Archive for the ‘bio-’ Category

Jeffrey T. Nealon “The Archaeology of Biopower”

December 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Nealon, Jeffrey T. 2016. The Archaeology of Biopower: From Plant to Animal Life in The Order of Things. – Cisney, Vernon W.; Morar, Nicolae (eds). Biopower: Foucault and Beyond. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 138-155.

If discipline forged an enabling link between subjective aptitude and docility, biopower forges an analogous link between the individual’s life and the life of the socius: the only thing that we as biopolitical subjects have in common, one might say, is that we are all individuals, charged with the task of creating and maintaining our lives. (139)

At the dawn of the nineteenth century […] Foucault traces a mutation of the dominant epistemic procedures – from a representational discourse that maps external similitude and resemblance, to the emergence of a speculative discourse that takes as its object hidden internal processes. In short, we see emerge a discourse that „opposed historical knowledge of the visible to philosophical knowledge of the invisible“ (OT 138): knowledge’s privileged practices abandon the surface of objects to plumb their hidden depths instead. And first and foremost among those transcendental „invisibles“ was a little thing we like to call „life“: „The naturalist is the man concerned with the structure of the visible world and its denomination according to characters. Not with life“ (OT 161), Foucault insists, because life is not representable. Life is in fact a kind of unplumbable depth, animating the organism from a hidden origin somewhere within. This birth of biology – which is to say, the emergence of „life“ itself as a bearing area for discursive power and a depth to be explored – constitutes the first birth of biopower, this one in Foucault’s work of the mid-1960s. (143-144)

In short, Foucault argues that with the emergence of the human sciences at the birth of biopower, the animal is not excluded or forgotten, but quite the opposite: animality comprises the dominant apparatus for investigation both what life is and what life does. The living is no longer primarily vegetable (sessile and awaiting mere categorization), but understood as evolving, appetite-drive, secret, discontinuous, mendacious, inscrutable, always on the prowl, looking for an opening to break free. As Foucault puts it, „Transferring its most secret essence from the vegetable to the animal kingdom, life has left the tabulated spac of order and became wild once more“ (OT 277). (145)

Foucault, of course, parts ethical company from Derrida […] around the binary pathos of „totalization or non-totalization“, which constitutes nearly the whole field of ethics in a deconstructive context: if totalization or the violent desire for completion can be disrupted, if an originary différance of undecidability can be mobilized and demonstrated, then some positive deconstructive work has been accomplished. However, such a supposedly ethical gesture toward the unfathomable or untotalizable other, as Foucault will insist throughout his work, poses no essential question (ethical or otherwise) to the human sciences because those contemporary sciences do not require or even desire totalization. As Foucault demonstrates in his work on the emergence of life in Europe, the Western human sciences need constantly to refashion an unfathomable depth, and inexhaustible other, so they can continue to do their work. The insistence on the primacy of some nontotalizable „other“ does not cripple the human sciences, but rather constitutes an essential component of their work: as Foucault concisely puts it, „an unveiling of the non-conscious is constitutive of all the sciences of man“ (OT 364). (149-150)

(Economics, for example, does not know what value is any more than theology knows what God is or biology knows what life is – that is why you have a robust discourse to study it.) So the trading-places game of ethical alterity – the nonhuman other is best figured as the unconscious, the animal, the plant, the earth, the robot, and so forth – tends primarily to extend and deepen the constitutive work of the human sciences (the production of undecidability, which in turn produces more commentary), rather than to disrupt that work in some essential way. (150)

This, then, is Agamben’s „correction“ of Foucault: Agamben rejects the idea that power has become more subtle and effective, suffused through our everyday lives (even in our sexuality and our everyday consumer existence); he argues instead that power remains sovereign, brutal, literally animalizing its others so they can be eradicated. We in the first-world West live not in a panopticon or in an endless marketplace, but in a concentration camp. (151)

