Ian Hacking

Genetics, biosocial groups

& the future of identity

‘ Biosocial’ is a new word, but its pedi- for all things human, in sickness or in
gree, although brief, is the best. Paul health, in success or in strife–is fueling
Rabinow, the anthropologist of the ge- fascination with this concept.
nome industry, wrote about ‘biosociali-
ty’ in 1992.1 He invented the word part- 1 Paul Rabinow, “Arti½ciality and Enlighten-
ly as a joke, to counter the sociobiology ment: From Sociobiology to Biosociality,” in
that had been fashionable for some time. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, eds., In-
When he wrote, Rabinow was inter- corporations (New York: Zone Books, 1992); re-
ested in groups and the criteria around printed in Paul Rabinow, Essays on the Anthro-
pology of Reason (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
which they form. Of course, human
University Press, 1996), 91–111. Rabinow is
beings are biosocial beings: biological an insider-outsider with whom many leading
animals and social animals. But the fact ½gures in the biotechnology ½eld talk freely.
that many groups of people can be loose- They respect his wholly critical approach as
ly characterized in both biological and good science in its own right, which means, in
social ways, and that the ‘bio’ and the part, inquiry fueled by intense curiosity. This
working relationship is truly uncommon in the
‘social’ reinforce each other, prompted burgeoning ½eld of science studies. The respect
his term. This phenomenon is immedi- is mutual. Rabinow has no doubt that geneti-
ately evident: what are families or ex- cists are ½nding out how it is. Unlike most aca-
tended kinship structures if not bioso- demics, he works well with the commercial,
cial groups? Currently, the genetic im- venture capital side of the industry, and is per-
haps more comfortable there than in academ-
perative–the drive to ½nd biological, ic laboratories. See a series of his books from
but above all genetic, underpinnings Making pcr: A Story of Biotechnology (Chica-
go: University of Chicago Press, 1996) to Paul
Rabinow and Talia Dan-Cohen, A Machine to
Ian Hacking, a Fellow of the American Acad-
Make a Future: Biotech Chronicles (Princeton,
emy since 1991, holds the chair of Philosophy N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005). He does
and History of Scienti½c Concepts at the Collège not restrict his work to the United States, for
de France. His most recent books are “Mad he is the most challenging informant about as-
Travellers” (1998), “The Social Construction pects of French biotechnology. Paul Rabinow,
of What” (1999), and “Historical Ontology” French dna: Trouble in Purgatory (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1999).
(2002). A new edition of “The Emergence of He has also had another role, as America’s
Probability” appeared in 2006. ½rst reliable facilitator (a handy enough term)
for Michel Foucault, with whom there was the
© 2006 by the American Academy of Arts same mutual respect. Hubert Dreyfus and Paul
& Sciences

Dædalus Fall 2006 81

Ian Hacking
After an initial deterministic enthu- S ome would say that Rabinow accepts
siasm, almost everyone came to realize too readily the self-image that life tech-
that everything is not in our genes, to cite nologists would like to project. For ex-
the important polemic of Richard Le- ample, when Lewontin was mounting
wontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin.2 his critical onslaught on the police’s sim-
One, there are not enough genes; sec- plistic use of dna ½ngerprinting, Rabi-
ond, it is the when and where and how now published in 1992, the year he gave
of the expression of genes that counts; us ‘biosociality,’ a piece called “Galton’s
third, junk dna and other primordial Regret: On Types and Individuals.”3 In
stuff are not as junky as they seemed; it, he describes Francis Galton, the ge-
fourth, proteins are now where the ac- nius who, among many other accom-
tion is; and so on. Nevertheless, the bio- plishments (including the invention of
logical, and then the genetic, impera- the silent whistle for police dogs), devel-
tives are facts of modern life. And far oped a system to identify criminals using
from increasing determinism and limit- their ½ngerprints. He adapted his system
ing opportunity, the life sciences are from the Indian Civil Service’s, which
creating more choices. On the one hand, was necessary because imperial adminis-
we have, in a sense, more biologies to trators found it hard to recognize many
choose from than we anticipated. On of their subjects de½nitively. His regret
the other hand, new societies form along was that, although a complete set of ½n-
newly recognized (or, at any rate, new- gerprints does identify a person unique-
ly asserted) biological or genetic lines, ly, it says absolutely nothing about that
forging new alliances and loyalties. Forg- person’s character.
ing new identities. In some ways, the work of Galton’s
rival, Alphonse Bertillon, who invented
Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism the French system of identi½cation by
and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University ears, might well have proven more rel-
of Chicago Press, 1983). I single out the second evant for recognizing character traits.
edition because the interview printed there is That, at any rate, was the speculation
one of the most useful places to begin a philo-
sophical discussion of Foucault’s later ethical
during the heyday of the criminal an-
studies. Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader thropology inspired by Cesare Lombro-
(New York: Pantheon, 1984). He continues so. Anyone who has a green card confer-
to explore some of Foucault’s leads. Many of ring resident-alien status in the United
the essays in his Anthropos Today: Reflections States can check and see that the photo
on Modern Equipment (Princeton, N.J.: Prince-
ton University Press, 2003) are at the intersec-
thereon conforms to Bertillon’s demand
tion of Rabinow’s abilities, on the one hand, that an ear always be shown.
to learn from Foucault and, on the other, to But dna ½ngerprinting–here perhaps
grasp what is happening in biotechnology. I am carrying Rabinow’s analysis a step
There is unlikely to be anyone else, at present, too far–a method of identi½cation in-
as agile with biotechnology and as adept in
timately connecting you with a genetic
discussing biopower as Paul Rabinow.
pro½le, does indeed show a lot about
2 Richard C. Lewontin, Steven Rose, and who you are and who your ancestors
Leon Kamin, Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideol-
ogy, and Human Nature (New York: Panthe- 3 In Paul R. Billings, ed., dna on Trial: Genet-
on, 1984). See also, for example, Richard C. ic Identi½cation and Criminal Justice (Plainview,
Lewontin, It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream N.Y.: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press,
of the Human Genome and Other Illusions (New 1992); reprinted in Rabinow, Anthropology of
York: New York Review of Books, 2000). Reason, 112–128.

