Alba Montes Sánchez / Personal identity in the age of genomics

After a year and a half of work (not counting maternity leave!), my involvement with the project on The Genomic History of Denmark is slowly drawing to a close. Working in it has been both fun and enormously challenging, since I had to learn a lot about population genomics, ancient DNA research and genetic ancestry testing.

But you may wonder: why is someone from CFS working for such a project? Well, the answer is that one can often hear claims that genetics has something to tell us about our identity, about who we are. In the case of ancient DNA research and genetic ancestry testing, the claim is specifically that it can unlock the mysteries of our ancestry and tell us where we really come from, which is supposed to be a key to who we really are. All such claims spark controversy to a higher or lesser degree, and raise questions about what identity means. My job within this project has been to reflect upon the implications that this research may have, and should or should not have, for personal identity (for identity self-ascription, group-identification and the sense of group belongingness) and group membership.

It seems clear that personal identity cannot be established by looking at our genes, since it is a matter of commitments, values, narratives and so on (pick one of these terms, a combination of them, or your favorite alternative—bottom line: personal identity is a matter of meaning, not of biology). But saying this is only a first step in disentangling the questions at stake. It is rare for people to give genetics a direct and straightforward power over their identity self-ascriptions, but genetic information can indeed have some impact on identities. Specifically, when we or the identity-constituting groups we belong to attach any importance to ancestors and history, any technology that can give information about them might become meaningful. Actual examples of genomic research show that the ways in which people take it into account and the reasons why they do it are immensely varied, and involve personal and socio-political factors. Identities are dialogical—shaped, negotiated and maintained in dialogue with others. Such dialogues, which can range from the cordial to the confrontational or directly violent (think about the discrimination of minorities), are the key to understanding the role that information about genetic ancestors can play in identity narratives: whether it remains irrelevant or acquires a prominent role. I have an article in preparation about these issues, which has profited from conversations initiated at last year’s workshop on “Genomics, History and Identities”.

As a foretaste, you can attend the talk I will give with Thomas Szanto at the upcoming Conference on Shared Cultural Context and Interpersonal Understanding (CFS, May 18-19 2017), where we will use some examples involving genetics to reflect, among other things, on the role of imagination in the formation and maintenance of collectives through time.

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