[…] when Foucault insists that there is an „animalization of man“ involved in biopower’s birth and functioning, he mean quite literally: we have incorporated the beast into the contemporary biopolitical definition of „man“ as endless, unthematizable animal desire, with the practices of sexuality and neoliberal capitalism its two most intense markings in the present. […] For Agamben, on the other hand, bestialization constitutes less a contemporary set of practices or a historical phenomenon and remains primarily a transhistorical metaphor or simile for the human condition, as are (despite Agamben’s protests to the contrary) his emphasis on the concentration camp or sovereign power. For Agamben, twenty-first-century Western society is like a concentration camp or like an absolute monarchy; we are treated like animals when we have to surrender our DNA or fingerprints. (152)

[…] sovereign power, while notoriously difficult (if not impossible) to resist, tends to be relatively easy to spot, diagnose, and denounce: in short, someone else is always wielding „sovereign power“. On the other hand, the biopolitics of „making live and letting die“ is a regime in which all of us are implicated: who gets health care and who doesn’t? (153)


Sebastian Rand “Organism, normativity, plasticity”

November 24, 2015 Leave a comment

Rand, Sebastian 2011. Organism, normativity, plasticity: Canguilhem, Kant, Malabou. Continental Philosophy Review, 44(4): 341-357.

[…] the organism itself is the only available authority for the establishment of its biological norm. The pathological is not to be thought of as logically posterior to the physiological, but as that through which the physiological (as normal function) first announces itself; the normal only becomes distinct from the pathological when the functioning or activity of the organism orients itself toward leaving a current devalued state and achieving a valued different state. The name for an organic functioning or activity that is not normal, and that has normalcy as its goal (even if this goal is not achieved), is ‘‘pathology.’ (344)

It is the disease, as reaction, that first establishes the very normality or normative activity of the healthy state from which it is the departure. In this sense, ‘‘disease is not merely the disappearance of a physiological order but the appearance of a new vital order,’’ the establishment of a new norm. (344)

Canguilhem does notclaim that there is some original healthy state the re-achievement of which, or the return to which, is the true stable goal of the organism’s activity. The aim of the activity of the living is not the restitution of an original state, but ‘‘repairs which are really physiological innovations.’’ It is in this sense that ‘‘there is no disorder, there is the substitution for an expected or loved order of another order which either makes no difference or from which one suffers.’’ (345)

[…] subordinate variety of normativity can also look like a potential basis for a reduction of all organic normativity to norm-following normativity alone. On such a reductive approach, the alleged norm-establishing capacity of an organism is really just an ability to change themeansit employs to achieve an endnot itself selected by the organism; the various norms the organism is capable of establishing would thus all be subordinate technical tools for conforming to some ultimately authoritative norm established for the organism from the start. (345)

In claiming that there is an ‘‘original normative character of life’’ and that ‘‘life is a normative activity,’’ Canguilhem is claiming that the norm-guided and norm-establishing activity of the organism indeed aims at a supreme, fixed good: the preservation and expansion of the organism’s normestablishing capacity as such. (346)

On the one hand, norm-following can only count as such if the organism must act to keep itself in conformity with the norm; but it only needs to do so if it is violating it. Similarly, norm-establishing occurs precisely in reaction to the failure of the organism to maintain the already-established norm. Thus both normfollowing and norm-establishing are activities in response to violations of given conditions. (348)

[…] it is not just one or another norm that is subject to violation, but the animal’s norm-establishing itself that can be tested. Thus, whatever positive character we might have been inclined to attribute to norm-establishing normativity is now wholly eliminated by Canguilhem, in favor of a conception of normativity on which the condition of possibility for organic normativity in general is the possibility of failure. (349)

[…] the ‘‘finality’’ of the norm—its unifying function in relation to the organism and organism’s activity—is not a ‘‘real ontological finality’’ that would replace the ‘ought’ of the norm with an ‘is’ and convert Canguilhem’s position into a traditional teleological metaphysics; it is rather only ‘‘a possible, operative finality.’’ It is thus a normativity that can serve its organism-constituting function only by being removed from natural existence. And in fact, this removal of normativity from the natural realm—in the midst of an effort to demonstrate precisely an ‘‘original normative character of life’’—is not just (and perhaps only metaphorically) spatial, but temporal as well. (350)

