Expectations vs. Reality: More Key Questions on Molecularization of Identity


[Above: Rendering of DNA–aka “what most people think about when they hear ‘molecular identity'”–via ynse on Flickr & Creative Commons. 

Below: What scientists actually look at when they’re trying to sort out molecular identities. By Micah Baldwin via Flickr & Creative Commons]


Two posts and two weeks later, I’ve only covered a fraction of the ideas presented at “The Molecularization of Identity” conference. Molecular identities factor into so many aspects of our lives that disentangling and summarizing them is pratically impossible. 

But maybe summary shouldn’t be the goal. 

After all, succinct summaries tend to create expectations--either for futures that promise to cure all our ills and end all suffering or for apocalyptic technology that robs us of our humanity.  However, reality is always a mixed bag. Science isn’t separate from the rest of society, and most corners of society have already been shaped by science. 

Maybe we’d be better off if we admitted that the biological, chemical, physical, geological, and cultural worlds are all entangled. 

The Blurred Boundaries of Bhopal

Three decades have passed since a pesticide-manufacturing Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India leaked 30 tons of a deadly gas called methyl isocyanate into the surrounding countryside. Over two thousand people died immediately, but the effects of the pesticide lingered and continued to kill.  Several thousands more died in the first two weeks after the leak, and many more were left disabled.

Union Carbide left tons of toxic sludge sitting in a warehouse for decades after the leak; large amounts of the pesticide likely still linger in Bhopal’s soil and water, but the leak’s total impact on the regions longterm health remains unquantified.

Neuroscientist and gender studies theorist Deboleena Roy of Emory University used the Bhopal Gas Tragedy as a launching point for one of the most eerily poetic talks of the conference.

Methyl isocyanate is a pesticide–“literally a chemical of death”– that you can buy at Lowe’s, Roy noted. It is also heavier than air, meaning that young children living in a slum near the plant breathed in the highest (and often lethal) dose.  As a chemical product, MIC’s job was to enable greater food production, by killing pests. Unfortunately, it also burns human eyes, destroys the inner lining of human lungs, and persists in human tissue. 

Despite MIC’s obvious industrial and synthetic origins, the chemical is now part of the chemical identity of the people around Bhopal, Roy argued.  The people of Bhopal were (and are) poor, with few opportunities to move away from the dangerous plant, built by an American company. They did not choose to live with MIC, but even second generation survivors likely have marks etched into their epigenome by Bhopal. One scholar named Rahul Mukherjee used the term “forced intimacy with chemicals”.

Roy challenged the audience to consider “the contributions, actions, and skills of a chemical”.  Traditionally, we think of chemicals as inanimate and separate from life, but once they enter our bodies, don’t they become part of our life chemistry?

We expect biochemicals like DNA to be part of our molecular identities. But how do we account for the uncountable number of smaller molecules–from drugs, pollutants, and paint chips–that also factor into the chemistry of who we are?

Bhopal today is a surprisingly popular source of surrogate mothersThere are several different logistical scenarios for surrogacy, but often the Indian woman carries the fetus with Western DNA on the western couple’s behalf. What does her body, marked by the chemical trauma of Bhopal, transfer to the fetus?

And given that cells from fetuses routinely migrate into the pregnant woman’s tissue, what do these biological “souvenirs” from pregnancy mean in terms of colonialism?  The Western cells that live on in the surrogate mother run the same risks of exposure to MIC as any Bhopal woman’s native cells, but does anyone even realize?

No easy answers to this talk.

The Israeli Conundrum:

Surrogate pregnancies were a running theme throughout the conference, and the most discussed country was Israel.  On one level, it was fascinating; on another level, it was frustrating that so few of the speakers study Israel even mentioned Palestine.

Despite its industrial and highly developed economy, Israel’s birth rate is through the roof: an average 3.04 births per woman. (Note that unmarried women and post-menopausal women are part of the dividend in that stat. Some women have ten children, dragging the average higher.)  “Some people say we have both first world and third world population problems,” remarked Daphna Birenbaum-Carmeli of the University of Haifa.  A few people chuckled. But it’s not really a joke.

