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The Paideia Archive: Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy

Volume 4, 1998

Bioethics and Medical Ethics

Sylvia Nagl
Pages 100-106

Genetic Essentialism and the Discursive Subject

Today, biology is instrumental in the epistemological restructuring of the human sciences. This ‘biology,’ however, does not signify the body itself, but a metaphorical, linguistic construction of the self around which many aspects of contemporary life are becoming organized. The central metaphor of one’s biology is one’s genes, and ‘one’s genes’ are seen as the essence of the person. For complex historical, political and cultural reasons, the human genome is increasingly equated with the ‘essence’ of humanness. But, not only are genetic definitions of humanness, personality and identity the product of a historical discourse, the self they seek to define is a construct to begin with, arising from an essentialist epistemology, and is historically situated itself. Scientists who are involved in human genetics and the human genome project are confronted with this epistemological reconstruction of the self in unique ways, since they find themselves in the roles of the knowers and the known. Any definition of the human self will simultaneously affect the object of their research and their own agency. The issues about moral-agency-of-life scientists that need to be considered in this context can fruitfully be discussed from one postmodernist perspective. Drawing on Foucauldian analysis, Susan Hekman reminds us that no one is ever offered only one discourse. We are self-creating subjects who refuse to be scripted, and create our self out of the many discourses that are available. I will employ aspects of her theory of the discursive subject, and recent perspectives arising from postcolonial science studies, to develop a twofold strategy for transformation in molecular biology.

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