Ontologically speaking, the norm that is violated does not exist at all, on Canguilhem’s view, and so certainly does not preexist its violation; at best it is only retroactively established by the organism itself as having-been-in-force just when it is violated, that is, when the organism establishes a new norm in its place. In other words, Canguilhem’s recourse to a conception of the norm or rule as essentially non-real, non-actual, non-present allows him to claim that the norm violatedwill have beenin effect just in case another, different norm is established later. Thus, the norm-establishing activity of the organism establishes both which norm was violated and which norm is in force now; such temporally non-natural ordering can be attributed to the autonomy of the organism only to the extent that it is itself essentially constituted by a relation to the non-natural. (350)

[…] organic autonomy seems to involve a temporal ordering unlike anything in nature. Thus, Canguilhem grounds his account of natural life and normativity ‘‘in the fullest sense’’ in the organism’s essential relation to what is non-existent, that which is beyond nature, that which cannot be confronted as an objectwithinthat experience, that which cannot be observed. The natural organism is essentially normative if and only if the normative is essentially non-natural. And while he may in this way have accomplished Kant’s first goal—to show that the life sciences have so far depended on values and norms they themselves tried to exclude from their ken—he has taken the rest of the Kantian path as well—in agreeing that norms as such cannot be found within nature—and so does not present a genuine alternative to its transcendental picture. (351)

[Malabou] understands ‘plasticity’ as designating a threefold capacity: the ability to receive form (as in the plasticity of clay), the ability to give form (as in the plasticity of the plastic arts), and the ability to destroy form (as in the French verb ‘plastiquer,’ meaning ‘to blow up’). (351)

[…] while Canguilhem’s organism is capable of receiving content (that is, natural changes in its bodily state and the environment), it is not capable of receiving a new form—it is defined as that which manifests itself as extra-natural norm-establishing form in the face of any and all received natural content. Conceived of as ‘‘plastic,’’ by contrast, the organism not only gives form to a content, but can give itself form and receive form in a way that changes what it is: it subjects itself as normestablishing to the possibility of transformation of its normativity, at its own hands or at the hands of something outside it. Thus, plastic normativity goes beyond Canguilhem’s organic normativity (and beyond his Kantian antecedents) by insisting on the capacity to have its own form destroyed. (355)

Put ontologically, Malabou has used destructive plasticity, the exposure of the organism to constancy-changing or form-changing accident, to bring organic normativity back within the realm of nature. Rather than seeing this exposure to destruction or deformation or transformation as a threat to the biological autonomy of the organism, as Canguilhem does, Malabou integrates this possibility into the concept of being as such. (355)

To be open to genuine change in form, and thus to destruction, is not to display a lack of autonomy and constancy, but rather to display one’s plasticity. Something like this is what Canguilhem was after: a conception of the organism as having its very being in its alterability. But he saw this alterability as ultimately a self-transformability, rather than a susceptibility to an outside influence or force, and thus conceived of it as a sovereignty of extra-natural form over natural content. (355)

Paul Patton “Agamben and Foucault on Biopower and Biopolitics”

Patton, Paul 2007. Agamben and Foucault on Biopower and Biopolitics. – Calarco, Matthew; DeCaroli, Steven (eds). Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 203-218.
His “correction” of Foucault consists of the claim that the entry of bare life into the sphere of political calculation and the exercise of sovereign power involved no radical transformation of political-philosophical categories. (205)

His “completion ” of Foucault draws upon his own account of the manner in which bare life was originally included in the political realm, namely in the fo rm of an “inclusive exclusion,” in order to suggest that the decisive feature of modernity is not so much the emergence of biopolitics as the manner in which a phenomenon originally situated at the margins of poli tical order “gradually begins to coincide with the poli tical realm” (HS, 9). (205)

Whereas police government operated on the principle that there could never be too much government regulation, liberalism operated on the converse principle that there is always too much government. Instead or supposing that the population was in need of detailed and constant regulation, liberalism relied upon a conception of society and the economy as naturally self -regulating systems that government should leave alone. (207-208)