The Israeli government exerts very tight control over who counts as Jewish–and by extension an Israeli citizen– and parenthood is at the center of Israeli culture.  In vitro fertilization (IVF) is state-funded in Israel and more common there than in any other country. 

However, since Jewishness–as the state of Israel defines it–passes down from mother to child, other methods of artificial reproduction are much less encouraged, Birenbaum-Carmeli explained. The state requires that eggs from Jewish donors can only go to Jewish recipients, but Muslim recipients can use Christian eggs and vice versa, no problem. When Israelis acquire donated eggs from overseas, they tend to be from countries with large Jewish populations like the Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and the US. But international sperm donations tend to come from Western Europe.  Clearly, Israel’s policy on reproductive health centers the egg as the site of Jewishness; children born via other means of artificial reproduction have to go through elaborate conversion rituals

The themes from Birenbaum-Carmeli’s talk echoed the next day in presentations by Dani Kranz and Lidia Averbukh from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Averbukh researches the norms around German citizenship and found that even though Germany is now extremely shy about using biological definitions of citizenship and race, the cultural definitions Germany uses haven’t changed that much since the Nazi era. Israel, in contrast, goes all in on biological definitions. 

However, does that biological heritage truly line up with reality?  Kranz has dual citizenship in Germany and Israel. She told a story about her young Israeli daughter’s encounter with European, non-Hebrew-speaking Israelis. The daughter was puzzled by them. “But they can’t speak Hebrew! They’re not Israeli.” 

Another nugget of wisdom from Kranz’s young daughter: “I don’t know what a Jew is. I’m Israeli.” 

Adding fuel to the fire, the Israeli state has been testing out biometric ID cards, MIT grad student Michelle Spektor reported.  The cards contain a chip that stores a bunch of information about the person’s genetic makeup and biological specs, which will make fraud more difficult. At the same time, using that data will most likely require a central database of biometric information on Israelis, and the ID card program’s opponents say a leak in that database would be a disaster “ten times worse than Chernobyl”. 

Interestingly, hardly anyone has countered the program by arguing, “I am not my biometric data.” Most Israelis seem to accept the notion that biometric data points are an extension of their bodies and therefore their identity. Spektor argued that the logic behind these cards effectively “turns bodies into documents” and assumes that the body is the most stable measure of identity. The body can’t lie…but can biotechnology?

Who’s Afraid of Synthetic Plants?

Despite biotechnology’s ability to help us circumvent nature’s reproductive requirements, biotech still often reinforces inequalities, even while its proponents claim that it’s empowering. For instance, Durham anthropologist Yulia Egorova presented her work on agricultural biotech in India, where there has been fierce debate about whether to use GMOs

Many of the Indian scientists she interviewed saw the development of GMO technology as important for India’s economy.  How would they stay competitive in international markers without it? Wouldn’t the prestige of Indian science suffer if they gave up on genetic engineering? And how would the country feed its rapidly growing population without developing a homegrown line of super-crops? 

Egorova argued that this viewpoint presents the post-colonial Indian nation as in need of a genetic intervention. Many of India’s pro-GMO proponents see subsistence level farmers as unable to make informed decisions about genetically modified crops, largely due to their lack of education. During the Q&A discussion, a couple of people noted that the logic behind developing “India’s GMOs” had a lot in common with the nationalist motivation behind the genome projects. 

The presentation following Egorova’s, by synthetic biologist/designer/science writer/regulation STS nerd Christina Agapakis provided a dramatic contrast.  Agapakis dove right in by introducing “Syn-bio-phobia phobia”, the scientific communities’ fear of a science-fearing public. 

It’d be easy to dismiss scientists’ concerns as elites freaking out over issues that don’t matter, but scientists consistently say they feel threatened by public perception. Sustaining a lab requires a steady influx of money, and many labs dangle on the verge of shutting down.  Both the governments and private firms that control most of the science money factor public opinions on science into their funding decisions. Scientists, especially younger ones, can have their work shut down by a wave of bad press for their field.

