Family relationships: Molecular genetics and finance…

September 4, 2013

Have patience finance fiends while I meander through a little history of biology…

When I started out in science studies and was still studying human genetics, the book that intrigued me the most was Lily E. Kay’s ‘Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code’ (2000). Since I was coming from a background in lab biology, the argument Kay was making about the relationship  of genetic science to post-war intellectual history, struck me as very obscure.

In the past, geneticists could detect patterns of inheritance by examining the traits of related individuals – for example, by studying a large family, or breeding generations of plants – but they didn’t have access to the precise molecular sequences, the bits and bytes by which these traits were being transferred. In standard history of science, genetics begins with Gregor Mendel crossing pea plants in his monastery in the 19thC. The molecular study of genetic transmission that we know today is distinct from these older, group-level statistical studies.

You may recall that Watson and Crick published their celebrated paper ‘discovering’ the DNA molecule in 1953. From this point forward, bench scientists had to refine techniques for extracting, multiplying, seeing, manipulating and amplifying DNA in controlled laboratory conditions. That means bursting and washing cells in tiny tubes to collect minute quantities of nuclear material as your basic resource. Only then could genetics turn towards genomics, the high powered information-centered practice that drives bio-medical research today. (Anthropologist of science Paul Rabinow’s classic STS book, Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology, documents controversial development of one important technique called polymerase chain reaction.)

I was reading Machine Dreams by Philip Mirowski when I finally grasped Kay’s point about the military influences upon genomic science. Kay was linking the rise of genetic research at the molecular level to the history of communication, cybernetics, cryptanalysis, computing and information theory! The point of tearing cells open in the lab is to get inside them to extract a kind of source code. Long story short, the idea that DNA provides operating instructions to cellular mechanisms can be traced back to the same intellectual history as the idea that markets are information processing machines.

This podcast about synthetic biology by Radiolab is delicious food for thought.

 In a world where biology and engineering intersect, how do you decide what’s “natural”? Biotechnology is making it easier and easier to create new forms of life, but what are the consequences when humans play with life?

The episode complements JP’s post ‘Will the real engineers please stand up?’ where he raised the possible relationships between synthetic biology and market design.  What I wanted to convey here is that his suggestions is not just an analogy. Molecular genetic biology and automated financial markets do shared elements of a common history. Except on one crucial point… It is worth nothing that the $2.7 bn Human Genome Project was backed by US federal funding which also drove ELSI – research on ethical legal and social issues.  There is no dedicated source of ELSI funding for finance studies. As far as I know there isn’t much left in STS either since the genome project ended in 2003!

2 Responses to “Family relationships: Molecular genetics and finance…”

  1. Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra Says:

    Very nice post, Martha, about the common cybernetic roots of our (non?)modern world. I completely agree that there are very interesting lineages and genealogies which need to be studied (and which come across quite nicely when placing Kay and Mirowski together).

    I have also wondered what ELSI-type studies would look like in economics in general (and market design in particular). This begs the question: may these studies be an opportunity for social scientists? And if so, what would our involvement in financial innovation be like? As I’m sure you know, ELSI has been heavily criticized by some who see it as an intellectualized form of white-washing, in the sense that ELSI studies tend to be supplementary add-ons to core STEM projects with overall little effect on the shape or direction of innovation. So, for instance, when Clinton’s administration launched the National Nanotechnology Initiative, they incorporated funding for ELSI studies into it from the very beginning. While some would see this as an attempt in making innovation responsible, other more cynical voices would argue that it was a way of strategically managing stakeholder involvement in the short term and reducing some forms of liability in the long term. I just wonder what would have happened if a sociologist had been placed at JP Morgan doing ELSI in the late nineties, early noughties. Would the world be a very different place? Perhaps this is a point for which the expertise developed at the Observatory for Responsible Innovation would come in handy!

  2. Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra Says:

    PS. Should we think of an FDA for finance? See

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