Acclaimed novelist and Beckman Institute faculty member Richard Powers is once again exploring what it means to be human in a world where science creates more hope – and more apprehension – than at any time in our history as a species. Powers, a Professor of English at the University of Illinois and member of Beckman’s Cognitive Neuroscience group, has authored a new novel, Generosity: An Enhancement (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) that has as its backdrop the field of personal genomics.
Science, and sometimes scientific settings such as research centers, have been central to Powers’ work as a novelist. In his project description for Generosity (set for release today), Powers quotes a character from his earlier novel Gold Bug Variations saying that “Science is not about control, but about cultivating a perpetual condition of wonder in the face of something that forever grows one step richer and subtler than our latest theory about it.” He then goes on to write, concerning genome sequencing, that if “literature was a portrait of who we were and where we found ourselves in time, then contemporary literature required that writers dramatize the profound transformation of life brought about by the consummate accomplishment of life science.”
Powers had explored the topic of genome sequencing in Gold Bug Variations. He says, however, that Gold Bug Variations missed an important part of the genetics story, namely that the wonder we experience at a major scientific discovery can sometimes make us blind to the consequences of those discoveries.
In Generosity, Powers centers his story on a college student from Algeria with a tragic past who, nonetheless, projects happiness in the extreme. The publisher’s description of the book states that the student and her “joyful personality comes to the attention of the notorious geneticist and advocate for genomic enhancement, Thomas Kurton, whose research leads him to announce the genotype for happiness.”
The description says the book raises questions such as “What will happen to life when science identifies the genetic basis of happiness?” and “Who will own the patent?” and “Do we dare revise our own temperaments?” It says that Generosity “celebrates both science and the freed imagination. In his most exuberant book yet, Richard Powers asks us to consider the big questions facing humankind as we begin to rewrite our own existence.”
– Richard Powers
In his project description for Generosity, Powers writes that the Human Genome Project changed the landscape from the time when Gold Bug Variations was published in 1991 to today by showing that humans have around 20,000 genes rather than the 120,000 scientists had previously thought. Advances in genetics have many implications, he says, both for the general public’s understanding of the new scientific discoveries and for how that science might be used in a commercial culture such as ours.
Powers writes that “new and remarkable gene association studies of varying reliability appear every day – genes associated with every imaginable trait and behavior. ... But as genomics learns more and more about the chemical syntax and semantics of living systems, the general public’s understanding of these discoveries falls farther and farther behind.” He adds that even “as the biochemical picture of human genesis becomes more complex, contingent, and – and I still have to say it – wondrous, the selling of biotech to the general public threatens to become ever more reductive and deterministic.”
In addition to penning the Gold Bug Variations, Powers also wrote a 2008 piece for GQ about the sequencing of his own genome. He was one of only nine people in the world at the time to have their entire genome sequenced, an assignment that included meeting with George Church, considered a father of personal genomics and an initiator of the Human Genome Project.
Powers writes that the 2003 discovery of a gene that was strongly correlated with depression (a study that was recently called into question) was the genesis of his new novel. But he adds that the experience of having his genome sequenced changed the entire perspective of Generosity: “My own foray into personal genomics utterly changed the novel that I thought I was writing. I started out writing about state-of-the-art science, but my story gradually mutated into one about the most ancient of fears and desires. Nothing in my young Algerian woman’s suite of happiness genes succeeds in predicting what networked humankind tries to turn her into, and no amount of inherited predisposition can protect her from that massive, collaborative story in progress – consumer society in the post-genomic age.”
These are the themes that run through Generosity. While doing research for his previous novel, The Echo Maker which won the National Book Award, Powers attended seminars at Beckman on neuroscience and interacted frequently with Institute researchers in the field. In an e-mail exchange, Powers writes about the connections to the University of Illinois and the Beckman Institute that played a role in his most recent work and about its genesis.
Question: You attended seminars and talks on neuroscience topics at Beckman while doing research for The Echo Maker. Did you do any similar types of research into genetics or other science topics in preparation for this book?
Powers: I once again profited enormously by being at Illinois while researching the book. Not only was I able to listen in on people at the Beckman who gave frequent talks about the way that post-genomic studies and thought were impacting a wide variety of research, but I was able to profit from learning about work in a variety of other fields across campus, particularly positive psychology and the work of (psychology researcher) Ed Diener. Beyond that, a number of conversations with people in and out of the Beckman helped me to develop my thoughts about the perils and promises of market-driven scientific research and new concerns about products and intellectual property in the era of expanding life science.
Question: The Echo Maker raised questions about our brains and our connections to the “real world” that are probably more tenuous than we like to admit. Do you think there are questions about what it means to be human in the face of rapidly advancing technology that readers will take from Generosity?
Powers: It occurred to me that a genetically-determined basis for temperament really challenged all kinds of assumptions in the humanities about the autonomy and development of the personality. When I started researching and writing, I realized I had a very dramatic story about some of the oldest themes in human history – fate, will, prophecy, happiness, fairness, the frenzy of crowds, and the sanctity of individual life. Dizzying advances in life science are touching off the possibility of great social change, and the public still has very rudimentary understanding of what genomics is revealing about life. So the great drama of learning just how pre-determined we are is playing out in two independent venues – the lab and the public agora – that aren’t on the same wavelength. The 2003 depression association study, by the way, was seriously challenged just as my book was going through production, thereby playing out in life something very similar to what happens in my fiction. Our understanding of temperament – who we are and how we got that way – remains up for grabs on all fronts. And that, it seems to me, is the basis for a very good, ongoing story.”
Generosity: An Enhancement is available locally at bookstores and also online.