Welcome to the post-genomic age. The idea of the human genome is obsolete…It’s fashionable now to speak of multiple genomes in a single individual, generated by mutations that occur as the body’s cells grow and divide. And genomes aren’t enough: everything has an “-ome” these days. The epigenome, proteome, microbiome, metabolome, connectome, interactome—each vies to be the next new scientific thing to set the public imagination on fire.
If genes seem to lose their luster, there is no shortage of biological paradigms looking to take their place. The authors describe the epigenome—chemical modifications to DNA that affect when genes are expressed—as each person’s “second genome,” one subject to heritable change due to environmental effects. As it happens, “Second Genome” is also the name of a company that aims to develop therapeutic interventions for the microbiome, which has been increasingly linked to physical health as well as moods and mental disease. “My microbiome made me do it,” one T-shirt proclaims.
It’s no surprise that scientists and the media alike embrace these totalizing languages. They have a seductive simplicity. Genomes first or second are reified into biology itself; scientific progress morphs into promises of technologically designed utopia. “Forever Young, Beautiful, and Fearless?” asks one chapter. “The Robot-Computer-Human Interface,” posits another. It is enough, I hope, to give one pause. Genetic (epigenetic, microbial) engineering could be used for disastrous ends, with or without intent. At the grand-historical scale of the authors’ imaginings, technologies alone cleave a Gordian knot, leaving convoluted personal, political, and societal consequences in their wake.
We may submit to these totalizing scientific vocabularies to pursue fantasies of total biological control, but the bargain is Faustian. When scientific concepts become all that is worth knowing, humanity shrinks to fit what can be known. When all aspects of the human experience are fully and scientifically understood—when DNA becomes the language of personality, and hormones, microbes, and electric pulses the substance of emotion—when genes, memories, and thoughts can be generated and manipulated at will—then, will mankind have ascended at last?