Paradoxically, GMO scientists often end up trying to downplay the potential dangers by arguing that gene-swapping is totally natural. (They have a point there: Gene-swapping is basically what sex is And bacteria trade genes freely.  Passing unchanged genomes down to the next generation is actually relatively rare.)

However, scientists exaggerate their work’s  novelty when speaking to potential investors. Investors like big and flashy, and so do universities hiring faculty.   They want to know the money they throw in will yield more money, and well, the next Theranos is unlikely to emerge from a garden variety study.

So what do we do? Agapakis thinks that science-inflected art might be the ideal venue for conveying that science and tech can be creepy but then cool but then creepy again.  

She cited an example of an artist who collected some pieces of poop, dyed each of the turds different colors, and then took the Art-ified poop to a microbiology conference. She wanted to get the scientists thinking about how weird it would be to genetically engineer microbes to glow a particular color–which some scientists have proposed as a possible diagnostic for unhealthy gut ecosystems–and it kind of work. Of course, the scientists went forward with genetically engineering bacteria, and now a Google search for “microbiome poop art” turned up this, this, and this.  (#WelcometotheNewAge)

Agapakis also shared the story of an artist who collected some DNA from an abandoned cigarette butt on a New York City sidewalk. The artist used information from just 3 genes to render surprisingly lifelike digital faces. Making these DNA portraits required a lot of guesswork, but the portraits highlight how easy it is to Conveying how creepy DNA surveillance could be was one of the project’s declared goals, “But in doing so, she actually did it!” Agapakis concluded.

One of the academics present (Sheila Jasanoff from Harvard) thought the project might have been more effective if the artist had made many possible faces from the same three DNA samples.

Augmentation and Disability (CRISPR, Captagon, and Medical Training)

No conference about molecular biology and identity would be complete without a discussion on the ethics of pressuring people to take brain-enhancing drugs.

Mirko Garasic of Tel Aviv University told us the story of an airline that expected its pilots to take performance enhancing drugs.  Makes sense, right? After all, if a pilot falls asleep during flight, she puts the lives of everyone on the plane at risk.

Except that same airline expects pilots to work inhumanly long shifts of 16 or 18 hours. If they gave the pilots shorter shifts, the stimulants wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately, that would cut into profit margins. 

Commercial airlines aren’t the only ones pushing pilots to the point of needing stimulants; ISIS gives its pilots and fighters a stimulant Captagon in order to sustain long flights and longer battle. 

Captagon is an amphetamine–like Adderall–and used to be prescribed for ADHD in the 1960s.  In fact, by some accounts, it’s supposed to be less potent, although ISIS could easily be using a souped-up, extra-amphetamine version of it.  Garasic argued that ISIS’s expectation of stimulant use somewhat echoes the unusually high rates of heroin use among US soldiers in Vietnam.

“This shouldn’t be unfamiliar to us,” Garasic said. “After all, many students at this university [Harvard] use stimulants to study.” The performance expectations pressure students to use.  The same pressure faces medical residents, who have to work 24+ hour shifts and as much as 100 hours per week.  Doctors probably do need to be able to perform complex tasks while tired, but there’s a lot of debate about the best way to train them.

Garasic’s presentations was paired with one where sociologist (and one of the conference’s organizers) Ruha Benjamin discussed disability and the way biomedical researchers approach it.  Some disabled people see their disabilities as part of their identity.  Claiming a disability as part of your identity doesn’t mean automatic rejection of all medication and social interventions, but it does mean demanding respect from doctors and researchers. Not everyone wants their biology changed to conform to someone else’s expectations. 

Benjamin focused on gene editing and our impending ability to change the genes of human embryos before they’re born. Or to be more precise, the CRISPR technology we stole from bacteria, which allows us cut apart genes and forcibly add whichever base pair sequences deemed appropriate.  Only caution and an innate sense of “ick” at the thought of editing human zygotes has kept us from doing so.