82 Dædalus Fall 2006

were. Also where you come from, that The criticisms made by Lewontin and Genetics,
is, the neighborhood in which you live. others had impact, and in part thanks biosocial
groups &
Galton would have loved it. But not only to changes that resulted, genetic ½nger- the future
Galton: the entire European tradition of printing is now considered remarkably of identity
criminal anthropology has been brought reliable. One little-noticed effect was on
back to life, although few dare to men- the law-enforcement system. The fbi
tion it because it is thought to be as dis- now has an enormous data bank con-
reputable as Galton’s eugenics.4 taining dna pro½les of certain neigh-
Lewontin’s critique was invaluable. borhoods. If you come from a neighbor-
There had been an all too glib enthusi- hood where crime is common (in fact,
asm for dna identi½cation following as opposed to local folklore), the fbi
its initial successes in the United King- knows an awful lot about your neigh-
dom. In addition to technical objections bors’ genomes and, by statistical impli-
based on genetics or American jurispru- cation, perhaps your own. Hence, we
dence, an elementary dif½culty arose at can now assess dna evidence with more
once. There is the old adage that crimes relevant probabilities, or ‘reference
against the person are most often com- classes.’
mitted by family members or neighbors. The technique applies exactly as well
Family members share a lot of genetic in ethnically diverse neighborhoods that
traits, and neighbors live in neighbor- break into recognizable subgroups. For
hoods–whose members tend to clump example, suppose dna is left on the
in historical and geographical, that is, scene of a crime in a heterogeneous Los
ethnic, ways. Thus, the probability of Angeles neighborhood, 40 percent of
½nding a dna match should not be the whose members are recent immigrants
probability of ½nding such a sequence from the Republic of Armenia and 40
in the world’s population, or even that percent quite recent immigrants from
of the northeastern United States. There Mexico. dna evidence may indicate that
the probability may be minute. Rather, the suspect is Armenian. Obviously, we
the relevant ½gure is the probability of do not then want to use the reference
having such a match within a few blocks class of all inhabitants of the neighbor-
of the crime, where it will most likely be hood to compute the probability of a
a lot larger. Let alone when the suspects random match between the evidence
form an extended family. So the chance and our suspect. Instead, we want the
of a false conviction based on the early reference class of Armenian immigrants,
dna probability calculations was far who may well be so genetically similar
greater than was at ½rst supposed. that reliable identi½cation is very dif½-
cult. Especially if they all came from the
same neighborhood in the old country.
4 For “A Bibliography for a Course of Crimi-
nal Anthropology, or Criminal Sociology, Cir-
dna criminal identi½cation needs in-
ca 1893–4,” see Ian Hacking, The Taming of numerable cautions–some technical,
Chance (Cambridge: Cambridge University some common sense. Lewontin rightly
Press, 1990), 246–247. For parallels between feared that poorly analyzed genetic evi-
that criminal anthropology and its 1990s face- dence would make false convictions all
lift, see Ian Hacking, “Criminal Behavior, De- too easy. At its worst, almost any mem-
generacy and Looping,” in David T. Wasserman
and R. T. Wachbroit, eds., Genetics and Crimi- ber of an already targeted group could
nal Behavior (Cambridge: Cambridge Universi- plausibly be made to ½t the crime. How-
ty Press, 2001), 141–167. ever, in principle, if not always in prac-

Dædalus Fall 2006 83

Ian Hacking tice, the new local data banks make that place not in a room the size of a hockey
identity far more dif½cult. And however much rink but in a little gray box. Police servic-
dna has made securing convictions es, in many parts of the world, are just
easier, genetic ½ngerprinting has also as proud of their sorting devices today
helped free a signi½cant number of indi- as the fbi evidently was of its in 1944.
viduals previously convicted on inade- And rightly so, despite the occasional
quate evidence. misjudgments that overreliance on
The House on 92nd Street, a wonderful black-boxed technology can produce.
movie made in 1944, provides a point
of comparison between the new ½nger-
prints and the old. Made with the full
R abinow’s more speculative remarks
about biotechnology, as opposed to his
cooperation of the fbi (apparently be- anthropological, sociological, and his-
fore Hiroshima, although released only torical descriptions of the scienti½c
after), the movie shows how the fbi work, tend to be prophetic. Thus, al-
caught German spies stealing atomic though Lewontin was absolutely right
secrets.5 In it is a shot of a vast arena to demand stiffer criteria for dna iden-
where young women searched the en- ti½cation, Rabinow was right to foresee,
tire bank of ½ngerprints the fbi pos- ½fteen years ago, the increasing role of
sessed in 1944 in order to identify the genetics in life and self-conceptions. I
guilty parties. The ½lming took place on should at once emphasize that he was
the real site, long since torn down. The not primarily interested in the use of ge-
room is auditorium-sized, but the proce- netics for racial identi½cation, the cur-
dure is automated, using Hollerith cards, rent bone of contention. No, he was
derived in the ½rst instance from the looking further into the future when, for
Jacquard cards for industrial weaving example, risk markers for disease and
of long ago and the predecessors for the causes of death might prompt people to
punch cards developed by ibm, which identify themselves as that sort, the ones
descends from Hollerith’s original com- at risk of having Alzheimer’s, an autistic
pany. child, etc.
One sees the force of the metaphor A neighborhood is a good introduction
‘data bank.’ It is not just a secure place to the idea of already existing de facto
to store masses of data; the endless biosocial identities. Many Armenians,
stacks of cards are ‘banks’ in another for example, emigrated to a handful of
sense of the word. For anyone who has locations in the United States for all the
trouble with gene sequencing and com- old-fashioned biosocial reasons: family
puters, this scene is a reliable metaphor ties, a network of employment oppor-
for dna-½ngerprint searching today. tunities, language, lifestyles. On a Sun-
The two chief differences: today’s iden- day morning the parks of an L.A. suburb
ti½ers are genes, not the surfaces of ½n- are full of Armenians, by no means all
gers, and the sorting is electrical, not notably ½t, playing soccer. Where there
mechanical. And, of course, it takes are serious Angeleno hills and canyons,
groups of Armenians of all ages and both
sexes are taking sociable walks, com-
5 The House on 92nd Street, directed by Henry
Hathaway, released September 1945. All the plete with sticks that appear to come
fbi agents except Lloyd Nolan are played by from their former homes. This last ob-
fbi personnel–in many cases the actual per- servation by itself is enough, from a
sonnel involved in the historical events. sociologist’s point of view, to set them

