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Genomics and self-knowledge: implications for societal research and debate

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When the Human Genome Project (HGP) was launched, our genome was presented as our 'blueprint', a metaphor reflecting a genetic deterministic epistemology. Eventually, however, the HGP undermined rather than strengthened the understanding of genomes as blueprints and of genes as ultimate causal units. A symbolical turning point was the discovery that the human genome only contains∼22,500 genes. Initially, this was seen as a narcissistic offence. Gradually, however, it strengthened the shift from traditional genetics and biotechnology (i.e., gene-oriented approaches) to genomics, i.e. genome-oriented or systems approaches, emphasizing complexity. The 20th century can be regarded as the century of biotechnology and of the gene. Its history demonstrated that the will to know (notably: to know ourselves) has never been a disinterested affair: it is driven by a will to improve (notably: to improve ourselves). In this article it is claimed that, as genomics takes us beyond a genetic deterministic understanding of life, this must have consequences for societal research and debate as well. Policies for self-improvement will increasingly rely on the use of complex interpretation. Therefore, the emphasis must shift from issues such as genetic manipulation and human enhancement to issues involved in governance of novel forms of information.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Centre for Society & Genomics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Publication date: August 1, 2007

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