Society’s Ordered World & The Ontology of Genomics
On the January 27th, 2015 episode of The Nightly Show, Larry Wilmore offered some thought provoking questions to his panelists in the “Keep It 100” segment. Though the topic was vaccines, perhaps the least intellectually stimulating topic to discuss considering the preponderance of evidence in favor of vaccinating children, Wilmore’s line of questioning offered insight into how individuals order their world into a comprehensible whole. Wilmore asks his anti-vaccine panelist, Zoey O'Toole, “if a vaccine for autism came out now, would you recommend it?” Despite the absurdity (and perhaps betraying a fundamental misunderstanding of what autism actually is) of the question, O'Toole responds without a second thought “no, I wouldn’t trust it, no.” Watching this, my head moved so quickly into my hands that I assumed they were now inseparable.
Still, her answer provided significant insights. Namely her answer supports, something I have argued before, that individuals in society have ordered the world into something they can comprehend. Each individual’s specific societal order is different from the next. Indeed, this order appears to the individual as objective but is in actuality subjective. For O'Toole, there is no question vaccines are harmful despite the fact she’s rendering a subjective judgment that lacks any objective support. Things taken to be a “certain way” or taken for granted as something that is “common sense” are part of this order. O'Toole’s, in her world, has positioned science as something inherently untrustworthy. The only possible conclusion that could be drawn from her understanding of the evidence is science is untrustworthy, despite the fact she’s used fallacies to support her conclusion. O'Toole claims her opposition to vaccines are based on evidence, but instead of giving the sensible response “I would have to see what the evidence says about the vaccine,” she defaults to an immediate “no.” It makes the weakness, perhaps even logical non-existence, of her argument clear. There’s no need for evidence when it comes to being anti-vaccine, only conviction.
This tendency towards a perfect, unshakable, and ordered world doesn’t indicate a bright future for the revelation of genomics. On the September 29th, 2014 episode of Philosophy Bites, John Dupré offers up an excellent primer on genomics. Dupré explains:
in genomics, we’re starting to think a lot more holistically about the DNA, the structures which carry DNA … what we’re finding is that this is a much more complex system [than the idea of genes as trait carriers]. It as a material reality, it has a shape which is essential to its function, it responds to the cellular environment and the cellular environment actually responds to the wider environment … I like to call it a process rather than a thing that is both responding to and affecting its environment in a complex, functional, but actually flexible way.
Dupré goes on to say our understanding of “genetic code” as something rendered in the form of the organism is wrong. He argues “the organism is generated by a whole range of causes, environmental and internal, and the internal ones are not all genetic or genomic, they include other molecules that are transmitted.” He goes on to say “you have the resources within the genome to produce absolutely countless different products. It’s much better to think of the genome as a library of resources or possibilities that can be used by the cell to produce different proteins … and, indeed, many other molecules.” What this means is the dichotomy of “nature” versus “nurture” is quite false, and the exterior environment impacts the environment of the cell, which in turn impacts the genome itself. Thus, the “nature” aspect of an organism is dynamic throughout its life cycle. In short, Dupré says “what we do actually effects our genome and our children and grandchildren’s genomes.” Epigenetics is one of the fields of study dedicated to “cellular and physiological traits that are heritable that are heritable by daughter cells and not caused by changes in the DNA sequence”.
This revelation has huge consequences on human ontology. That is to say, the fundamental understanding of human and human interaction is changed by the knowledge that one organism’s behaviors can have an impact on the cellular traits of another organism. In a word, the notion of “nature” and specifically “human nature” is by the most charitable conclusion (toward genetic determinists) completely redefined and by the most punitive conclusion utterly annihilated. Dupré says on the topic of humans “changing themselves” that “organisms in general are a lot more developmentally plastic than people have generally thought.” However, he goes on to say:
it doesn’t mean it’s easy. [The genome] is a very complex system and we don’t understand it very well. So it’s not as if we’re now saying ‘now we know it’s flexible and complex, we can do what we like with it’ because we don’t understand it well enough to do what we like. But in the sense that there isn’t the reason that was associated with traditional genetic determinism for thinking it can’t be done, we’re just stuck a certain way … the possibilities for our evolving very rapidly in directions that ultimately we may be able to have more control over is a very real one
Dupré suggests the “hierarchy of interacting processes” genomics reveals means our idea of the “human individual” is “optional,” and “we’re part of larger systems.” I would argue the current understanding of human individuality dictated by common sense is proven to be flawed based on the evidence genomics provides. The notion of “genetic code” has often been cited as the source of human individuality as something consistent which anchors the changes in mental processes that occur through socialization and ideological interpellation. Suggestions that participation within a given society could have an impact on one’s biological interiority have been previously without evidence. What genomics suggests is nothing about an organism’s existence is concrete and given the proper stimuli anything can be changed. But, the complexity of these processes means the knowledge of how to evoke such changes might remain forever a mystery.
