The Science and Philosophy of Identity

Julia Knox
Age of Awareness
Published in
5 min readMay 19, 2022

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Is molecular biology our era’s tool to explore the philosophy of identity? Over the past decade, public interest in DNA technologies has reflected the significant strides of scientific research, and curiosity shows no signs of stopping. The years 2021 and 2022 saw more Google searches for “genetic test” than in all of recorded search history (since 2004).

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In part, this can be attributed to the rise of commercialized DNA testing companies, such as 23andMe, which was founded in 2006. However, fundamental questions of identity have long-fascinated us. From Plato to postmodernism, we have sought to define ourselves through countless lenses, including religious, cultural, spiritual, communal, and individualistic. What are we asking? And what are we hoping to find?

Our method of inquiry often reflects our environment. The emerging era of molecular technology has ushered in new possibilities for personal and population-wide insights.

Millions of people look to companies like 23andMe to answer, “Who am I?”

Public health is one area that provides us with a platform to engage with these questions. Through public health, the disciplines of molecular biology, population science, ecology, and social science can engage in productive mutual aid. Such questions inevitably collide with the complex subjects of religion and neuroscience.

By examining the methods and results of past inquiries into questions of identity, we can better understand what underlays present-day curiosity into DNA technology.

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Like all living things, we are dynamic and constantly changing. Even our DNA expression changes, as seen in the epigenome and the epitranscriptome.

This continual formation is part of identity: Growth is a state.

As epitomized in many facets of our justice system, we tend to treat identity as static. Does this philosophy extend beyond pure practicality? Must one be, by nature, a continuous entity, never fully shedding past skin? Can we be forgiven for embodying a self we no longer recognize? Perhaps it is up to us to forgive a separate self, but perhaps, we are not truly separate, and our community, too, must make peace with us, whether or not we currently identify with this sense of sameness. When we use the tools of scientific technology to explore questions of identity, we may be searching for something to hold onto without realizing the highly changeable universe such tools probe.

Our genome or a functional MRI scan may give us a snapshot of the present, yes. But as epitomized in epigenetics and neuroplasticity, it is far from concrete.

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The word, “integrity”, can be traced back to the Latin “untouched.” From there, Latin scholars have explored its evolution from the Christian understanding of divine creation, which explains that the original formation of the person is “good”. The word integrity, thus, can be attributed to the idea of maintaining faithfulness to one’s original form. The word “identity” can be traced back to Christians who intended to describe the “sameness” embodied by members of the Trinity. This is how “integrity”, despite its literal roots being in the word “untouched” developed a moral connotation.

Popular news outlets post articles that celebrate scientific studies indicating that we are truly made of stardust as if to invoke some magical, otherworldly quality. Moreover, one may often hear affirmation of our “99%” genetic similarity. What draws us to these concepts? What draws us to the synonymous desire to be present, to be otherworldly, to be unique individuals, and yet to find commonality with the entire human race?

The search for identity and questions of personal integrity often collide, a trend also reflected in the etymology of the words themselves. Identity, as previously described, is closely tied to notions of the Trinity, which was widely accepted as synonymous with goodness during this time period. Integrity, on the other hand, comes from the Latin integras, which has been identified by scholars as equating to “untouched.” Ergo, integrity was to be true to one’s human nature, which was believed to be essentially good. Much of the collective search for identity took place in the context of a personal relationship with God, and much meaning was and is derived from searching. In Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he describes his harrowing Holocaust story while attributing his survival to his devotion to a higher power, which he credits with giving him a focus and meaning to his life that was beyond himself.

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Interestingly, Frankl’s background was in medicine, and he was a practicing psychiatrist at the time of his being forced into the concentration camp. In studying the brain and the body, questions often provoke further questions, and deeper inquiry can be as rewarding as it is frustrating. Can the question of, “Who am I?” can be answered by a functional MRI, an IQ test, or results from 23andMe? Should it? Perhaps that all depends on what “I” means. What is the nature of an individual, for whom this question pervades?

Do the epistemological notions of identity and integrity allow for the true self to be both integral and dynamic?

Despite inevitably amalgamated genetic and psychological formation, it is quite common to apply a separatist philosophy to the self. Beyond individualism, this notion excludes the possibility that exterior parameters might add to the compilation of matter we think of as, “ourselves.” If “I” am not simply “myself”, alone and separate, who might I be? And who, then, is responsible for that person? Following this, who are others, and are they truly that, “other”? If you have been integral in forming my identity, are you not now part of what I see as “I”?

Are we drawn to DNA technologies to answer questions of individual identity, but ultimately captivated by what connects us?

References

Ed. Taylor, C.R., Dell’Oro, R. Health and Human Flourishing: Religion, Medicine, and Moral Anthropology. Chapter 5. Georgetown University Press, June 20, 2006.

Frankl, V. E. Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press. 2006.

“‘Genetic Test.” Google Trends. https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=omics

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Julia Knox
Age of Awareness

Poet-Hearted Social Scientist. I write, therefore I think. | juliamknox.com