Responding to Life Sciences.pdf

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Responding to the life sciences: genome research and beyond
Sasheej Hegde
University of Hyderabad
In my first brief submission to the blog, which I had formulated as ‘Submitting to inquiry: a
proposal and a credo’, I had outlined two questions, both having to do with my lectures at the
workshop on ‘Rethinking interdisciplinarity: bridging the rift’ (Department of Humanities and
Social Sciences, National Institute of Technology (NIT), Silchar, 18-19 May 2016). The first had
to do with the question of ‘inquiry’ - the place, really, of method and theory in the design of
inquiries (humanistic or otherwise) – and along this course to explore the possibility of two
dispositions internal to disciplines (characterised broadly as the ‘scholastic’ and the ‘reflexive’)
and gaining a measure of their intertwining across spaces of inquiry. The second had to do with
the design of inquiries, especially those conceived in cross-disciplinary terms and which
anticipate the problematic status of their ‘objects’. I was thinking here particularly of the life
sciences and biomedicine impinging on genome research, and the challenge of coming to terms
with this arena from the point of view of a renewed social scientific mode of reflection.
In this my second submission to the blog, I take up the latter question first, not out of any sense of
precedence but in the sequence of the lectures delivered. My subsequent submissions will take on
board further questions and parameters of inquiry.
The challenge of the life sciences then, and in particular the practice of biomedicine impinging on
genome research: broadly, there are going to be three parts to my appraisal (which, I must
reiterate, is not based on any ‘primary’ research, but drawing on the existing scholarship on the
1. The first has to do with a quick navigation of the spaces of genome research and
biomedicine, while resisting the impulse to mediate scenarios that invoke either a deep
sense of challenge or an overwhelming sense of foreboding about possibilities and human
futures. I take it for granted here that reflections on science and technology have gone far
beyond Mertonian sociologies of science to incorporate more actively analyses of what
scientists actually do. The anthropologist Michael M. J. Fischer has pertinently observed
that “we need now to formulate anthropologies of science and technology that attend to
both the cultural switches of the heterogeneous communities within which sciences are
cultured and technologies are peopled and to the reflexive social institutions within which
medical, environmental, informational, and other technosciences must increasingly
operate” (Fischer, 2009: 50).
2. The second has to do with the fraught idea of ‘emergent form(s) of life’ as it impinges on
genome research and biomedicine. Again, as Michael Fischer has remarked, the phrase
‘emergent forms of life’ acknowledges “an ethnographic datum, a social theoretic
heuristic, and a philosophical stance regarding ethics” (Fischer 2009: 37), although of
course our presentation will not disaggregate the idea along this triadic axes. Hopefully,
we will in course, as one gets to command more conceptual resources and cognitive
3. The third part is by way of conclusion, where I broach the question of the relations
between scientific activity, thinking and ‘theory’ (within science studies itself). [As an
aside, perhaps, it would be worthwhile for us to ponder the question of the pertinence of
structuring a conversation on interdisciplinarity as founded on the arena of science and
technology studies (STS) per se. But that is bound to be a more complex conversation,
and must await a sequence of unfolding.]
1. Responding to the life sciences
What is the activity of genome research and biomedicine? That is a provocatively odd question
with which to frame a discussion of the life sciences, particularly a discussion of its status and
possibilities. From one angle, the question seems straightforward enough: it asks us to identify
the activities appropriate to genome research and biomedicine, as activities directed at the
transcription and recreation of the entire genetic code and the practices through which the various
stakeholders – researchers, clinicians, policymakers and citizens/consumers alike – can be safely
steered past the hazards endemic to ‘megaprojects’ in science. The public – private interface of
genome research, the promise of a new generation of therapeutics to combat infectious disease,
personalized medicine, the ‘translational infrastructure’ and regulatory system for navigating the
journey from laboratory to marketplace, the determination of appropriate information thresholds
and adequate data sources for decision-making at various levels, the ethical issues in the use of
genetic information, the consequences of unproven genomic technology transcending (or
overcoming) existing regulatory frameworks, the crafting of patents and the determination of
patent validity, the challenges of genetic screening and genetic information, new demarcations of
scientific fields (what is termed the ‘omics’ proliferation): these are just a few of the more
familiar possible conceptual specifications that circulate in the field today, sometimes with a deep
sense of challenge and sometimes with a sense of foreboding. In fact, the contemporary era has
been contextualized as the ‘post-genome era’, being so designated as to communicate the
scientific, technological and economic opportunities stemming from the ongoing identification of
genomes (human and non-human) and to suggest a re-organization of the life science industry as a
I am inclined to hear the question differently though: not as a call for conceptual specification, but
rather as a call for an enriched description. In doing so, I draw extensively on the work of the
sociologist Nikolas Rose (2007), attending in particular to some of his characterizations of the life
sciences and biomedicine particularly. These characterizations throw a distinctive light both on
the question of what threatens, and what might help sustain, the activity of genome research and
biomedicine, and on the question of the relations between scientific activity, thinking and ‘theory’
(within science studies itself). Indeed, my point is that Rose depictions gain their currency not
only in virtue of what they say about the life sciences and biomedicine particularly, but also by
exemplifying the generatively productive way that contemporary theory uses the fraught idea of
‘emergent form(s) of life’.