In comparison with the techniques of disciplinary power, biopower required the development of new mechanisms and new forms of knowledge to identify its objects and to facilitate its exercise. However, it remained a technology of power exercised by the state over people insof ar as they are living beings and insof ar as they belong to populations. In this sense, it enabled effective government by the sovereign of the biological life of the subjects. In the context of Foucault’s definition of the concept, this is how Agamben’s phrase “the entry of zoe into the sphere of the polis” must be understood. (209)

Homo sacer is not the same as simple natural life, since it is, as Agamben later notes, the natural lif e of an individual caught in a particular relation with the power that has cast him out from both the religious and the political community. (210)

In this sense, homo sacer is not simply pure zoe bur zoe caught up in a particular “status.” This status is defined by “the particular character of the double exclusion into which he is taken” (H S, 82). The double exclusion in terms of which this figure is defined mirrors the exceptional status of rhe sovereign; hence Agamben’s hypothesis that the figure of the sovereign and the figure of homo sacer are inextricably linked. (210)

In eff ect, Agamben’s argument relies on an equivocation with regard to the two senses of the term bare lift. While in the context of his analysis of sovereign ty, “bare life” is identified with the sacred lif e or status of homo sneer, in the context of his critical remarks about modern democratic politics he identifies it with the natural life of zoe. (211)

This right is strange because, ro the extent that the sovereign really does have the right to decide whether subjects live or die, the subject is, as it were, suspended between life and death. Qua subject, he or she has no right to live or die independently of the will of the sovereign: “in terms of his relationship with the sovereign, the subject is, by rights, neither dead nor alive. From the point of view of lif e and death, the subject is neutral, and it is thanks to the sovereign that the subject has the right to be alive or, possibly, the right to be dead.” In this sense, since the lif e of the subject is entirely encompassed within the sp ere of the sovereign’s power, it is biopolitical power in Agamben’s other sense of the term (homo sacer) . (213)

The life of the subject in the terms of the classical theory of sovere ignty , as Foucault defines it, is structurally identical to the bare lif e of the homo sacer : it is biological existence doubled by its exclusive inclusion within the political sphere. In this sense, Foucault’s analysis of classical sovereign right removes the need for any correction on this point. (214)

In the end, the difference between his approach and that of Foucault is not so much a matter of correction and completion as a choice between epochal concepts of biopolitics and bare
life and a more fine-grained, contextual, and historical analysis intended to enable specific and local forms of escape from the past. (218)

Melinda Cooper “Resuscitations: Stem Cells and the Crisis of Old Age”

February 5, 2015 Leave a comment

Cooper, Melinda 2006. Resuscitations: Stem Cells and the Crisis of Old Age. Body & Society 12(1): 1-23.

In 1961, the biologists Hayflick and Moorhead demonstrated that cells excised from normal adult
tissue can only divide a finite number of times in culture before entering a state of quiescence, the stages involved going by the evocative names of ‘crisis’, ‘replicative senescence’ and ‘mortality stage 1’ (Shostak, 2002: 26). For the first time, ‘senescence’ had been identified and observed as a process unfolding within the cell, at least when it was cultured in vitro. Moorhead and Hayflick later confirmed these findings in vivo by transplanting cell lines from one animal to another, and proposed that the difference between the finite and indefinite life spans of cell lines could be translated into a clinical distinction between normal and pathological (cancerous) growth. Immortalization, they concluded, was the hallmark of the pathological cell line. (1)

Where Hayflick had come up against ultimate limits to growth, new directions in research were beginning to refigure the ‘crisis’ point as a tenuous threshold between absolute limits and overexpansive growth, too much life and too much death (Landecker, 2003). In general, though, the capacity of certain cells in certain situations to ‘out-survive’ the ‘crisis’ of senescence was still associated with malignant and cancerous growth. Pathological immortalization was the exception that confirmed the rule. (2)

In November 1998, James A. Thomson announced that he had successfully isolated human embryonic cells capable of continuous division in culture and showing no signs of entering ‘replicative crisis’ (Thomson et al., 1998: 1145). This, he thought, demonstrated that certain non-pathological cells (defined as stem cells) were capable of indefinite, ‘immortalized’ division in vitro. Implicitly at least – though the consequences are just beginning to be felt – the cultivation of the ES cell as an experimental life-form has undermined prevailing assumptions about cellular life and death. (2-3)

