Introspective genomics and the significance of one

As a philosopher, I am familiar with the image of the solitary thinker who studies the human mind though introspective study of his own. A recent article in the journal Cell reminds me of that image, but in unexpected “genomic” guise.

To achieve statistical significance, medical researchers typically engage large numbers of research subjects. The paper in Cell, however, has only one research subject: the lead author of the paper, Michael Snyder.

Snyder and colleagues studied how his body functioned molecularly and genetically over a 14-month period. Samples from Snyder were taken on 20 separate occasions. A personal “omics profile” was made by integrating information about his genomic sequence with other molecular patterns gathered from the samples, as these patterns changed over time.

Early results indicated that Snyder was genetically disposed to type 2 diabetes. Strangely enough, the disease began to develop during the course of the study. Snyder could follow in detail how two virus infections and the diabetes developed molecularly and genetically in his body.

Snyder changed his life style to handle his diabetes. When he informed his life-insurance company about the disease, however, his premiums became dramatically more expensive.

The introspective paper illustrates the potential usefulness, as well as the risks, of what has been dubbed “personalized medicine.” Here I want speculate, though, on how this new paradigm in medicine challenges scientific and intellectual ideals.

When philosophers introspectively studied the human mind, they took for granted that what they found within themselves was shared by all humans. The general could be found completely instantiated in the particular.

The particular was for philosophers no more than a mirror of the general. What they saw in the mirror was not the individual mirror (it was intellectually invisible). What they saw in the mirror was a reflection of the general (and only the general was intellectually visible).

That simple image of the relation between the particular and the general was discarded with Darwin’s theory of the origin of species. A species has no essence shared by all individuals. Therefore, to achieve scientific generality about what is human, you cannot rely on one human subject only. You need many subjects, and statistics, to achieve intellectual vison of general facts.

A noteworthy feature of the paper under discussion is that we seem partly to have returned to the era of introspective research. We return to it, however, without the discarded notion of the particular as mirror of the general.

New molecular techniques seem to open up for study of what previously were simply individual cases without significance in themselves. For personalized medicine, each subject unfolds as a universe; as a world full of significant processes.

By studying the “genomic universe” of one person and following it over a period of time time, Snyder and colleagues could discern processes that would have been invisible if they had superimposed data from several distinct research subjects.

This new significance of the particular is fascinating and novel from an intellectual perspective. Has the traditional contempt for the particular case been overcome in personalized medicine?

Speaking personally as a philosopher, I cannot avoid seeing this aspect of personalized medicine as congenial with certain philosophical tendencies.

I am thinking of tendencies to investigate (and compare) particular cases without magnifying them on a wall of philosophical abstraction, as if only the general was intellectually visible. I am thinking of serious attempts to overcome the traditional contempt for the particular case.

We seem to have arrived at a new conception of one and many; at a new conception of the particular case as visible and worthy of study.

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog

3 Responses to Introspective genomics and the significance of one

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