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Identity Theft: Nature and Nurture in Art and Science


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Art and science address the question of what makes us who we are in different, difficult, often contradictory ways. Since the phrase “nature and nurture” was first used in the late 19th century, trying to separate the contributions of inborn heredity and external environment to our unique individuality, there have been people who argue for the supremacy of our genome, epigenome, connectome, our individual historical moment and social milieux, or all of the above. In The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture, Evelyn Fox Keller writes that, “One of the most striking features of the nature-nurture debate is the frequency with which it leads to two apparently contradictory results: the claim that the debate has finally been resolved (i.e., we now know that the answer is neither nature nor nurture, but both), and the debate’s refusal to die.”

Stranger Visions, by Heather Dewey-Hagborg

The debate is resurfaced and re-problematized with two recent pieces by artists whose work engages with genetics. Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s piece Stranger Visions is a sometimes creepy look at the genetics of identity and the privacy of the information contained in our DNA. She creates 3D-printed faces based on genetic material isolated from stray hairs, cigarette butts, and chewed gum left behind in New York City streets. The mask-like disembodied faces are computer generated composites from a database of photographs, selected and individualized based on information from just three genetically encoded factors that Dewey-Hagborg amplified and sequenced from the DNA she isolated from the samples: eye color, chromosomal sex, and mitochondrial haplogroup.

Stranger Visions hair samples, by Heather Dewey-Hagborg

As “portraits” generated from only this information, these faces aren’t stable images resembling an actual person, but rather objects that represent the impossibility of separating nature from nurture. Despite the strength of “family resemblance,” determining someone’s facial structure from genes alone is currently impossible, with very few single gene loci consistently corresponding to any distinguishing characteristics and the influence of many developmental and environmental factors. Even determining if someone has attached vs. unattached earlobes, one of the classic classroom examples of simple Mendelian heredity, is actually more complicated than can be explained by the action of a single gene. When multiple genes interact with each other and with external factors to create a spectrum of phenotypes, finding a one-to-one correspondence between sequence and physiognomy becomes statistically unlikely. For Dewey-Hagborg, interpreting the sequence of genes coding for something as straightforward eye color showed just how difficult it is to define someone’s characteristics through DNA sequence alone. Quoted in an article about the piece from Fast Company, Dewey-Harborg says that in some cases the DNA results showed that “There’s an 80% chance that this person has brown eyes and 20% chance that they have green eyes. You have to make that call.”

Gender as determined by chromosomes or ethnicity defined by mitochondrial ancestry is of course much much more biologically and socially complicated than eye color. Sex, gender, race, and ethnicity are demarcated by culturally defined boundaries in spectrums of biological characteristics influenced by countless genes and even more social and environmental factors. There are many layers of assumptions built into the genetic and computer models that were required to design faces that represent someone via their chromosomes and haplgroup. Again, from the Fast Company article:

“In order to generate a face, you need to teach a computer what a face is,” Dewey-Hagborg explains. But how do you tell a computer what something as complicated as a human’s gender or race looks like?…Dewey-Hagborg calls the process “problematic,” and she says she hopes her work provokes more of a discussion around subjectivity in both DNA analysis and computer modeling of faces. “It does involve, essentially, creating a stereotype, and generating faces based on those stereotyped ideas, so that’s something I’m hoping to question with this work.”

Given these challenges, it’s surprising (ok, maybe not that surprising) to see some of the ways that this piece is being interpreted. The headline of the Fast Company article itself claims that “These 3-D Portraits Were Created Using Only A Person’s DNA,” ignoring the many assumptions and stereotypes included in the model and explicitly discussed in the article. Even more surprising is a quote in the Wall Street Journal’s article on the piece from Ellen Jorgensen, the director of Genspace, where Dewey-Hagborg did the genetic work for the piece. Jorgensen says, “It really gets you when you realize someone can pick up a hair on the street and know more about you than a doctor can, conceivably.” It’s a big leap from the ability to sequence genes in a hair to the ability for those sequences to say so much about someone. Despite many notable cases of genetic variations starkly affecting health, for most people, health is usually much more the result of where you were born and your socioeconomic status than the genes you were born with.

While Dewey-Hagborg’s piece highlights some of the difficulties of extrapolating from DNA to individuals, Koby Barhad’s piece All That I Am playfully demonstrates the inseparability of nature and nurture by trying to do the opposite–using “nurture” to recreate Elvis Presley in a mouse.

All That I Am, by Koby Barhad

Like Dewey-Hagborg’s work, Barhad’s speculative project begins with the genetic analysis of one of Elvis’ hairs, purchased from eBay. Sequences associated with behavioral characteristics could theoretically be cloned into a genetically modified mouse, making a chimeric Elvis-mouse. Because genes alone didn’t make Elvis who he really was, Barhad also designed a complex mouse habitat that would somehow reflect different periods in Elvis’ life and relationships, creating an environment for the proper expression of Elvis’ genes. An article in We Make Money Not Art describes each stage of the mouse’s travel through the Elvis habitat:

Some of the main themes that the designer identified as being influential in making Elvis are: his close relationship with his mother (and so the mouse is given a mouse companion), being the victim of bullying when he was a child (in this cage, the mouse is submitted to external stimuli that frightens it), the discovery of his talents, becoming a star (features a distorted mirror that makes the mouse appear bigger), the Graceland period (in every place the mouse pokes nose, it gets a positive reaction in the shape of food or toys and keeps filling the cage to the point making it anxious), the army, the death of mum, the divorce from Priscilla are events that are represented by a cage that functions as an isolation chamber. The last cage embodies the last three years of the life of Elvis, when he worked himself to death, that period is represented by a little treadmill at the top of the cages. The mouse would run, run, run and eventually fall down.

Koby didn’t push the project to the point of having a genetically engineered mouse go though all these cages, that would have been far too cruel for the animal but his project [does] make us wonder if one day it will be possible to enter a new kind of pet shop and ask for a dog, a fish or a cat that no only has the same genetic traits as a pop icon or a historical figure but also behaves like them.

What made Elvis who he was? What does it mean for a mouse to behave like Elvis? The absurdity of the Elvis mouse and the uncanniness of the DNA-inspired faces give us opposite but interlinked extremes of nature and nurture, highlighting much more than concern with DNA privacy and ownership, or even DNA-based marketing. We should be fighting to protect our genetic privacy, but we should also be fighting the idea that our DNA is somehow fundamentally who we are.

Christina Agapakis About the Author: Christina Agapakis is a biological designer who blogs about biology, engineering, engineering biology, and biologically inspired engineering. Follow on Twitter @thisischristina.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. littleredtop 2:47 pm 03/12/2013

    Its a fact that you are who you are – look the way you do and behave the way you do – because of your genetic makeup. External factors only place you in time.

    Link to this

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