Siddhartha Mukherjee has an arresting thought experiment: What if, along with your familiar elementary-school report card, you had a genetic report card—one that read out your propensity for getting each letter grade in each subject? If you get an A in math, and your genetic report card says that your propensity for getting that grade is 7 percent, would that change your evaluation of your performance? What if your propensity was 97 percent?
Such perplexing, and perhaps uncomfortable, questions lie on the horizon, Mukherjee told Nautilus recently, in his Ingenious interview. He’s the author of The Gene: An Intimate History, published last year. He contends that genetics is a destabilizing idea in our culture: “What if I begin to understand you as pixels of information that change your leanings and propensities toward one future fate or another fate?” The more we understand the impact of genes on all sorts propensities—to have a mental illness, to have cancer, or to have certain behaviors and traits—the more it seems we must rethink what we mean by fate, chance, and responsibility. Destiny will no longer appear as something opaque and amorphous, like “a gray cloud,” he says. Instead, “we can begin to speak about it…in terms of very incisive information about particular genomes correlating or coexisting with particular environments.”
The ability to speak in those terms generates a new concept, the “previvor.” It’s a word, Mukherjee says, that he finds “very troubling, but also exciting and provocative.” You’re a “previvor,” he says, if you’re “a survivor of a disease that you haven’t yet had. As we move forward in a more and more deeply genetically-annotated era, where individual genomes are going to be scanned and deciphered for future propensities…we will begin to enter a weird age of previvors. That is a destabilizing idea in our culture.”
Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @brianga11agher.
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