To bring that peculiarity into the foreground, it will be helpful to start with a few more general
words about ‘emergent form(s) of life’ and its context.
2. ‘Emergent form(s) of life’
One can take the idea of a ‘form of life’ to denote a certain way of thinking about and enacting
one’s existence according to certain rules and cultural premises. Interestingly yet, as Nikolas
Rose has suggested, “more than just a way of living, the idea of a form of life also refers to the
life form, the entities that inhabit that way of living and their characteristics” (Rose 2007: 80).
Furthermore, according to Rose, the idea of “emergence suggests that the present, while not
radically different from that which preceded it, may nonetheless be a moment within a process in
which something novel is taking shape … (s)omething novel that is arising from the intertwining
of ways of thinking and acting in a range of practices – medical, legal, economic, political, ethical
– while not being posited directly by any of them” (ibid.: 80-81). Even as Rose points out that
many of the hopes and fears about the powers of biomedicine are “undoubtedly exaggerated”, he
recognizes that they do point to something important: “We can now at least contemplate, and
sometimes achieve, the micromanipulation of many of the capacities of the body and the mind in
the pursuit of secular desires and aspirations” (ibid.: 80). Indeed, for him, “our current ways of
being human do not make us less biological, on the contrary, it is as if, in the inescapable
connections that have now been forged between human life and biotechnology, we have become
more biological” (ibid.); while going on to urge that “(t)his is why, rather than suggesting we
have become posthuman, I ask to what extent we are inhabiting an ‘emergent form of life’” (ibid.,
emphasis added).
It is important to note that in characterizing the present age as an ‘emergent form of life’, Rose is
concerned to shift the focus away from the familiar themes of globalization, the rise of
information technologies, concerns about security and so on into the sphere of medicine – a
sphere that “has long exceeded that of the identification of disease and the restoration of
normality” (Rose 2007: 81). As he observes (and I am condensing a relatively lucid field of
description and analysis): “It has become possible for individuals to think of their embodied
selves as open to modification in new ways and hence to acquire further obligations for the
responsible self-management of their biological and somatic existence” (ibid.). In sheer
philosophical terms, besides, it is important to point out that the idea of emergence – that
increased complexity entails the production of new features that were not previously evident –
runs against the idea that the universe is to be understood as a machine, piece by piece. Of
course, since the universe is not really a machine in the first place, this does not pose much of a
problem; although, it must be emphasized, in the ways that the universe is indeed like a machine,
‘reductionism’ is often sought and so formulated (see Marks 2009: 25-49). Indeed,
notwithstanding what critics might allege about the rise of a new biological and genetic
determinism in the wake of ‘emergent forms of life’ – the contention, namely, that such
interventions on human beings are violations of our human nature, and that human dignity and
identity (even the fate of humanism itself) depend upon the very ‘inviolability’ of human nature -
I must reiterate that I do not share this view. In fact, I go along with Rose to state that one is not
interested in a set of speculations about the future nor a bioethical meditation on the present;
rather, that “such speculations and meditations … themselves – their visions of the future, their
fears and hopes, their evaluations and judgments – are elements in an emergent form of life”
(Rose 2007: 3).
Even more strategically from the point of view of our relation to science and technology and its
study, the focus seems to have shifted from an epistemology-centred philosophy of science
devoted to the problematic of ‘fact-making’ in science to an examination of the broader events,
underlying rationalities and ethical enrolments and disqualifications of emergent forms of life
around us. The moment then – what some would characterize as “space of problems concerning
the optimization of life itself” (Rose 2007: 82, emphasis added) - and the futures that it embodies
must be the fulcrum of social scientific reflection and inquiry. In fact, Rose alludes to the point
that several years earlier, in a paper written in the 1970s, Foucault had proposed that it is not very
fruitful to look for a relation of anteriority or dependence between (in Foucault’s words) “on the
one hand, a private, ‘liberal’ medicine that was subject to the mechanisms of individual initiative
and to the laws of the market, and, on the other, a medical politics drawing support from
structures of power and concerning itself with the health of a collectivity”; rather, that “‘private’
and ‘socialized’ medicine, in their reciprocal support and opposition, both derive from a common
global strategy” (Foucault 2002: 90-91). Foucault was very clear that there is no society that does
not practice some kind of biopolitics, even explicitly stating: “the eighteenth century didn’t invent
it. But it prescribed new rules, and above all transposed the practice onto an explicit, concerted
level of analysis such as had been previously unknown. At this point, the age entered is one not