[…] stem cell research homes in on the points of non-coincidence between ageing in general and the body’s multiple reserves of renewable tissue, uncovering a kind of latent ‘surplus’ life, even in the most worn-out of bodies: At the moment, a cell’s history of divisions is not easily tied to its death, and no less to the death of the organism. Cells generally, and stem cells in particular, simply have not run out of their prescribed number of cell divisions at the time the organism dies. (Shostak, 2002: 28) (3)

Biological senescence as the ultimate limit to growth. (4)

The extension of patent rights to cover biological life meant that the agricultural and pharmaceutical sectors – faced with falling returns on chemical inventions and petrochemical commodities – could invest in the emergent field of biotechnics, reinventing themselves as clean ‘life science’ companies and overcoming the declining profits associated with industrial waste (if not waste itself). (7)

If ‘life itself’ – conceived of as autopoiesis – has become the inescapable model of accumulation for celebrants of neo-liberalism, it is no doubt because the biotechnological solution to economic limits seems to encapsulate the speculative euphoria of revalorization at the most intimate of material levels. At the same time that it writes off the inorganic matter consumed and left over by industrial production, post-Fordism attempts to reanimate the whole of matter – the garbage heap of industrial waste, from cadavers to fossil fuels – within the process of its own selfvalorization. (Witness the interest in various biotechnological solutions for transforming toxic industrial waste into biodegradable matter.) (7-8)

What Georgescu-Roezen wrote off as irrevocable non-value (the depleted, dead, inorganic matter of the second law), the eco-capitalists redefine as temporarily depotentialized life, awaiting its future resuscitation. Far from posing an ultimate limit to biological and economic productivity, waste can and should be eliminated, according to the theorists of natural capitalism. (8)

This is not so much a final eradication of waste as its fractalization: if there is no end to the revaluation of waste, there can also be no end to its production (just as fractal geometry traces a curve which continually deflects the limit-point or tangent). (9)

Echoing the language of the eco-capitalists, industry reports present regenerative medicine as a means of exploiting the inherent healing capacities of the body in order to overcome the wasting and degenerative processes associated with old age. As the developmental biologist, Shostak, succinctly puts it: „Thermodynamic irreversibility would seem to underlie many kinds of senescence…. The solution would seem to be to avoid old age entirely.” (2002: 161) (9)

Last but not least in the long list of limits to be overcome is the figure of the person as a biological constraint on the actualization of life’s potentialities. As one biologist has pointed out in response to pro-life activists, stem cell research is not fundamentally interested in the production of a person, who as a limit over-determining the progressive differentiation of cells can only represent a waste of life’s incalculable possibilities of self-regeneration (Pederson, 1999: 47). (10)

The point [of regenerative medecine], according to a recent introduction to tissue engineering, is no longer to supplement biological life with the spare parts of the industrial machine but to ‘reawaken’ the body’s latent capacity for self-regeneration (Bell, 2000). (10)

[…] for the commercial life sciences, including the pharmaceutical sector, what counts is no longer the scale and volume of the market in tangible bio-commodities, but rather the speculative accumulation of a future ‘innovation’ value – a surplus of life, information and profit. In short, what is at stake and what is new in the contemporary bio-sciences is not so much the ultimate commodification of ‘life itself’ – this is a foregone conclusion – but rather its transformation into a source of speculative surplusvalue. (11)

[…] the relatively recent tradition of patent law reflects a fundamental division of labour between technical production and biological life. Between the 17th and the late 19th centuries, patent law defined the act of invention as a transformation of inorganic matter, thus excluding both the laws of nature and biological reproduction of all kinds (plant, animal, human) from the sphere of the machinic in general. (11)