84 Dædalus Fall 2006

apart from almost any other recent im- great as that between two randomly cho- Genetics,
migrant group. In small clumps on a hill sen members of different races. This was groups &
they do look somewhat alike to the out- commonly supported, in politically cor- the future
sider. And, to put it bluntly, their His- rect statements for general audiences, by of identity
panic neighbors hate them. Romeo and saying that humans share 98 percent of
Juliet had a simple life compared to the their genome with pigs, or earthworms,
handsome son of the Mexican immi- or whatever species is obviously beneath
grant in love with the beautiful daughter us. So how could genes distinguish Ar-
of Armenians. Finally, there is the bond- menians from Hispanics, if they can
ing narrative that burns in every soul, barely distinguish us from earthworms?
the Armenian massacre. We owe the scienti½c argument to Rich-
The ties that form this biosocial unit ard Lewontin, who put it in place over
are certainly more social than biological. thirty years ago.6 Editorials to this effect
No one in the group needs to know what were still appearing in Nature Genetics
the fbi data bank holds for this neigh- and Nature as recently as 2001.7
borhood to identify with each other. Epidemiological practice has long
They probably would not want to know, ignored such agreeable cant, certainly
for with all the centuries of marauders, since the early 1990s when racial reg-
pillages, and rapes that run through the istries for bone-marrow transplants
history of the Caucasus and nearby re- were established.8 Lewontin’s doctrine
gions, one would ½nd a far more distinct was not as sound as it seemed. The trou-
phenotype (what these particular Arme- ble is that his theoretical argument
nians look like) than genotype (which is assumed that characteristics associated
not so different from that of nearby peo- with race, either stereotypically or phys-
ples in their former region). Neverthe- iologically, are statistically independent.
less, in the new, quite compact neigh- They are not. As Hitler liked to point
borhood within the greater Los Angeles out, even though few whites have blue
area, the fbi would have no dif½culty eyes and blonde hair, nearly every blue-
(yet–just wait for Romeo and Juliet to eyed blonde has whitish skin. A. W. F.
do their thing) telling an Armenian dna Edwards’s 2003 theoretical refutation
sample apart from a Hispanic one. of Lewontin, attending to correlations
As is so often the case with living col- among traits and genetic markers, is
loquial speech, the ’hood really denotes now widely judged to be correct.9
an important entity, which tends to be
6 Richard Lewontin, “The Apportionment of
both social and genetic. To say that is to Human Diversity,” Evolutionary Biology 6 (1972):
hold up the red flag for accusations of 381–398.
racism. Good. We need to get the race
stuff out in the open quickly, or we may 7 Nature Genetics 24 (2000): 97; Nature Genetics
be overtaken by new versions of race sci- 29 (2001): 239; Nature 409 (2001): 812.
ence put to its most evil uses. 8 Ian Hacking, “Why Race Still Matters,” Dæ-
dalus 134 (1) (Winter 2005): 102–116. I shall not
We must ½rst erase one worthy item repeat my four-page discussion of race-based
medicine here, but it is taken for granted in
from the former dogma of liberal atti-
tudes: that all race science is biased bal- what follows.
derdash, in particular, that the genetic 9 A. W. F. Edwards, “Human Genetic Diver-
variation between two randomly chosen sity: Lewontin’s Fallacy,” BioEssays 25 (2003):
members of one racial group is just as 798–801. Edwards is a statistical geneticist at

Dædalus Fall 2006 85

Ian Hacking Edwards’s analysis is, for anyone with It produced ½ve groups of people, recog-
identity a modest statistical training, rather di- nized as the ½ve races of nineteenth-cen-
rect and ‘self-evident,’ and yet it had to tury science, plus one group that did not
wait thirty years before anyone thought ½t well with any preconceptions.10 The
the matter out in public. I suspect that, experiment does not strictly prove any-
since Lewontin’s conclusions were so thing, but it is a signi½cant anecdote.
‘obviously’ correct, no one attended to On the other hand, interbreeding
the logic of his argument. I do not mean among populations of different geo-
to imply that the issues are simple, only graphical origins has been common in
that what was so con½dently asserted in many parts of the world for a very long
Nature Genetics a few years ago is obso- time. In such regions, skin color and the
lete. The fall 2004 issue of the same jour- rest furnish little indication of the pro-
nal was all about race and genetics. It portion of one’s inheritance that one
sings to a tune altogether different from owes to different geographical regions.
the harmonies of three years earlier. This has been most decisively estab-
The upshot is that stereotypical fea- lished for Brazil.11 Genetic markers can-
tures of race are associated both with not distinguish between affluent urban
ancestral geographical origin and, to white-skinned business people in São
some extent, with genetic markers. On Paolo, who deem themselves descen-
the one hand there was the experiment dants of the Portuguese, and rural dark-
–I would categorize it both as acute and skinned peasants, who think their fore-
cute–in which samples of saliva were bears came from Africa.
taken from people around the world, We have yet to have a good study of a
chosen on an essentially randomized real old-time melting pot like the Silk
protocol for geographical region. They Road from China to the West. Those
were then run through fairly standard who are more impressed by looking than
computer programs designed to sort by analysis can make a guess of what to
groups of objects with lots of character- expect from the extraordinarily power-
istics into small groups of distinct class- ful paintings of nomads attributed to
es. These programs can take a midden Muhammad of the Black Pen (Muham-
containing pottery fragments with dif- mad Siyah Qualam) in the thirteenth
ferent designs, for example, and sort the century, common era.12
shards into a few classes, which archae- At present, plenty of anecdotal evi-
ologists conjecture come from distinct dence points to the same effect about
epochs. Such a program sorted dna Americans. It is symptomatic of the old
samples from around the world, unla- race science that ‘Caucasian’ is still the
beled, into a small number of groups.
10 Noah A. Rosenberg et al., “Genetic Struc-
ture of Human Populations,” Science 298
Cambridge University. For fear that his tes- (2002): 2981–2985.
timony be taken as a priori suspect, I should
mention that perhaps the most vigorous life- 11 Sérgio D. J. Pena et al., “Color and Genomic
long proponent of the irrelevance of race Ancestry in Brazilians,” Proceedings of the Na-
for evaluating human beings is Luca Cavalli- tional Academy of Sciences 100 (2003): 177–182.
Sforza. Edwards was for some years his col-
laborator and developed much of the statisti- 12 See, for example, the catalog of the Royal
cal machinery on which his early population Academy Exhibition, Turks: A Journey of a Thou-
genetics depended. sand Years 600–1600 (2005).

