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The Meanings of Genetics


The recent rapid and successful development of genetic research has intensified the debate about its possible outcomes and might pose a number of questions to Humanities disciplines. As Paul Brodwin has observed, contemporary debates about claims of identity and about social connection focus around questions like 'Who am I, fundamentally?' and 'Who do I belong with, fundamentally?' and the presence of genetic evidence changes the meaning of this 'fundamental’.

There is a considerable body of literature belonging mainly to the domains of Sociology, Anthropology and Bioethics examining such topics as the impact of genetic research on particular communities and social groups and their attitude towards various types of genetic screening. As well as being a practical and ethical challenge, the genetics revolution is an imaginative and cultural one for the humanity. There can be little doubt that, like the Darwinian revolution in evolutionary thought, modern developments in and perceptions of genetics will have an enormous impact upon all intellectual disciplines in terms of issues, form and content. How are we going to re-image and understand the cultural, social and other intellectual possibilities that genetics presents beyond the realm of action and the ethical? It is these cultural and conceptual implications of genetics that this project explores.

Aims of Project

Within this overall framework last year Yulia Egorova started a separate study on the  geneticists' accounts of the meanings of genetics. This year she is initiating a project on the  Effect of genetic research on historical debate. The School currently also has another related project on Genetics, Religion & Identity: a Study of Bangladeshi Muslims.

The second and no less important aspect of the project is to establish a network of scholars and institutions involved in the study of the relationship between genetics and Humanities and/or in the development of this relationship. In December 2003 we set up a reading and discussion group exploring the existing literature on the cultural and social implications of genetics. This is a multidisciplinary group, which consists of humanities disciplines’ scholars, sociologists and natural scientists. In April 2004 and May 2005 we conducted two workshops examining the Humanities disciplines' responses to genetics.

This year we organised a one-day conference which explored the impact of genetic research on the concepts of personhood. The papers from the conference will be published early next year in Health Care Analysis. The titles of papers are as follows:

  • Ruth Chadwick, ‘It's only a battery: Mitochondrial DNA and identity’
  • Kristin Zeiler, ‘Me as My Genes? The Concept of Genetic Identity and Some Ethical Implications’
  • Mairi Levitt and Neil Manson, ‘My genes made me do it? The implications of behavioural genetics for responsibility and blame’
  • Joanna Latimer, ‘Becoming in-formed: Genetic counselling, uncertainty and choice’
  • Robert Simpson, ‘On Parrots and Thorns: Sri Lankan Perspectives on genetics, science and the concept of personhood’.
  • Heather Widdows, ‘The Self in the Genetic Era’
  • Yulia Egorova, ‘The Meanings of Science: conversations with geneticists’


Additional Information

Project papers:

Egorova, Y., Edgar, A., Pattison, S. (2006), 'The Meanings of Genetics: accounts of biotechnology in the work of Habermas, Baudrillard and Derrida', International Journal of the Humanities , v.3.

Edgar, A., Pattison, S. (2006) 'Need humanities be so useless? Justifying the place and role of humanities as a critical resource for performance and practice', Medical Humanities (in press).

Egorova, Y. (2006) "Up in the Sky": Human and Social sciences’ responses to genetics’, in J. Gunning and S. Holm, eds, Ethics, Law and Society, v.2 Ashgate Publishing (in press).

Egorova, Y. (forthcoming 2007) 'The Meanings of Science: conversations with geneticists', Health Care Analysis, special issue on 'The Meanings of Genetics: science and the concepts of personhood'