Regenerative medicine is not so much interested in the reproduction of the human person as in the stem cell’s capacity for multiple differentiation and indefinite renewal, in excess of the developmental limits of human morphology. If biologists are increasingly defining the embryonic stem cell as a kind of protolife, the initial and ultimate source of all human (re)generation, they also distinguish it from the reproduction of the germ-line and the transmission of personal humanness. As one stem cell specialist has written, the embryonic stem cell line is ‘not equivalent’ to the potential person in its powers of development (Pederson, 1999: 47). It is, therefore, patentable, according to existing legal definitions of invention. (13)

in 2001, the US PTO issued patent number 6200806 over ‘a purified preparation of pluripotent human embryonic stem cells’ and the method used to isolate it – a patent that is so extensive as to cover all human embryonic stem cells and the cells that derive from them. The historical importance of this decision cannot be overestimated. For the first time, a generic process of human (re)generation, common to all bodies, has been incorporated into the laws of invention – even while it spares the figure of the person. What is at stake here is a profound legal reconfiguration of the value of human biological life. The potential person will not be commodified – but the surplus life of the immortalized human stem cell will enter into the circuits of patentable invention. (13)

In an illuminating conceptual introduction to the field of stem cell research, the developmental biologists Loeffler and Potten note that the defining attributes of the stem cell lie not so much in the inherent properties of a particular cell but rather in the horizon of future potentialities of which a cell is capable in a given experimental context: ‘stemness is not a property but a spectrum of possibilities’, possibilities that unfold in an uncertain future and can only be ‘discovered’ through the very process of experimentation (Loeffler and Potten, 1997: 1, 2, 13–14.) We can’t even claim to know whether or not a given cell is actually a stem cell, the same introduction claims, before we start testing its future possibilities – a stem cell, in other words, is defined in speculative terms, by what it might be able to do, rather than what it is. (15)

[…] ‘life itself’ is capable of overcoming all limits to growth – but of course its actual economic value lies not so much in its powers of self-regeneration as in the formulation of an essentially new form of property right, designed to capture its future possibilities of growth – even when they defy prediction. […] Life at its most unpredictable will have been pre-capitalized. (16)

One pharmaceutical CEO has described the patented cell line as the ‘currency of the future’ (quoted in Andrews and Nelkin, 2001). Increasingly we are being confronted with the problem of thinking about and resisting forms of property that claim to own life in its futurity, before it has emerged into morphological form. (16)

Gordon Hull “Biopolitics Is Not (Primarily) About Life”

January 6, 2015 Leave a comment

Hull, Gordon 2013. Biopolitics Is Not (Primarily) About Life: On Biopolitics, Neoliberalism, and Families. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 27(3): 322-335.

In what follows, I argue, first, that modern biopolitics is marked less by the entry of biological life into the polisthan by a new consideration of the form of life proper to humans. This is because Foucault’s interest is less in life itself as an object than it is in the techniques—the dispositives—through which “life” becomes an object of political knowledge/power. These techniques are essentially those of risk management, where contingent, aleatory, and stochastic events are treated in statistical terms. Second, in this regard, economics—and neoliberalism specifically—can be read as an attempt to provide an answer to what form of life is proper to humans. (322-323)

“Security mechanisms have to be installed around the random element inherent in a population of living beings so as to optimize a state of life” (SMD 246); the goal is that these processes are “not disciplined, but regularized” (SMD 247). In a word, the point of biopolitics is the transformation of the aleatory into the stochastic, the statistically and governmentally tractable: “The phenomena addressed by biopolitics are, essentially, aleatory events that occur within a population that exists over a period of time” (SMD 246). (325)

Agamben’s conclusion is backward: zoe is doubly subordinated to bios. On the one hand, the act of living is in the service of strengthening the state and productivity, but the existence of „population” is entirely dependent on the techniques used to visualize it; there is nothing “bare”
about this life. On the other hand, the polis comes to govern the oikos, which is to say that the family becomes an object of political concern. (325)

If biopolitics in the eighteenth century politicized the household, neoliberalism appears to politicize individual bodies by imposing a theory according to which Homo economicus is the bios most appropriate to people. One result is that “biological life” and “health” are increasingly informatic, managed not in terms of disease but as problems of self-entrepreneurship and risk assessment. From this vantage point, the putative separation of biopolitics and economics appears to depend on a dubious assumption that biological processes can be understood independently of their constitution as objects of knowledge. As Judith Butler argued in the case of sex and gender, this sort of separation is highly problematic. In the case of biopolitics, what this means is that we need to focus on biopolitics as a form of knowledge/power, not on its object. As knowledge/power, biopolitics is about the management of uncertainty through statistical risk. (329)