86 Dædalus Fall 2006

name used in the United States for white T here is a whole forest of practical Genetics,
people, who not long ago thought a sin- needs for genetic identi½cation. For groups &
gle drop of alien blood could ‘pollute’ example, if a person in another conti- the future
them, when in fact people from the Cau- nent can show the existence of kin in of identity
casus are most likely a very mixed ge- North America, immigration there is
netic bag, just as they are on the old Silk facilitated and in some cases guaranteed.
Road. Call that idiocy, or call that an in- So a host of companies is offering genet-
advertent stroke of ironic prescience, as ic services.14
you please. Most of the nineteenth-century Ca-
The partial alignment of genetic mark- nadian treaties with Indians conferred
ers and stereotypical racial identi½cation rights to the Indians at the same time as
rightly leaves African Americans in a they took their territory. In present law,
quandary. Although the fact is not much descendants of treaty persons have, un-
publicized, quite a lot of scienti½c work der various complex conditions, rights
on race-based medicine is conducted and privileges different from those of
under essentially Afro-American aus- other citizens. Similar laws exist in the
pices. At a quite different level, for peo- United States. Hence, companies deter-
ple whom slavery, exploitation, and con- mining the extent of a person’s aborigi-
tempt left without family history, dna nal ancestry also get a lot of business.
identi½cation furnishes a probable but I am taking a rather benign view of the
unreliable way of tracking their ori- use of genetics to trace identities. I hope
gins.13 In these and other ways, some the dangers are evident. It will be tempt-
genetics is welcome. However, the fear ing to turn optional sources of evidence
that all this dna stuff will be put to rac- into obligatory types of proof. Another
ist purposes, including high-tech crimi- reasonable fear is that a lust for technol-
nal pro½ling, is justi½ed. But there is ogy, and an admiration for false preci-
no hiding. And it is quite possible that sion, will make genetics override com-
white liberals want to hide more than munity, among not only technocrats
black Americans do. but also people in general. For example,
it might become easy to reject children
13 “Blacks Pin Hope on dna to Fill Slavery’s who grow up in a community but for
Gap in Family Trees,” New York Times, July 29, whatever reason are genetic outliers.15
2005, A1. You can get something about your
ancestors quite cheaply. Since this is a highly
competitive market, prices will keep on falling, 14 Thus, Genelex says it has facilities available
and any costs I might write today will soon in seventy-two countries from Argentina to
be out-of-date. For an idea, try Google: for ex- Vietnam. Unlike the ½rm cited in the previous
ample, Family Tree dna, from Family Tree Ge- note, it does offer pro½les of its management
netics Ltd., located in Houston, Texas, displays and consultants. It asserts, “Genelex tests are
what it asserts is a competitive chart of com- 100 times more discriminating than the indus-
parisons with two major rivals, Relative Ge- try standard. Typical positive test results exceed
netics (U.S.) and the Oxford Ancestors (U.K.). 99.99%.” The longer you look at that assertion
“ftdna lab’s scientists are world-renowned the more ways you can read it. Did I say buyer
geneticists and discoverers of original markers beware?
that have been included in other lab tests.” It
is dif½cult for a layperson to ½gure out exactly 15 Jon Elster drew my attention to debate in-
what any such organization is selling, or even volving legislation under consideration in Ver-
who the world-renowned paid collaborators mont. Kimberly Tallbear, “dna, Blood and
are. Caveat emptor, and consult a knowledgeable Racializing the Tribe,” Wicazo sa Review 18
person before you spend a cent. (2003): 81–107.

