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Nikolas Rose “The Human Sciences in a Biological Age”

Rose, Nikolas 2013. The Human Sciences in a Biological Age. Theory, Culture & Society, 30(1): 3-34.

First, the contemporary life sciences – in genomics, in the understanding of the cell and the processes of development and differentiation, in molecular neuroscience – reveal multiple affinities between humans and other creatures, and throw new light on their differences. (5)

Yet alongside this reduction of life to the interaction of its smallest components, another style of thought has taken shape. This way of thinking construes vital properties as emergent, and living organisms as dynamic and complex systems, located in a dimension of temporality and

development, and constitutively open to their milieu – a milieu that ranges in scale from the intracellular to psychological, biographical, social and cultural. One of the key conceptual struggles in the sciences of the living – which one can find in almost every area – concerns the relations between these two visions. (5)

Hence, second, we have seen the ‘technologization’ of vitality in the life sciences. It is not only that to know is to intervene, although that is crucial: one knows life today only by intervening in it. (5-6)

Intervention is not just to know, but also to do: knowing life at the molecular level has been intrinsically related to an enhanced capacity to act upon it at that level. Life itself – that is to say, the living of the living organism – seems to have become amenable to intervention and open to projects of control. (6)

Paths to the creation of biological truths have been shaped by promises and predictions of the

biovalue to be harvested – enhanced crop yields, bioenergy, bioremediation, and, of course, advanced medical and health technologies based on biology. (6)

[…] a third feature of contemporary biology that calls for attention by the social and human sciences: the salience that the biological and the biomedical has achieved in practices of self-management and self-governance. (6)

To live well today is to live in the light of biomedicine. (7)

This is asserted via a mind-bending amalgam of the usual suspects from philosophy – Agamben, Bergson, Deleuze and Guattari, William James, Spinoza and Whitehead – together with references to Simondon and von Uexku¨ll and a few biologists or neuroscientists: LeDoux, Damasio, Ekman, the famous autist Temple Grandin, Libet, and of course the Buddhist neuroscientist Francisco Varela. These figures are called upon to support the argument that it is only by recognizing the true nature of human corporeality and the power of the affective that we will be able to free ourselves from an overly intellectualist and rationalist account of contemporary politics, economics and culture. Only then will we be able to grasp, and perhaps to intensify, the non-conscious, non-intellectual level forces that inspire resistance, creativity and hope. Biology is translated into ontology, ontology is transmuted into politics. We have seen a similar move in recent history, appealing to a different biology, with political consequences that, to say the least, should give us pause. (12)

A strange form of conceptual gerrymandering seems to underpin such ‘liberation biology’: biological claims evade critical interrogation where they seem to give support to a pre-given philosophical ethopolitics. This is a mirror image of the notorious tendency of life scientists to support socio-political arguments by transposing their research on flies or mice directly to the realm of human society and culture. (12)

And those from the social and human sciences rightly identify the impoverished sense in which, in these imaging experiments, ‘social relations’ are reduced to interactions between dyads that can be experimentally simulated in a laboratory and in a scanner (Cohn, 2004, 2008a, 2008b). (16)

Genomics has moved away from a style of thought that looked for single genes for specific characteristics, the ‘gene-for’ paradigm so criticized by social scientists, especially when it claimed to have discovered ‘the gene for’ an aspect of the human condition, such as homosexuality or bipolar disorder. While the Human Genome Project was initially underpinned by the idea that the sequence of the genome would be ‘the code of codes’ or ‘the book of life’ – the digital instructions for making a human being – the real itself intervened to say no. The evidence from sequencing of humans and other organisms simply did not support the view that genes were distinct units, each of which coded for a single protein. Instead, it became clear that each sequence of bases could be ‘read’ in many different ways, thus enabling a small number of coding regions to generate a large number of different proteins. (17)

This led to the first significant mutation in thought styles: a shift away from determinism towards a probabilistic way of thinking about the relationship between genetics, development, evolution, organism and life chances. (17)

We are moving away from the idea that each common disease will share the same genomic basis – even if a complex one – to a model where common diseases are the endpoints of many different, rare genomic variations. Even in conditions where we have a clear idea of heritability, such as certain forms of breast cancer, the proportion explained by what we know of genomics is small and the ‘missing heritability’ – which cannot be explained by genetics – is high, ranging from 50 percent for age-related macular degeneration, 20 percent in Crohn’s disease and around 95 percent in elevated lipid levels (Manolio et al., 2009). (18)

This is a form of argument that links to, but goes beyond, the important recognition that human capacities such as cognition and affect are ‘distributed’ – not the individuated property of singular organisms, but constitutively dependent on the webs of interactions among multiple organic processes within and between organisms and other entities in a locale. Of course this thought style operates in very different ways in different disciplinary domains, and there is no single way that the social and human sciences might make their links with them. But it is clear that such links will not be in terms of the relations of ‘body’ and ‘society’ – those enticing yet illusory totalities – but at a different scale. Not in terms of ‘the body’ or ‘the brain’ as coherent systems enclosed by a boundary of skin, but of bodies and brains as ,ultiplicities, of the coexistence and symbiosis of multiple entities from bacterial flora in the gut, to the proliferation of neurons in the brain, each in multiple connections with milieux, internal and external, inorganic, organic, vital, historical, cultural, human. Distributed capacities in milieux which vital organisms themselves partly create and which in turn create them and their capacities. (19-20)

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