Title

How Literature and Film Shape and Reflect Public Attitudes toward Genetics

Publication Date:
Updated:

Collection Editor(s):

Collection Editor(s)
Name & Degree
Jay Clayton, Ph.D.
Work Title/Institution
Director, Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy and William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English, Vanderbilt University

Introduction

Powerful works of art enrich our understanding of the issues that matter most in our lives—not least in controversial areas of the biosciences. By exploring the dense cultural networks that shape science and technology, they help us see multiple dimensions of policy issues that might be opaque to other forms of analysis. Novels, from Frankenstein to Never Let me Go, have provided a space for reflection, for deepening and expanding our awareness of the impact of genetics on society.

Thinking about narrative can be of special value to bioethics because of the power stories possess to immerse readers in richly imagined worlds, worlds in which the complexity of issues can be explored on multiple levels. Equally important is attending to the genre of stories, because the conventions, characters, and images that cluster around a topic both shape and reflect the assumptions shared by different communities. Tracing shifts in genre conventions can be a powerful way of revealing how people are responding to a scientific discovery. The social consequences of science depend not only on how the population at large understands genetics research but also on cultural…

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Powerful works of art enrich our understanding of the issues that matter most in our lives—not least in controversial areas of the biosciences. By exploring the dense cultural networks that shape science and technology, they help us see multiple dimensions of policy issues that might be opaque to other forms of analysis. Novels, from Frankenstein to Never Let me Go, have provided a space for reflection, for deepening and expanding our awareness of the impact of genetics on society.

Thinking about narrative can be of special value to bioethics because of the power stories possess to immerse readers in richly imagined worlds, worlds in which the complexity of issues can be explored on multiple levels. Equally important is attending to the genre of stories, because the conventions, characters, and images that cluster around a topic both shape and reflect the assumptions shared by different communities. Tracing shifts in genre conventions can be a powerful way of revealing how people are responding to a scientific discovery. The social consequences of science depend not only on how the population at large understands genetics research but also on cultural concerns that may have little or nothing to do with the science. Literature and other symbolic forms are a guide to the hopes and fears that surround genetics. 

Members of the ELSI community do not have to be persuaded that language can be slippery, that buried metaphors can influence how messages are received, and that different communities often interpret texts in different ways. The ability to read critically what people write, both what they explicitly mean and what may lie beneath the surface of their words, is a valuable asset for bioethics and public policy, one that draws on the specialized training of literary scholars. This is especially true when exploring popular narratives with little claim to nuance or artistry. Distortions of the science are an ever-present problem, and it is important to urge scientists to find ways to communicate their results clearly. But long experience has shown that media hype, internet memes, personal stories, cultural myths, fictitious monsters, dystopian novels, post-apocalyptic tales, and literary slogans like “Frankenfood” and “brave new biology” can overwhelm any amount of careful language about the limitations of a research finding.

The articles and chapters below have been chosen to illustrate some of the ways humanities scholarship can enrich bioethics. They are drawn from an increasingly prominent emphasis in literary and film studies on texts that engage with genetics and bioethics. Most not only provide insights into stories about genetics but also foreground how and why the analysis of cultural texts should play a role in bioethical inquiry. 

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Charting the Terrain
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Narratives of Genetics and Race
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Narratives of Genetic Enhancement, Determinism, and Identity
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Narratives of Genetic Privacy and Ownership
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Tags
Narratives
Film
Literature
public attitudes
race and genetics
Genetic Enhancement
Genetic Determinism
genetic identity
genetic privacy
Science fiction

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About ELSIhub Collections

ELSIhub Collections are essential reading lists on fundamental or emerging topics in ELSI, curated and explained by expert Collection Editors, often paired with ELSI trainees. This series assembles materials from cross-disciplinary literatures to enable quick access to key information.

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