At the same time, the oikos as the supposedly depoliticized site of biology continues its dispersal. Not only has government become economic management, but the statistical techniques of population management are now to be applied to the household. Foucault proposes that emerging discourses about race and sexuality show the emergence of biopower; I would propose here that the possibility of IVF followed by pre-implantation genetic diagnosis for BRCAcarriers shows its mutation under neoliberalism: for those whose existence becomes overdetermined by risk management, even the act of reproduction becomes something inseparable from and unintelligible outside of the biopolitical context in which it finds itself. (329)

Amanda Hodgson “Defining the Species”

January 4, 2015 Leave a comment

Hodgson, Amanda 1999. Defining the Species: apes, savages and humans in scientific and literary writing of the 1860s. Journal of Victorian Culture 4(2): 228-251.

The scientific study of humankind – anthropology – was an emergent discipline in the 1860s. The Anthropological Society of London was founded in 1863 and defined its aims as follows: „to study Man in all his leading aspects, physical, mental, and historical; to investigate the laws of his origin and progress; to ascertain his place in nature and his relations to the inferior forms of life; and to attain these objects by patient investigation, careful induction, and the encouragement of all researches tending to establish a de facto science of man.” (230 – Prospectus of the Anthropological Society of London, 1)

The Athenaeum of 11 May 1861 carried a long review of du Chaillu’s book, in which it singled out for extensive quotation passages where du Chaillu recognised the strong and disturbing resemblance between humans and the gorillas he is hunting: „Suddenly I was startled by a strange, discordant, half human, devilish cry, and beheld four young gorillas running toward the deep forests. . . . I protest I felt almost like a murderer when I saw the gorillas this first time. As they ran – on their hind legs – they looked fearfully like hairy men; their heads down, their bodies inclined forward, their whole appearance like men running for their lives.” (231)

Reason, religion and morality: these are the things which no beast possesses, however similar to ours might be the physical structure of its brain. These are the things which will enable humankind to retain its sense of superiority over the animal kingdom – else we might, as the philologist Friedrich Max Müller put it, ‘not unreasonably feel somewhat uneasy at having the gorilla so close on our heels’. (235)

In the prevailing climate of doubt as to the existence of a dividing line between animals and
humankind, and with the further possibility that humankind itself might be made up of separate species, it is not surprising that there was also some confusion about the precise relationship between man-like apes and the ‘savages’ whose appearance and way of life seemed to Victorians so disturbingly alien from their own culture. Some, like Hunt, came to the conclusion that there were a number of significant analogies between apes and black humans. (238-239)

This blurring of the distinction between black humans and apes was not always, or merely, the result of unthinking racial distaste. It was important for mid-Victorians to define themselves with reference to an ‘other’ that was both bestial and savage, because they had to forge an identity that could cope with the newly historical perspective in which they had to view themselves. It was no longer possible simply to assert the superiority of European civilised humankind as if it were an obvious fact, when notions of creation were being challenged by the idea of a morally neutral evolution. (239)

However, if humans could be seen as coming at the end of a progressive line of development, at the head of the procession as Huxley’s skeletons imply, moral evolution could be linked, as it is in The Water-Babies, with physical evolution. But in order to do this, it was necessary to prove that modern human societies were ‘better’ than ancient ones. Hence the importance of the idea of the savage. (239)

[Edward] Tylor equates contemporary savages with early humankind, persistently describing them as standing to civilised cultures as children do to adults, and he recognises the logical monogenesist corollary: speaking of the apparent universality of gesture-language, he concludes that its prevalence ‘bears against the supposition that specific differences are traceable among the various races of man’. (240)

Tylor stresses his conviction that the different degrees of civilisation visible among different groups of people ‘are rather differences of development than of origin, rather of degree than of kind’.40 Yet it is their evolutionary and monogenesist standpoint which requires these anthropologists to represent savages as bestial. In his seminal work Primitiue Culture (1870) Tylor devotes chapters to language, religion and counting, clearly following the prescribed rules for defining civilised humankind against both savage and beast. (240)