Dædalus Fall 2006 87

Ian Hacking If the genome begins to override culture, but was not so named until 1972.16 One
identity then all citizens must rise up and insist of its ½rst classic uses was in a national
that social bonds are what make us peo- Norwegian survey to detect seriously
ple. But we must also understand that underweight people and note the corre-
knowledge of genetic ‘identities’ will lation with tuberculosis.17 A national
forge social ones, creating new commu- study of adiposity would have been more
nities of shared recognition based on informative and would have cost about
partial science. That is not intrinsically a million times more. The U.K. Nation-
bad, but it is still a phenomenon that can al Health Service survey of ethnic self-
be grossly abused. identi½cation is much the same: a large
And whatever use individuals want to data set using cheap information rather
make of genealogy kits (yes, the com- than a minute data set using expensive
mercial labs send you a ‘kit’ to collect information.
some of your dna for analysis), epi- When it becomes clearer what one
demiologists will relentlessly collect ought to be looking for in patient genet-
new data. Today, if you go to a National ic data, and when obtaining that data
Health Service clinic in Great Britain, becomes very cheap, epidemiologists
you will be asked to complete a ques- will collect it. All British genes will go
tionnaire in which you state what you on ½le, unless a public outcry arises far
think are your ethnic and, above all, geo- greater than what has occurred so far.
graphical roots (you can have as many as This is already being done piecemeal in
you want). Some well-educated liberal quite a few parts of the world, including
Brits I know mock these forms or oppose Quebec and the United Kingdom, but
them. While their fear of the all-power- the most systematic and most publicized
ful nanny-state that knows too much program is in Iceland, where a venture
about you is legitimate, they also ridicule capital company, DeCode, and the Ice-
these forms out of the uninformed belief landic government have an agreement
that ethnic and geographical self-iden- to match dna, genealogies (which are
ti½cation is, among other things, worth- more extensive in Iceland than any-
less. Not so: it is a useful, very cheap where else in the world), and health
guide to aspects of your genome.
Yes, self-identi½cation is imperfect 16 Ancel Keys et al., “Indices of Relative
information. But it is cheap. It is com- Weight and Obesity,” Journal of Chronic Dis-
eases 25 (1972): 329–343. The ratio, namely
parable to the bmi, the Body Mass In- metric weight over height squared, is much
dex, which the current obesity panic older. But it was used not for medicine but
has made a household phrase. Adiposi- for anthropology (anthropometry), and in per-
ty, the ratio of body fat to body mass, is haps the ½rst instance for studying the rate
the important health indicator, but it is of growth in height and weight in children–
a project that goes back to Buffon.
fairly expensive to measure by any cur-
rent technique–and thus comparable to 17 Erik Bielke, “Variation in Height and
a personal dna readout. But the bmi is Weight in the Norwegian Population,” British
very cheap: stand on a scale, stand under Journal of Preventive Medicine 25 (1971): 192–
a device that measures height, press two 202. Much of the early bmi literature from
international sources was published in British
buttons on a calculator (or use one of the
nhs-oriented medical journals. For the classic
innumerable online bmi calculators), full study, see H. Th. Waaler, “Height, Weight
and there you have your bmi. The bmi and Mortality: The Norwegian Experience,”
originated in epidemiology in the 1960s Acta Medica Scandinavica Supplement 679 (1984).

88 Dædalus Fall 2006

records, both present and historical. fact handicapped, also protest: “I would Genetics,
The company then essentially leases the rather be me than unborn.” groups &
information to multinational pharma- So we have plenty of things to worry the future
ceutical companies, who use it to pros- about. I myself am more than perturbed of identity
pect for links between genetic markers about pharmaceutical companies mar-
and disease. keting risk-oriented medications based
Signi½cant opposition to the Icelandic on genetic treasure hunts. It is also trou-
contract arose from a variety of civil lib- bling that preventive pharmacogenetics
erty and ‘green’ spokespeople in Iceland. will be developed mostly for new drugs,
Some physicians objected: they were whose patent writs will continue for a
wary that their privileged access to pa- good time into the future. Preventive
tient information and control was being pharmacogenetics? I did not invent the
sold out from under their noses. Interna- noun. In the future, we will have the
tional activists also protested. The Ice- ability to screen patients for bad side
landic public, however, appeared rela- effects of a drug, by picking out their
tively at peace with the deal. As always genetic markers. Such ‘tailoring,’ as it
in such matters, local contingencies are tends to be called, will become standard
often more effective in swaying public for future drugs, but not for the large
opinion than at ½rst meets the eye. In and useful pharmacopoeia of older med-
this case, a large number of well-educat- icines, many of which, like all potent
ed Icelanders reside in all parts of the in- chemicals, have awful unintended ef-
dustrial world. Many would like to go fects on some people.
home if they could get a good job. Part In this section I have only been labor-
of the deal with DeCode was that labora- ing the obvious: the intersection of med-
tory and computer work would be done ical, social, personal, and pro½t-making
in Iceland, thereby repatriating part of interests ensures that the avalanche of
Iceland’s greatest natural resource, her genetic information available about in-
highly skilled citizens. dividuals and populations has only be-
In prosperous parts of the world we al- gun. We need informed debate from
ready take for granted a great many spe- many points of view. Though we must
cialized genetic searches. At the time of also give blanket opposition its proper
writing, New York State screens fetuses weight in the spectrum of dissent, it
for forty-four different types of disease tends to stay of its nature long behind
risk. It is often argued that full genetic the cusp of what is actually and irre-
screening is a public-health obligation, versibly happening.
and sometimes that it is a right of the
citizens covered by the system. We have
not been clear about the resulting moral
The genetic imperative is the drive to
½nd genetic markers in humans. It com-
problems, though. Public discussions mands out of its own intrinsic strength,
tend to emphasize how screening makes but it ½ts in neatly with our ‘risk society.’
possible essential early medical services Ulrich Beck was the ½rst to use this term
for newborns and infants. It plays down to describe the industrialized world.18
the extent to which screening prompts
abortions. It is not only across-the-board 18 Ulrich Beck, Risikogesellschaft: Auf dem Weg
opponents of abortion who worry when in eine andere Moderne (Frankfurt: Surhkamp,
a test leads to killing the fetus. A vocal 1986), translated as Risk Society: Towards a New
number of disability activists, who are in Modernity (New York: Sage, 1992).