Still, this casts serious doubts on the argument that a human being, or any organism, maintains a consistent individuality or consciousness throughout their existence. To say an individual at age ten is the same individual at age thirty, that their consciousness is consistent and there is an inherent connection between the two states, is increasingly questionable. Dupré cites philosopher Elselijn Kingma, who has done work on the metaphysics of pregnancy, to support this claim. Kingma’s thesis is, in essence, the “fetus” is not an entity that has continuity with the baby that is the product of the process of pregnancy. Instead, the “fetus” is “essentially a part of the mother,” rather than a state of being which an individual previously inhabited. Dupré paraphrases, “it turns out that we never were fetuses. Fetuses … stop existing when the baby is born.”
Dupré goes on to challenge the claim that “we maintain our identity as long as we remain the same animal” which uses an intuitive appeal to knowing “what the same animal is” as opposed to an argument about personal identity which uses psychological continuity as its evidence. Genomics kneecaps the flawed intuition of animalistic consistency revealing it to be nothing more than a conclusion drawn fallaciously from “common sense,” considering the biological relationship between organisms. However, Nigel Warburton asks Dupré in the course of their discussion “do you think that we will transform our understanding of what we are, just as Darwin transformed our notion of our relationship to other animals?” Judging by O'Toole’s stance on vaccinations, and the strange emergence of the anti-vaccine line of “reasoning,” the answer is no.
Many popular lines of reasoning, such as “anti-vaxers,” “Gamergate” supporters, and climate change deniers, seem to abandon the rules of formal logic and evidence all together in favor of an arbitrary belief in a certain ordered world. The idea of the “genetic code” has existed in the cultural register for so long, and the practice of belief in evidentiary unsubstantiated or scientifically exploded theories is so prevalent, the revolutionary potential of genomics will go largely unrealized outside academia. A possibility exists that the nature of communication has changed the way revolutionary ideas are disseminated. To make a comparison to Darwin is difficult because information is now comprehended in a fundamentally different fashion. That is to say, people can promote their arbitrary ordering of the world in equal measure to the understanding of the world that is supported by evidence. Though the great boon of this new dynamic is intellectual gatekeepers are unable to stifle ideas and experiences that are unrecognized by the pro-status quo underpinnings of institutionalized scientific and academic thought, it becomes all the easier for nonsense like opposition to vaccination to brand itself a marginalized idea and attempt to follow the same intellectual path of something like womanism in literary criticism. The relevant difference between the two ideas is the former lacks any evidence that can support an argument in its favor using formal logic, whereas the latter simply was ignored arbitrarily, justified by a restrictive interpretation of “formal logic.” This restrictive interpretation was underpinned by the untrue premise that objective reality has already been discovered and comprehensively understood prior to Black women’s experiences being heard.
Despite these challenges, breakthroughs in genomics are incredibly valuable to various schools of revolutionary thought. More than ever, sociological theses by feminist scholars about gender and sexuality are supported by genomics. Additionally, theories of race which attempt to use “science” based on genetics to perpetuate anti-Black racism are exploded. Genomics also provides, as discussed, a huge boon to ontology. Precise points of departure for individual traits and states of being can be sourced through genomic study. At no time ever has there been a stronger body of work to establish in what sense a human consciousness is a constituent whole, or alternative establish the moment of departure where an individual changes into something quite different in a single lifespan. Despite how much O'Toole and her intellectual equals may want to confine themselves to the understanding of the world they have constructed, scientific developments like genomics indicate that “objective reality” is far from being uncovered, if it exists at all. Still, as Dupré succinctly states, “it’s hard to convince that things they think they understand should be thought of very differently.”