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The Popular Gene

Those who learn about genetics by attending congresses or seminars are free afterward to go home and return to their everyday lives. There is, however, a form of genetic education that has direct personal relevance and that requires citizens to act: genetic counseling. Genetic counseling is a professional service that prepares people to make a concrete decision—typically an “informed decision” about whether to undergo genetic testing or not. The explicit goal of the session is “medically competent, individual guidance in decision making” (Kommission fur Offentlichkeitsarbeit und ethische Fragen der Gesellschaft fur Humangenetik e.V., 1996, p. 129). Thus genetic counseling is a paradigmatic example of a genetics educational event. Typically, a session lasts one to two hours. A genetic expert explains DNA and chromosome structure, heredity rules, disease statistics, and genetic testing options. If the geneticist is sitting across from a pregnant woman who needs to decide whether or not to undergo prenatal testing, he emphasizes the cellular processes involved in fertilization, statistics of birth defects, pregnancy risks, and prenatal testing options. On the other hand, if sitting in front of him are men and women whose families have had multiple occurrences of breast or colon cancer, then the topics of genetic mutations, cancer statistics, and early detection usually take precedence (Samerski, 2005).

The goal of the lessons on “genes” is to teach the client about himself. To do so, the geneticist first points out to her client that, like all people, he is a gene carrier. She explains genes, DNA, chromosomes, genetic information, and mutations and asks him to see himself as the product of these invisible gene worlds. She speculates about the specific gene errors and disease genes that her client may have. In these instructions, the complex and largely ambiguous relationship between genotype and phenotype (Lewontin, 2004) jells into an active linear causation. Oftentimes, counselors speak of “genetic defects” and “gene errors,” invoking everyday connotations in order to explain a statistical correlation. A “genetic defect” seems to cause a disease like a cylinder defect that is the cause of an engine breakdown.

Geneticists formulate numerous sentences in which the gene is the subject of a verb indicating a causative activity. A woman in her forties learns, for instance, that she may have a gene mutation: “And this mutation can specifically result in (-) specific diseases; in other words, it can trigger them.” Such formulations where genes are the subjects of active verbs are very prevalent. Like the “gene error,” they convey meanings from everyday language to the abstract sphere of markers, statistical associations, and probabilities. In the process, the gene takes on animist traits: it becomes the mover that initiates and acts on its own.

The reification of “genes” and “gene errors” is reinforced by the notion that something is being stored there: “genetic information.” Gene mutations, clients are taught, are mutations in the genetic code—that is, in the person’s blueprint. A young pregnant woman, for example, is taught that genetic information contains information about the entire person: “Every cell has all the information about what constitutes the person . . . This means that when I remove one cell from someone’s body, I have representative genetic information about the entire person” (Samerski, 2002, p. 157). Therefore, genes have intangible content; they contain information, instructions, or “administrative directives” (Samerski, 2002, p. 156).

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