martes, noviembre 25, 2008

debate: should genes and genetic information be part of humankind and not be for profit?

In my class on medical anthropology we have a debate, and I have to be part of the opposition. So my position was that genetic information should be for profit.
Here is my statement...

November 24, 2008.
4th Debate
Opposition’s Conclusion:
How many of you have seen "The Island" with Scarlet Johansen and Ewan McGregor? If you remember, the script is about an underground world in which clones of rich people are raised and kept in case the man or woman need it for organ transplantation or any other form of life saving, they are literally their bio-savings. How many of you imagine a future like that? In this case, the owner of those clones was a private company that was holding these clones for their own profit. But in terms of who own the body the best fiction ever written may possible be "Brave new world" by Aldous Huxley. How many of you have read it? This is a negative utopia, a world divided by types of people, some of them "naturally" prepared to do physical work, some of them to run the state, and so on. It's true that this is a totalitarian system, Huxley was thinking in the Stalinism when wrote it. But the question of who own the body remains the same. In "The Island" the corporation owns the body, and in "Brave New World" the state owns it.
When talking about genetic information and genetic make up, and the relation with ethical, economical or political problems we are talking about different problems at different scales. Genetics, biology, human bodies, social, ethical, economical and political issues are different scales, which have different problems and ways of dealing with it. But just focusing at genetic and biological levels one can argue that the material is blurry, we are not dealing with very clear boundaries. Where humanness finishes and where other entities start? We used to think that our body is 70% water like the earth, but now more and more we know that indeed our body is a world of microorganisms, bacteria and viruses. In fact, 80% of our body is filled with microorganisms. And these microorganisms are seen as commensals. The definition of commensal is "an association between two organisms in which one benefits and the other derives neither benefit nor harm." (Dictionary Version 2.0.2 (51.4) of Apple). So how unique, autonomous and independent is our body? Can we still think a human being an indivisible self, in-dividual with a unique consciousness completely separated from the environment? I will come back in a minute to this.
But let me talk about the distinction between humanness and personhood. As we have seen humanness can be a broad and ambiguous notion too large and abstract to be operationalized, but personhood is more related to the subject and to processes of subjectification. In this late capitalist system, as Althusser has highlighted we are always-already conditioned by the interpellation that the system, with its value over consumption, is situating on us. How many of you have an Ipod or an Iphone or one of those expensive cell phones? How many of you feel interpellated to conform with this value of consumption and think that the better your phone, or your clothes or any other example the better you feel? The point I want to make with this is that processes of commodification constantly condition us; commodities create the person in the same way that person's desires are objectified in the objects. And this leads us to profit. Commodification processes are central to this system run by seek of profit. So if profit is everywhere why do you think it should be kept out of genetic information? Even the most powerful state would not be able to control this unstoppable process of producing profit from genetic material. One question we could discuss is if we need new forms of controlling genetic information and how is produced, distributed and consumed. But this would not undermine our position that genetic information should be for profit. Many research labs in the US have move elsewhere to do research in stem cells after the Bush’s administration, they also want to be part of this dual research and entrepreneurial enterprise. We have to remember that profit is not only money is also social and academic status in the form of symbolical capital and academic prestige. Therefore, both researchers and capitalist investors are pursuing profit. And if someone invest and take risks it should be granted a right to that specific knowledge he or she has discovered. So patents are necessary to provide financial incentive for scientists to do meaningful research.
I will finish my statement with an article that appeared in the NYT on Nov 11th called “Now: the rest of the Genome” by Carl Zimmer in which he argues that the gene is in an identity crisis. He says, “we can no longer think of genes as being single stretches of DNA at one physical location” ( There are too many omissions and exceptions to the typical rules for genes. Furthermore, we know that DNA sits between protein-coding regions. But the 21,000 protein-coding genes in the human genome structure is just 1.2 percent of that genome. The other 98.8 percent is for the most part disregarded. The other important thing is the reconceptualization of the role of the epigenome, a layer of biochemical reactions that turns genes on and off, and the possibility that it plays a big part in health and heredity. So with these new discoveries it seems the more we learn about the human genome, the less DNA looks like destiny. If you google epigenetics you would find that is indeed becoming a hot issue. In Europe there is a Human Epigenome Project and US is trying to catch up. So it seems that genetic research focusing in the gene was like trying to read Dostoyevsky in Russian only knowing the ABC. We have advanced quite a lot but we still have a long journey to undertake.
This long loop leads us to think that we are not sure what we know about humanness and genetic make up; in contrast the only thing we are sure is that we live in a profit-oriented society. So the seek for profit would guide our footsteps to know more about our humanness and genetic information.

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