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Genomes and What to Make of ThemReview - Genomes and What to Make of Them
by Barry Barnes and John Dupré
University Of Chicago Press, 2008
Review by Davide Vecchi, Ph.D.
May 12th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 20)

The book gives an engaging, dense and informative account of the many conceptual, theoretical and ethical issues surrounding the powerful science of genomics.  The target audience of the book is quite wide, even though non-academics will find it very demanding in parts. Philosophers and historians of science, sociologists of knowledge and bioethicists will all benefit from reading it. I would add to the list biologists too.

The major aim of the book is to propose a naturalistic understanding of genomes. The aim is achieved in two ways. First, the authors provide an articulated attempt to dispel the multi-faceted computational approach to genomes in favor of a materialistic, chemical and molecular one. Genomes are treated as complex chemical molecules rather than as sets of instructions. Secondly, the authors attempt to counter the complex myth of the exceptionality of genomes, arguing that, even though genomes are pivotal components of the life cycle, they do not constitute our natural essence. A naturalistic and materialistic account of genomes more fully grasps the complexity of the science, and opposes any kind of DNA fetishism, genetic determinism, genetic realism and essentialism mistakenly connected with genomics.

The book is roughly structured in two parts: the first deals with biology, the second with social and ethical issues. The authors' aim is always to disentangle the myth and ideology surrounding genomics from its genuine import.

The first part chronicles the transition from classical genetics to genomics, from a science limited to observation and prediction of some limited kind to a technology with a vast power of manipulation and control over the internal structure of organisms and their germ lines. What the transition to genomics has highlighted is a shift from a focus on inheritance and phenotypic determination to a focus on protein production and cellular chemistry. Ultimately, we now know that genes can be somehow loosely identified with complex and spatially discontinuous DNA sequences. But this looseness renders the concept somehow redundant. Furthermore, we now know that DNA cannot be meaningfully treated as the sole determinant of cellular processes. This kind of gene determinism and DNA fetishism should be consigned to the trash bin of biology's history. The authors propose to identify genomes with objects made of chromatin, where the latter consists not only of DNA, but also of small RNAs and other proteins. The narrative makes it abundantly clear that the molecular approach has led to the discovery of cellular processes of unimaginable complexity. The metaphor of selfish genes is incredibly distant from what happens to be the real thing. Genomics is increasingly less focused on coding DNA sequences, but more on the whole package, the epigenome, with its so-called "junk" DNA (increasingly understood to have fundamental importance in the packaging and formatting of the sequence), its transposons (i.e. mobile genetic elements), its methylation patterns, etc.

The first part finishes with an excellent discussion about the evolutionary consequences of genomics. A genomic/molecular approach directs attention to evolutionary phenomena and micro-evolutionary processes that have been remarkably neglected by standard evolutionary views. The authors criticise the rationale for focusing on the evolution of multicellular organisms, and among these on those with a privileged phylogenetic relationship with humans, and propose to focus on the "small things" that have been around since the beginning of life. Microbes have always been here, constitute most of earth's biomass, while "macrobes" (i.e. multicellular eukaryotes) arrived 2 billion years later. The analysis of microbial genomes lands a blow to traditional tree accounts of phylogenetic relationships, demonstrating the ubiquity of processes of lateral or horizontal gene transfer (HGT). Attention to the microbial world also suggests ways in which our understanding of evolution should be revised. Here the authors venture to make some bold and very interesting suggestions, the most intriguing of which is that microbes, and particularly viruses, provide the major source of evolutionary novelties. Finally, they argue that metagenomics (i.e. analysis of the genomic resources of a microbial community) suggests one of the ways in which the atomism and individualistic biases of Darwinian biology should be given up. The extent to which microbial communities share genomic resources through HGT and other kinds of functional genetic exchange has been vastly underestimated. Only consider that macrobes' (e.g. humans) existence depends heavily on the interaction with microbial communities. Microbes account for 90 % of a human body cells and for 99% of its genomic resources. So, the authors ask, what is a human body?

The second part of the book deals with the vagaries of issues linked to the emergence and development of the science of genomics. One need that the authors feel as particularly incumbent - so much so that the book in this second part looks quite militant - is the rejection of the fiction they label astrological genomics, with its deleterious genetic deterministic overtones. The authors also deal with the subject of fear. Genomics is a powerful science, its powers being analogous only to those of nuclear physics. This determines awe and fear and a very strongly entrenched belief in its exceptionalism. The authors are convinced that, eventually, scientists will be able to manipulate at will genomes and organisms, even though the technology is still lacking in many more respects then generally realized. With a variety of examples, the authors make their case by rationalizing all these fears, by trying to understand them, and by attempting to show that some of them are based on dubious metaphysical beliefs. Generally, people who fear genomics and connected recombinant DNA technologies, in a way or another adopt what the authors call the affront-to-natural-order argument. In this respect, the authors try to debunk the multi-faceted nature of the putative transgression of the natural order. They point out how the interconnected fictions of a natural state, of normal individuals, of genomes as essences of organisms not to be improved but only repaired, of genomes as material basis of human nature, might just amount to a whole lot of philosophical gibberish. The alternative to the essentialistic metaphysical view is a naturalistic perspective in which nature is in constant flux, in which genomes change and vary naturally in a plethora of ways rather than being fixed, in which human nature is identified with our sociability rather than with a material basis. If genomic knowledge is taken seriously into account then the authors' case is well made.

To conclude, this is an impressive book. The writing style is engaging, while the approach is quite refreshing, as the authors are not afraid to take many biological, political and ethical stands, especially in order to stigmatize certain contradictory and irrational attitudes towards genomic knowledge and its applications. Sometimes I felt I wanted to know more about the basics of, for instance, the human genome project. A satisfactory book of this kind, dealing with the many aspects of a powerful technology, should have been 1000 pages at least. Overall, the authors' courageous attempt to condense in 250 pages so much information and analysis has to be appreciated.

© 2009 Davide Vecchi

Davide Vecchi did his Ph.D. in philosophy of science at the London School of Economics. He has been Research Fellow at the KLI for Evolution and Cognition Research. His main research interests lie at the interface between biology and philosophy.


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