Dædalus Fall 2006 89

Ian Hacking Beck was initially concerned with risks where the syndrome is usually just called
identity that we ourselves create by innovation, trisomie. (This has turned out to be a less
and its military and industrial applica- than exact label, for triplings of certain
tions, but the concept now applies also other chromosomes produce other birth
to risks that are not primarily of our own defects or disabilities, so one must now
making, such as the risk of inherited dis- say trisomie vingt-et-un.) There are other
ease or disability. success stories, for which the teams that
Disease genetics tends to track risks, discovered them are justly honored. But
not causes. There have certainly been the medical-research community is now
unequivocal triumphs in discovering fully convinced that most further corre-
the latter, such as Jérôme Lejeune’s 1959 lations between genetic information
identi½cation of the association between and manifest illness or disability will be
an extra chromosome 21 and Down’s ‘multifactorial.’ Genetic markers will
syndrome.19 Almost every fetus with not be causes but risk factors.
an extra chromosome 21 will develop
into a child with Down’s syndrome, if
it is allowed to live. This is so probable
Though ‘risk’ implies danger, and dan-
ger implies harm, not every genetic
that it is unnatural to speak of risk here. search is a search for harm. Some chil-
The fetus is bound to develop in that dren may come from a gene pool that
way because of a programming malfunc- enables them to play the violin at age
tion–or so we imagine in our computer- four and to compose symphonies at ten.
driven era. We search for genetic markers of these
There we have a true success story of exceptional desirable abilities as well.
the genetic imperative in medicine. The The possibility of genes that protect
genetic defect is now quite often iden- against diseases is also spurring genetic
ti½ed with the syndrome, and this has hunts. For example, Alzheimer’s disease
been made part of French semantics, shows up rarely or not at all among cer-
tain American Indian communities.
19 Langdon Down contributed immensely by
Something genetic may confer immuni-
making the ½rst identi½cation of a separate de-
velopmental disability, which he called Mongo- ty to, or delay, the advance of senility. If
lian idiocy. We blush now at the name, which so, ½nding this protection factor will be
was abandoned in 1960, but most of us have of great importance.
forgotten that his work was part of an explic- A certain ambivalence, or ambiguity,
itly racialist program to classify mental and also surrounds the genetic imperative.
physiological defects as throwbacks to other
races. J. L. H. Down, “Observations on an Eth- Consider the well-publicized searches
nic Classi½cation of Idiots,” London Hospital for a gay gene (typically in men) and an
Reports, 1866; reprinted in Journal of Mental Sci- alcoholism gene. Those who hope for
ence 13 (1867): 121–123. Mongolism became an alcoholism gene believe that the dis-
a standard diagnosis in the English-speaking covery will prove beyond all doubt that
world, thanks to W. W. Ireland, On Idiocy and
Imbecility (London: Churchill, 1877), but was
alcoholism is a disease or, at any rate, an
not picked up in continental Europe until the innate disability. Those who hope for a
turn of the century. But the vigilant Cesare gay gene believe that such a discovery
Lombroso included it in his atavistic anthro- will prove beyond all doubt that homo-
pology as early as 1873, speaking of what awk- sexuality is not a disease or disability.
wardly translates as “mongolian atavism of
the cretinoid anomaly.” C. Lombroso, “Sulla
Such contradictory pairings remind us
microcephalia e sul cretinismo,” Rivista Clinica that we are still in the adolescent phase
di Bologna, July 1873, fasc. 7. of thinking about biosociality.

90 Dædalus Fall 2006

After taking these ambiguities into tom of adult schizophrenics). Maybe Genetics,
account, though, we still cannot ignore those early guesses will have a genetic groups &
this central phenomenon: the genetic im- resurrection. Certainly autistic children the future
perative ½nds its natural home in the risk soci- and late-adolescent-onset schizophren- of identity
ety. Even a relatively abstract search, the ics are mostly male, suggesting a sex-
genome project, was funded because just linked locus for any genetic carrier.
identifying genes was going to help lo- Yet, in spite of all these tempting con-
cate risk factors for disease or disability. nections, what we should expect to see
The dream was eventually to eliminate is not a gene for any of these disorders
the markers and thus remove that source but many genes on numerous sites that
of risk. But instead of genetic medicine increase the probability of the disorder
we got risk factors. We shall undoubted- appearing at some point. Some of these
ly continue to be bombarded with hype sites may contribute to several disorders,
about discovering the Alzheimer’s gene while each disorder may require in addi-
or the schizophrenia gene–with the im- tion its own unique sites. Or maybe the
plication that this ‘gene’ causes this dis- genetic conjectures just will not pan out.
ease or that disease–but we should ex- In any case, we anticipate not determin-
pect mostly indicators of risk. ism but risk factors, or worse, multifac-
Though cases where genes can predict torial risk. But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll
the occurrence of a disease with virtual refer to the gene or genes that heighten
certainty, like trisomy 21, are rare, the one’s chances of getting a particular dis-
probabilities can nevertheless be great, order–whether single or multiple–as a
as in the early-onset forms of diseases ‘risk factor.’
such as breast cancer, colonorectal can-
cer, or Alzheimer’s. Indeed, early-onset
forms seem to show most clearly a di-
A set of people with a risk factor is a
biological, not social, group. But people
rect causal connection between genetic at risk for the same disease will clump
markers and the appearance of the dis- together for mutual support, joint advo-
ease at a de½nite stage in the body’s ag- cacy, and, in many cases, activism. The
ing process. This may give us real hope emergence of these advocacy groups will
in the case of schizophrenia. One form be one of the most important topics for
of schizophrenia, ½rst labeled dementia any history of medicine in late twenti-
praecox, is triggered speci½cally by ma- eth-century America.
turity, surfacing mostly in males around Most advocacy groups in existence
age seventeen or eighteen. Early-onset today are for people who are afflicted
dementia, or so it was ½rst described. with a disease or disability, or have fami-
Scientists are devoting an immense ly members or friends who suffer from
amount of research to ½nding genetic it. These groups often have names like
antecedents of two other disorders: ‘Friends of Schizophrenia.’ They are,
Alzheimer’s disease and autism. Who of course, biosocial, that is, societies
knows how all these diseases are entan- formed around a biological condition.
gled? Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia And many are effective. Today, autism
produced by aging; one kind of schizo- is on the front burner thanks to the in-
phrenia is early-onset dementia; and tense advocacy of groups going back to
autism was ½rst identi½ed as a kind of the 1960s on behalf of children with de-
infantile schizophrenia (the noun ‘au- velopmental dif½culties. Parents, under-
tism’ was originally the name of a symp- standably, make the ½ercest activists,

