Thursday, June 02, 2016

genes: convenient tokens of our time


ecodevoevo |  Our culture, like any culture, creates symbols to use as tokens as we go about our lives. Tokens are reassuring or explanatory symbols, and we naturally use them in the manipulations for various resources that culture is often about.  Nowadays, a central token is the gene.

Genes are proffered as the irrefutable ubiquitous cause of things, the salvation, the explanation, in ways rather similar to the way God and miracles are proffered by religion.  Genes conveniently lead to manipulation by technology, and technology sells in our industrial culture. Genes are specific rather than vague, are enumerable, can be seen as real core 'data' to explain the world.  Genes are widely used as ultimate blameworthy causes, responsible for disease which comes to be defined as what happens when genes go 'wrong'.  Being literally unseen, like angels, genes can take on an aura of pervasive power and mystery.  The incantation by scientists is that if we can only be enabled to find them we can even cure them (with CRISPR or some other promised panacea), exorcising their evil. All of this invocation of fundamental causal tokens is particulate enough to be marketable for grants and research proposals, great for publishing in journals and for news media to gawk at in wonder. Genes provide impressively mysterious tokens for scientists to promise almost to create miracles by manipulating.  Genes stand for life's Book of Truth, much as sacred texts have traditionally done and, for many, still do.

Genes provide fundamental symbolic tokens in theories of life--its essence, its evolution, of human behavior, of good and evil traits, of atoms of causation from which everything follows. They lurk in the background, responsible for all good and evil.  So in our age in human history, it is not surprising that reports of finding genes 'for' this or that have unbelievable explanatory panache.  It's not a trivial aspect of this symbolic role that people (including scientists) have to take others' word for what they claim as insights.