Benjamin (brilliantly) compared the insistence on consumer freedom to the arguments in favor of plastic surgery.  Plastic surgery is usually a voluntary procedure, where informed adults decide to modify their own bodies. However,  racism, sexism, and Western beauty aesthetics definitely drive people to ask for plastic surgery. “You don’t see anybody getting nose broadening surgery. Or single eye-fold surgery,” Benjamin said. (And if you don’t know why some people get surgeries to narrow their broad noses or double their eye-folds, congratulations. You’re probably white.)

It would be naive, she argued, to assume that racist, sexist, capitalist, and queer-phobic norms wouldn’t shape which traits are targeted as disabilities in need of repair or cure. 

In the meta-discussion afterwards, Evelynn Hammonds–a Harvard History of Science prof and physicist– pointed out that even people who take stimulants with the best of intentions, hoping to serve the community, may end up accidentally pushing down other people.

Not everyone can afford to buy stimulants. Some people are allergic or suffer other complications.  However, those people might not have voices on committees where rules on neurobiology interventions are written.

Benjamin, who wrote a book on stem cell researchers’ interactions with the rest of society, pointed out that the Patient Advisory Committee had people representing diseases that are relatively unlikely to be targeted by stem cell editing. It would look bad if the committee didn’t include anyone with HIV, but diseases with less affluent, less media-connected patients often weren’t there.  The people most likely to push back against expectations of medical treatment often weren’t included. 

My Personal Response

That panel on humanity, disability, and performance enhancement hit close to home, and not just because I’m pretty sure some of Ruha [Benjamin]’s comments were subtly veiled responses to conversations from the neurodiversity subreddit. (Specifically, the threads where SeaDragon goes on rants about her plan to wrest control of “the legitimate science card” away from the “Everyone with autism/ADHD/schizophrenia/whatever is suffering and needs to be fixed!” crowd…Because seriously, “the legitimate science card” is waaaay overpowered. People who use it to hurt other people should get it taken away from them.)  

Journalism is a demanding field, and science journalism–despite the relatively good job market–is no exception.  Medicating my ADHD feels like a professional obligation most days, not a choice. 

My medications help me be productive; there’s no question. But the fact is that the main reason I ask my shrink for refills each month is because I see my meds as a requirement for achieving even moderate success in the only career I can imagine myself pursuing. Every week entails reading papers, interviewing scientists, blogging, outline pitches, sending pitches, applying to jobs and internships, reading in-depth reviews for background, following both the science and political news, perusing ethics and economics papers pertaining to my stories, tweeting and shouting out pieces by other writers that I enjoyed, and planning for the next week. Most weeks I do my best to simply keep my head down and do the work, but if I wanted to be in a field that only requires 40 hours a week, I wouldn’t need meds. Some days that bothers me. 

One person in the audience raised his hand and asked, “Well, I don’t want to pressure people or enforce norms, but I recognize excellent performance.”

Performance. As an ADHDer who has gone on record in favor of neurodiversity, I often feel like I have to out-perform every neurotypical peer to land the same internships. Why would any editor hire an attention deficient girl when there are impressionable recent grads who have no diagnoses on the market? (Luckily for me, I’m white, so I have it a lot easier than many breaking into journalism.) Most of them wouldn’t, unless said attention deficient girl excels at what she does.

The audience member used the example of jumping: It would make a bigger difference for a ballerina, but most people wouldn’t be opposed to jumping higher. So aren’t there a few abilities we can assume everyone wants?

“Yeah, don’t assume that,” Ruha said, eliciting a few audience chortles.

Besides, she continued, racism and sexism–which pretty much everybody in the elite liberal STS conference thinks are unfair–stem from treating “female-ness” or “black-ness” or “Asian-ness” as disabilities. People assume a person with the biological condition of being a woman wouldn’t be as good at math or as competent at leading a meeting. The connection between disability and other -isms has a long history in the theoretical literature.

At the same time, it’s quite preposterous and rather “flattening” for me as a white, affluent ADHD woman to claim that the same processes blocking my rise to journalistic fame are the same as the ones that make black trans women fear for their lives on a daily basis. 