Dædalus Fall 2006 91

Ian Hacking but they were greatly aided by the fact and the greater the extent to which a
identity that President Kennedy had a sister with person’s recent forebears came from
special needs. We owe the ubiquity of geographically disparate parts of the
special-needs services and programs in globe, the greater the possibilities for
American schools to that concatenation picking out and identifying with this or
of events. Until now, however, these that distinct strand.
groups have had little or no dealings Up until now this has been possible
with genetics, except to urge, and occa- only for those whose physiognomy is
sionally contribute ½nancially to, the suf½ciently ambiguous. Life experiences
search for the genetic origins of their exploiting ambiguity have been turned
diseases. Now we step into the future. into art by novelists, most recently by
We will increasingly be able to identify Philip Roth in The Human Stain. A boy in
families that are genetically at risk for a black family, who had rather olive skin,
various disorders. The advocacy groups chose to identify as Jewish, and thereby
will then consist not of those who are ill hangs the tale. That is a pregenetic tale–
but of those who are at risk of becoming but it emphatically revolves around one
ill. recent fruit of biotechnology. Biotech
and biopharm are going to be integral
S uch groups bring something rather to many future novels that are true-to-
life in the prosperous parts of the world.
new to the discussion of identity, a con-
cept which Mediterranean, and then Eu- Some mentions will be so banal that no
ropean, philosophers have debated for one will notice. In this case, the septua-
as long as they have waxed philosophi- genarian hero is disgraced when he falls
cal. Built into their conception of identi- in love with a woman in her thirties who
ty was the idea that one’s essential fea- works as a janitor. He chooses products
tures, not accidental characteristics, from the biopharmaceutical industry to
should constitute one’s identity. Those rejuvenate himself, to be a younger man
words ‘essential’ and ‘accidental’ reek than his undrugged body teaches. P½-
of high metaphysics. The metaphysics zer’s Viagra turns a once-essential prop-
has gone underground, at least among erty, the natural limitations of age, into
English-language secular philosophers, what scholastic philosophers would have
ever since John Locke trashed essences called an accident.
over three centuries ago. Locke gave The novelist Philip Roth and the soci-
accounts of identity that are splendidly ologist Erving Goffman share the idea of
free of any waffle about essences. But theater as a metaphor for chosen identi-
those who wish to talk identities ignore ties. Drama is more generous than socie-
the surreptitious idea of essence at their ty. Roth seems to imply at the end of the
peril. And that is where genetic markers book that his protagonist can reject any
make a decisive difference. of the identities he has chosen or that
Because no matter how much intel- have been thrust upon him. He becomes
lectuals, both humanists and scientists, truly free in a sense that the existential-
may inveigh against it, people can hard- ists of half a century ago would have
ly avoid thinking of their genetic inheri- warmed to. I suspect Goffman, a child
tance as part of what constitutes them, of that time, who knew Sartre’s work
as part of who they are, as their essence. quite well, would reply that you cannot
But now comes a curious turn. We all exist without a roster of acted identities,
carry an enormous mix of inheritance, or else you are taken for mad. And mad-

92 Dædalus Fall 2006

ness itself is not a role that can be played she is black and a woman. More impor- Genetics,
any old how. In every generation are tantly, she is a Haitian, born and educat- groups &
quite ½rm rules about how you should ed in Montreal. She was a minority even the future
behave when you are crazy. among Haitian Montréalais, for she had of identity
received an ‘excellent’ education at a
S oon we shall have novels about peo- bourgeois school and did not speak
Creole at home. Then she was a franco-
ple who send in their saliva to a gene-
testing company and learn that their phone working in anglophone Toronto.
ancestry is more tinctured than they Among Toronto Caribbeans, she had a
thought–or more pure than they feared. hard time as a Haitian by a population
What will be the real-life effect on the that traces its roots mostly from Jamai-
self-consciousness of individuals, of ca and Trinidad. Every single minority
how they think of themselves, of who status demanded struggle, with allies on
they take themselves to be? In the near one front often not understanding her
future it is as likely to be denial as any- actions on another.
thing else. The parable of Thomas Jef- So much is a familiar story. It also
ferson’s daughter speaks for itself: only happens that my friend was afflicted,
those who want to listen to their genes at about age thirty, by a very nasty, lit-
will do so. tle understood, and almost certainly
Perhaps one of the ½rst public demon- inherited aging disorder, prevalent on-
strations will be political. Imagine a very ly among Haitians. It causes very rapid
white-looking Brazilian capitalist turned deterioration of the muscles, and not a
politician. He wishes to declare himself great deal is known about it. And we are
a man of the people. He sends off his spit not likely to learn more about it for the
and back comes the desired answer: he simple reason that no one is willing to
is more African than Portuguese, with spend any money on a rare ailment that
a convenient dollop of Amerindian afflicts a small and mostly poor popu-
thrown in. His party blazons these facts lation. (That could change: New York,
across the nation. The opposition re- Paris, and Montreal have many well-to-
peats to no effect that this hardly distin- do Haitian emigrés; Canada now has a
guishes him from anyone else in Brazil, Haitian-Canadian Governor-General.)
that he is nothing but a playboy from Here we have a rather startling example
São Paulo whose grandparents were of what may prove to be a new genetic
smart enough to become very rich. identity, being at risk genetically for this
disorder. My friend could decide that the
We are experiencing and will contin- pressing battle for her today is not the
previous battles, for which she had many
ue to experience another feature of this
phenomenon. A common objection to allies, but advocacy for those at risk for
the most stringent kind of identity poli- this disease.
tics is that every human being has many My example may gain a specious plau-
‘identities.’ Identity politics was partic- sibility from the fact that the disease
ularly urged on minorities wishing to appears to affect a subset of an already
obtain their due and not only repudiate identi½able group, namely people of
but also overcome past oppression. A Haitian descent. But it is merely a dra-
friend of mine, dedicated to a number matic way to illustrate the formation
of struggles, furnishes a poignant exam- of new biosocial identities around risk
ple of being a multiple minority. Yes, factors, where those who have the fac-