If savages were remnants of prehistoric societies, and if humans were descended from ape-like ancestors, then savages were, logically, intermediaries between these apish ancestors and evolved humankind. To think otherwise would be to question progress. (241)

It is difficult for linear narrative in the past tense not to appear driven towards a goal, a conclusion, an end. The linearity of most Victorian prose fiction engaged (particularly when the narrative was serialised) with the contemporary ideology which identified process as progress, moralising the transformation described by science and thus rendering it palatable. I have tried to show how the anthropologists who saw prehistoric humans as savages were implicated in this procedure, and how The Water-Babies endorsed it. Poetry such as Browning’s, which struggles to evade narrative, may the more readily subvert the prevailing valorisation of change as progress – at least for as long as it takes to read the poem. (247)

Michel Morange “Genetics, Life and Death”

December 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Morange, Michel 2007. Genetics, Life and Death: Genetics as providing a definition. – Anne Fagot-Largeault; Shahid Rahman; Juan Manuel Torres (eds). The Influence of Genetics on Contemporary Thinking. Dordrecht: Springer, 51-62.

Among the different contemporary definitions of life which are given by biologists, one of the most frequent is that what characterizes organisms is their capacity to „reproduce imperfectly”. This definition includes two components, both essential: the power to reproduce, characteristic of life; and the fact that this reproduction is sufficiently faithful to allow a correct functioning of the progeny, but not perfect, not preventing the appearance of slightly different forms of organisms, likely to be better adapted to their environment. Imperfect reproduction is the condition required for the action of natural selection, and the historical development of life. (54)

Because genetic mechanisms are the main mechanisms of heredity to have been progressively forged and retained by natural selection, they are fundamental in this Darwinian definition of life. As sophisticated as they are – with the very precise copy at each generation of the long protein sequences –, they perfectly provide the basis on which natural selection can efficiently play its role. (55)

Despite its apparent success, such a vision of genes controlling the duration of life – and death – was rapidly challenged both by cell biologists and population geneticists. The former showed the existence of a specific form of cell death – by apoptosis –, totally different from the form of cell death which results from the absence of nutrients and oxygen occurring when the organisms die. During apoptosis, cells play an active role in their own death – whence its name of programmed cell death. (56)

The first observations of apoptosis did not question the existence of a genetic program of death or its link with a developmental program, since they were made on the massive cell death process that accompanies metamorphosis, a specific phase of development for insects and amphibians (Lockshin and Williams, 1964, 1965). But as findings accumulated on this specific form of death, it appeared less and less linked with the program of development and more and more related to the capacities of organisms to adapt to changing environments. It is the absence of cell death, not its occurrence, which in most cases constitutes a threat to the organism. (56-57)

The present model proposed by population geneticists is that the duration of life (and the occurrence of death) is not actively controlled by genes, but that specific forms of genes have been progressively introduced by chance during evolution and can affect the duration of life, and increase the probability of death simply because they do not sufficiently affect fitness to be eliminated by the action of natural selection. Two slightly different possibilities remain: these mutations affect the organisms too late, at a time when, in natural conditions, most have already succumbed by accident; or their negative effect is balanced by the positive effect they have on reproduction (antagonistic pleiotropism). A later modification has been made to the evolutionary theory of aging and to the “antagonistic pleiotropism” model by appealing to the “disposable soma” theory (Kirkwood and Rose, 1991): the organism differentially allocates a fixed number of resources to reproduction and maintenance. (57)

Human genome sequencing – and the discovery of the low number of human genes – was clearly a blow to the idea that human higher activities are directly reflected in the complexity of the genome, whereas the isolation of master genes controlling behavior has frequently been disappointing, and has lost its attraction – possibly with the exception of thefruitlessgene ofDrosophila(Manoli et al., 2005). Gene variations can have a dramatic effect on behavior, but this does not mean that the genes that are involved are behavioral genes. However, the possibility that the human mind consists of cognitive modules that evolved through the pressure of natural selection still leaves a place for the genes in the construction of the mind (Buller, 2005). (58)

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