Educating people about their genes and preparing them for informed decision making, geneticists turn the “gene” into a tangible and forceful reality. In scientific research, such a real, objective gene does not exist. Here, “gene” has a precise meaning only within very specific experimental practices: in other words, when researchers using the same methods are working on the same problem (Keller, 2002). Science philosopher Philip Kitcher sums up the status of the term gene in genetics: “A gene is anything a competent biologist chooses to call a gene” (Kitcher, 1992, p. 131). Therefore, the reified and all-explaining gene conveyed during educational events cannot be discounted as the popular science distortion of a real, objective gene in the laboratory. Instead, it has to be understood as the cornerstone of a powerful ideology. Today the genetics project still lives on the “genes in our heads” ideology (Duden, 2002): from the belief that there are genes that determine the phenotype and regulate the organism, that genetics is encoding the mystery of life and ultimately will contribute toward creating a better world. These convictions have spurred genetic research and dictated research questions, methods, and research findings. The reified gene therefore not only is the result of popular science communications but also is the ideological complement of the scientific gene industry. And this ideological complement, the “gene in the head” of geneticists, appears as soon as they promote genetic literacy and convey their expertise to their fellow citizens. As soon as geneticists attempt to depict their expertise as relevant to everyday life, they inevitably fall back on their own “genes in their heads”: they ascribe to their clients those genes that correspond to popular scientific notions, their genetically based worldview.
Genetic literacy is praised as the basis of an active, self-empowered way of life. According to science, politics, and industry, only citizens well versed in genetics can be responsible citizens capable of taking destiny into their own hands. As my analysis has shown, however, the promotion of genetic literacy almost inevitably subverts a freedom: the freedom to know and decide for oneself—without professional guidance. The need to consume professional instructions in genetics in order to be considered mature for autonomous and responsible decisions perverts the once emancipatory call not to be patronized by authorities but to be guided by one’s own intellect. Immanuel Kant’s “Sapere aude!” (“dare to know”) as the battle cry of the Enlightenment is subverted in the duty to make an “informed choice” guided by scientific input.