It seems as if any time someone wants to make a difference or discriminatory policy seem normal, they find a biological trait to anchor their bias. If 21st century biology methods make more and more biological traits easy to perceive, will people realize that basing bias in biology is unfair or will they pin their bias to a different set of biological traits? 

It’s a scary question, and yet, tracking biomolecules also makes it possible to describe injustices such as the poverty that left people vulnerable to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy in terms of chemicals. 

Garasic also pointed out that we probably won’t be able to save climate change without at least a few chemical augmentation’s to the Earth’s “natural” carbon sinks.  

How can we reject augmentation when it comes to our bodies and minds but prescribe it for the rest of the planet? 

Since we have to pick and choose chemicals before running a chemical test, no molecular identity is ever going to be completely “objective”. But molecular identities may provide a new and powerful form of evidence or testimony.

On the last day of the conference, during the general wrap-up session, I asked the panelists why so many of the talks focused on a single–albeit very large–identity molecule: DNA? 

When I wrote down a list of all the different molecular identities I consider myself to have, I wrote: “Epigenetic”, “Microbiome”, “Chemically Ecological”, “Synaptic/Bioelectric”, “Metabolic/Glycans”, and “Genomic”.  And even at this epic conference, microbiomes, epigenetics, and chemical ecologies were side notes. (I don’t think synaptic and metabolic chemical indentities were mentioned at all.) 

Sheila Jasanoff looked at me and said something to the effect of, “Well, the answer may be in your question. You listed molecular systems, not actual molecules.” People recognize the DNA/genomic system of molecular labeling as one that already has a lot of power in political, academic, and economic debates. So they gravitate toward the DNA, knowing they can use it to build a scientifically admissible identity story. 

Unless you’re a biology major, chances are you don’t know much about epigenetics, synaptic gradients, or glycosylation. Hardly anyone knows how those molecular identity systems work, so they’re not currently used.

…Which makes perfect sense. But since I gravitate toward projects that let me drag the unpopular molecular ID systems into plain(ish) English, does that mean I’m helping to unseat DNA’s stranglehold on scientific claims about our identities?  Or am I contributing to the rise of a new set of potentially oppressive ideas about biological identity? 

I don’t know. My instincts say, “Both!” But for now, I think that a big part of science writers’ jobs in the next few years is going to be simply de-fusing expectations. 


Defining identity is tricky. When you’re defining identities through chemistry, the process gets even more convoluted.

Now What?

So yeah. As digital citizens and biological entities in the 21st century, we have a LOT of bioethics problems to confront.  Climate change interventions, gene editing, and neurobiology alterations are just three of the big ones.

If you want to stay in the loop about incoming technologies and ethics quandaries, I highly recommend the following outlets:

  • Mosaic (specializes in features on health & biology)
  • Vox (straightforward news & data journalism) 
  • Nature News & Comment (where scientists discuss ethics & policy)
  • Undark (it’s new but you should totally check it out) 
  • Flash Forward (the podcast that tackles all the things!) 
  • and of course, you can always take to the Twittersphere and find more! 

I second Christina Agapakis’s vote of confidence in art as a way of discussing science. It’s waaay under-used, so if any of these ideas tickle your creative itch, go make art.

One idea I’ve been kicking around is setting up a “DecolonizeSTEM” subreddit for discussing topics like racial disparities in healthcare and environmental justice,  science’s colonial history, the under-rated contributions of scientists of color, and how to navigate both science and social justice at the same time. (We already have a small-but-thriving Neurodiversity subreddit, so I’d pattern a DecolonizeSTEM reddit after it.)  Let me know if you think I should go for it!

Or just share your reflections and questions on this post in the comments below!

[Final shout-out to all of the speakers at the Molecularization of Identity Conference. There were so many thought-provoking talks that I couldn’t cover all of them in great detail! Extra props to Ian McGonigle and Ruha Benjamin for organizing this fantastic workshop. Hope to see you around the science communication/STS space in the future!] 

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