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May 31, 2008

A sociologist among geneticists

NroseNikolas Rose has an agenda - to dethrone the human genome. Dethrone it, that is, from its perceived status as the material essence of our beings.

Rose is a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics. This afternoon, he joined Nobelist Paul Nurse, Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project and two other geneticists in one of the hottest panel discussions at the festival today: how personal genomics might change our lives and how we see ourselves. After Collins had given the audience a quick primer on genomics, using the metaphor of an instruction manual to describe the genome, Rose explained why he thought the metaphor was a bad one.

Rose's point was that unlike an instruction book, the genome works differently in different contexts -- for example, the same genes are expressed at different times in different cells of the body, even though every cell has the same genome. The cellular environment of the genome matters, Rose said, as does the social and familiar environment of the person it belongs to. Which is why, he said, people need to understand that the genome is not the fundamental marker of identity that many think it to be. "We should help lighten the belief that your genome will tell you who you really are," he told his fellow panelists.

Collins agreed that "the genome is but one player in a very complicated tapestry of inputs" that go into making a person. "There are no perfect metaphors," he added.

After the event, Rose told me that some years ago, his position may have been seen as a sociological reproach to genetic determinism. "It would have been seen as an anti-scientific view" or in the words he used on stage -- "as a sociologist carping from the sidelines." But science itself is showing "how malleable the genome is," he said. - Yudhijit Bhattacharjee