Genomes and What to Make of Them
by Barry Barnes and John Dupré
University of Chicago Press, 2008
Cloth: 978-0-226-17295-8 | Paper: 978-0-226-05456-8 | Electronic: 978-0-226-17296-5
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226172965.001.0001


The announcement in 2003 that the Human Genome Project had completed its map of the entire human genome was heralded as a stunning scientific breakthrough: our first full picture of the basic building blocks of human life. Since then, boasts about the benefits—and warnings of the dangers—of genomics have remained front-page news, with everyone agreeing that genomics has the potential to radically alter life as we know it.

For the nonscientist, the claims and counterclaims are dizzying—what does it really mean to understand the genome? Barry Barnes and John Dupré offer an answer to that question and much more in Genomes and What to Make of Them, a clear and lively account of the genomic revolution and its promise. The book opens with a brief history of the science of genetics and genomics, from Mendel to Watson and Crick and all the way up to Craig Venter; from there the authors delve into the use of genomics in determining evolutionary paths—and what it can tell us, for example, about how far we really have come from our ape ancestors. Barnes and Dupré then consider both the power and risks of genetics, from the economic potential of plant genomes to overblown claims that certain human genes can be directly tied to such traits as intelligence or homosexuality. Ultimately, the authors argue, we are now living with a new knowledge as powerful in its way as nuclear physics­, and the stark choices that face us—between biological warfare and gene therapy, a new eugenics or a new agricultural revolution—will demand the full engagement of both scientists and citizens. 

Written in straightforward language but without denying the complexity of the issues, Genomes and What to Make of Them is both an up-to-date primer and a blueprint for the future.


Barry Barnes is a codirector of the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society at the University of Exeter, at which he was formerly professor of sociology. He is the author of several books on the sociology of the sciences and was awarded the J. D. Bernal Prize for his career contribution to the field. John Dupré is the director of the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society, professor of philosophy of science at the University of Exeter, and the author of several books, including Darwin’s Legacy: What Evolution Means Today.


"Barnes and Dupré, drawing on both science and the philosophy of biology, push beyond the hype that accompanied the dawn of genomics. There has been too much attention devoted to what genomics will and will not do, and soon. But beneath the surface and beyond the hype, our concepts of how biological things work really have changed fundamentally, and it matters. This book helps explain how and why it matters. What do insights about genomics tell us about human variations that map to ancestry, and how those, in turn, map to social constructions of ‘race’ and ethnicity? Is there anything more threatening to human social coherence than human variations, or anything more important to understand? And what will genomic technologies tell us about behavior?  The answer is clearly more than nothing and less than we tend to think. The idea of simple genes encoding proteins that do biological work is being replaced by more complex systems theories of interaction and cybernetics. Welcome to the future of genomics. It will be a long and glorious ride. This book is a good place to start that exploration."
— Robert Cook-Deegan, Duke University

“What is novel about Genomes and What to Make of Them is the impressive scope of the project, which covers key issues around the politics of genomics in an accessible way, taking care to outline in clear language some very complex scientific arguments in a way that allows the authors to deconstruct various arguments about the risks and opportunities of genomics. I know of no other book that captures the social implications of genomics in quite such a comprehensive and accessible yet insightful manner."
— Peter Robbins, Open University

"An engaging, dense and informative account of the many conceptual, theoretical and ethical issues surrounding the powerful science of genomics. . . . Philosophers and historians of science, sociologists of knowledge and bioethicists will all benefit from reading it. I will add to the list biologists too. . . . This is an impressive book. The writing style is engaging, while the approach is quite refreshing, as the authors are not afraid to take many biological, political and ethical stands."
— Davide Vecchi, Metapsychology




Inherited Traits

Inherited Molecules

Practices and Techniques

Genes and DNA


Genetic Knowledges and Their Distribution

What Are Genomes?

The Strange Case of the Epigenome

New Similarities and New Differences

Reducing Complexity




Astrological Genetics and Explanatory Genetics


Astrological Genomics

Beyond Astrology

Accumulating Powers

Genomics and Social Powers

Resisting Genomic Powers

Arguments and Institutions

The Order of Things


Human Genomes and the Order of Things

Human Genomes and the Dignity of Human Life

Arguments and Institutions Again

Genomics as Power Again

Accounting for Exceptionalism

Life without Essences: Reduction as Emancipation