Dædalus Fall 2006 93

Ian Hacking tor are not markedly different in any biosocial groups on earth, Horatio, than
identity other way. This is not an individual af- are dreamt of in your philosophy.
fair: those at risk often create organiza- Sex is an aspect of biology about
tions. And while their initial motivation which there are various kinds of dis-
might be advocacy or support, increas- content. Likewise, gender. Transsexuals
ingly we shall have ‘making up people’ have completed or are undergoing sex-
with a vengeance. That is, new kinds change chemistry and surgery; trans-
of people will come into being, people gendered people adopt the lifestyle of
characterized by a certain risk factor, the opposite sex without major use of
who band together to create a social chemicals or surgery. While stories of
group that evolves its own collective successful sex-change operations are
characteristics. well known, many misfortunes unfor-
tunately go unpublicized. But these
Thus far we have considered biology misfortunes are one of the reasons that
transgendered people are becoming
as given. It is not. By now we take for
granted the biotechnology of organ more common and transsexuals less
transplants. The ways in which we come prominent. There are many variations
to regard our body parts as interchange- on these two themes, of which transhu-
able is producing a curious reversal of manism is one of the more remarkable.
much modern wisdom: body and mind Last year, I agreed to give a talk for an
are separating into their Cartesian habi- adult-education series run by a good uni-
tats.20 In the old days we used only to versity department. Its main customers
tattoo, pierce, and bind our body parts. are alert retired people. The format was
These have been turned into new art monthly discussions on the topic of ‘the
forms, witness Orlan in Paris and the person.’ My title was “People and Cy-
Australian performance artist Stelarc. borgs.” When I arrived, the organizers
They both use a lot of biotechnology, were astonished to see a far larger audi-
and their thoughts border on science. ence than usual. Many of the newcomers
Sterlac, who favors extra ears, has lec- were not in their seventies but in their
tured the surgeons at the Radcliffe Hos- thirties–well-dressed, courteous, but,
pital in Oxford. The fate of people who well, different. The man whose job was
want fewer appendages also seems gro- to keep the event running smoothly hap-
tesque. Yet real subcultures of individu- pened to be a gay friend. I thought he
als who are unhappy with their legs or might know who the newcomers were.
other body parts exist.21 There are more “No idea,” he said quietly, “but perhaps
they are from the liberal community.”
No time for explanation. I began by
20 Ian Hacking, “The Cartesian Vision Ful- quoting Francis Fukuyama. He was one
½lled: Analogue Bodies and Digital Minds,” of ten intellectuals whom Foreign Policy
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 30 (2005): 153–
166; Ian Hacking, “Our Neo-Cartesian Bodies
in Parts,” Critical Inquiry, forthcoming.
nophilia: Information, Questions, Answers and
21 Carl Elliott introduced amputism to the gen- Recommendations about Self-Demand Amputation
eral reader in “Amputees by Choice,” in Better (New York: 1st Books, 2000). Furth is a New
Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American York Jungian analyst who does play therapy
Dream (New York: Norton, 2003). For the in- for terminally ill children. Smith is a Scottish
house description of the need to be amputated, surgeon who has done some self-demand am-
see Gregg M. Furth and Robert Smith, Apotem- putations.

94 Dædalus Fall 2006

had asked which current idea would be ting bait. Moreover, a fair number of Genetics,
most harmful to the world as we know them had chosen their identities–in groups &
it. He imaginatively answered, “Trans- some cases, perhaps only for the day. the future
humanism.”22 He was referring to the I, the bland permissive liberal, became of identity
idea that the human race should use all more and more uncomfortable. I real-
available technology to improve itself, ized how much I depend on knowing to
an idea that has sparked a viable move- whom I am speaking. I had no reason to
ment institutionalized in many organi- think that the respondent was female,
zations around the world. Fukuyama thirty, or Chinese. Yet, I wanted to know
was his usual prescient self in picking ‘who’ she was–and the same for a num-
something that few soothsayers would ber of others.
have noticed. Why is it so dangerous? But they were rejecting that question.
Fukuyama answered in the truest, and Refusing to choose a society or a biology,
best, conservative way. He gave Burk- they were denying in every gesture the
ian reasons that one associates with von very concept of a biosocial identity.
Hayek, Popper, or Oakeshot (or Fuku-
yama): don’t make big changes; if you
must change, change slowly and be sure
you know what you are doing.
After quoting Fukuyama, I then asked
the people in the room, “What do you
think is the most dangerous idea around
today?” I received the expected answers
from people my age: genetically modi-
½ed food and so forth. Then a young
woman said very quietly, “The idea that
we should not evolve.” I would have said
she was an impeccably groomed woman
of about thirty, of Chinese ancestry, her
accent standard Ontario well-educated.
I ought to have been prepared, for I had
given a more highbrow talk with a simi-
lar theme in Montreal a few weeks earli-
er. There, a young black man asked me
very strong direct questions in standard
educated French. I was later told he was
an of½cer in the local transhumanist so-
As the discussion proceeded with vari-
ous members of the audience, the pen-
ny dropped more slowly than it should
have. Half the population in this audi-
ence already knew all about transhu-
manism. ‘Cyborg’ had been my unwit-

22 “Transhumanism,” Foreign Policy 144 (Sep-

tember–October 2004): 42–43.

Dædalus Fall 2006 95