Biology in an Age of Technoscience

by Hilary and Steven Rose

Hilary Rose is a prominent feminist and sociologist and is currently a Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. Steven Rose is a neurobiologist at the Open University and the University of London. They recently sat down with Samuel Grove to discuss their new book Genes, Cells and Brains: The Promethean Promises of the New Biology.


Sam: The book is roughly divided between a discussion of biology and politics.

Hilary: Well the book is written by a biologist and a sociologist. What you were seeing as biology and politics, it has to be biology, sociology and politics. I work on the sociology of science, Steven is a neuroscientist and we share a great deal of our politics (although not all) in common. So that really is the mix. It’s the three things and the book is a constant managing of the epistemological gap between, particularly, sociology and biology.

Sam: What is this relation?

Hilary: The fights within biology connect to the failure or success of particular scientific developments. We don’t simply see these developments as taking place in some sort of internalist conception of science; we see science and society as mutually producing one another, mutually shaping one another. Not just now and then, but the whole time. And that is really very complicated to get hold of, because you can’t rip those arguments about science entirely out of their social context. So you have these very complex moves going on and it’s that we were trying to grasp. To bring out the problems within the scientific narrative and why certain things failed, taking it back into the culture and the globalised economy and how that shapes and influences the science.

Sam: What failures are we talking about?

Steven: Well the Genome Project and the BioBank project have failed to produce the material goods in terms of health and wealth that they promised and they have made some people extremely rich and given certain companies major markets but they haven’t produced the new drugs and they haven’t produced the new insights into the causes of common diseases.

Hilary: There have been a few successes with gene therapy though their promises were huge.

Steven: One of the arguments of the book is that the promises made by the molecular geneticists were promises that could not be fulfilled because they didn’t understand the biology; that is they didn’t understand the complexity of development.

Sam: Reductionism works very well for physics and chemistry. Why not biology?

Hilary: Well you might hear certain biologists, whole organism biologists, muttering that the gene centred biologists aren’t really biologists. They are physicists and they approach the living organism by disaggregating it without much capacity to put it together again or to connect their disaggregation to the whole organism. [Turning to Steve] Do you think that’s reasonable?

Steven: I agree. Indeed I would go further and say you cannot reduce biochemistry to chemistry because the moment you try to make this reduction you lose the dynamism, you lose the biochemical processes and you lose sight of the way that the biochemical activities are constrained by the properties of the cell in which they are embedded. So you cannot work down to explain the properties of the cell entirely in terms of the properties of the molecule it is composed of. The cell represents a different level of organisation.

Sam: I wonder whether the limitations of scientific reductionism are germane to science in general. It was Jean Piaget who remarked that ‘to note the existence of wholes at different levels and to remark that at a given moment the higher “emerges” from the lower is to locate a problem, not to solve it.’ 

Steven: I wouldn’t accept that. Hilary would say that the concept of levels is misleading and it is more appropriate to speak of different discourses. For me as a biologist however it is a very interesting quote, but it doesn’t solve the problem of relationships between levels which demands different ways of thinking. But also on recognising that certain levels and forms of explanation are only relevant to particular levels. So take Mary Midgley’s example—you couldn’t play football if the laws of physics didn’t hold, but the laws of physics can’t help you explain the rules of football. You have to understand the rules of football at quite a different level of organisation.

Sam: How do we decide when we should use a biological level of analysis and when we should use a cultural analysis?

Hilary: I think when biologists are actually doing science they can’t afford to think about social shaping, it’s just not possible. You have a job to do in the laboratory and you have to get on and do it. But it’s quite different when you are trying to think about where the science is going, why is it developing in this way and not that way. Steven has been arguing for a long time against reductionism and is therefore hostile to the human genome project; whereas I saw it as an overinvestment in research almost certainly directed more to wealth and health. So I came about it from a very different way. But both of us would agree that the project was unlikely to work.

Steven: To add to what Hilary was saying you can’t separate biology and culture because they are interpenetrating all the time.

Hilary: The classical one is IQ. What the biometricians tried to do with studying intelligence was to borrow a measure from a lovely Frenchman (Alfred Binet) who was trying to work out how to help teach learning disabled children. They however reified the IQ score into something they see as an absolute measure of intelligence. Whereas people like me would say that IQ scores measure what IQ scores measure—nothing more and nothing less. They are trying to peel apart culture, and, to use a thoroughly pejorative word, fantasise the biological element. It is probably one of the classical cases of something that is fundamentally a mistaken project.

Sam: Why?

Hilary: Supposing they ask you a series of questions which you have had nothing to do with culturally. Take Inuits and their reindeer herding practices. You or I would look like an idiot. If on the other hand I asked you something that you do know about, which any white male, highly educated, living in the west, would know—you would look very clever.

Sam: But surely your example of IQ is one you would apportion to culture not biology.

Steven: No

Hilary: No. It’s precisely the reverse. It is precisely what people who do this work try to do. Whereas we would give it as an example (each of us for slightly different reasons), mine because they are working with impossible measures.

Sam: Okay let me take back the word ‘apportion’. Let’s just say that the example you gave would reflect cultural not biological differences.

Hilary: No, they do neither. You cannot separate the two. If you do you are endeavouring to apportion. The thing that they are trying to measure is inherently flawed because it’s based in culture. We can’t even say the culture within this country, because we are multicultural. How can we get a measure in a multicultural society—and I would say that all societies are multicultural regardless of how homogeneous they look to the outsider, how can you take a measurement when your yard isn’t a yard? That is fundamentally to me what the matter is with it.

Steven: There are two bits to the IQ debate. One is—is there a thing called ‘intelligence’ which you can measure which is embedded and embodied inside the brain and inside the individual or rather as Hilary was saying, a sort of cultural [turning to Hilary] can I say construct?

[Hilary nods]

The second part of it is the insistence of the people measuring IQ claim. Firstly that you can put a numerical number score on it—so you can rank the entire population. And secondly you can divide, for any individual or group, what proportion of their differences in intelligence is due to their genetics and which is due to environment. You cannot make those divisions.

Hilary: The other biological issue is development which is as much social as it is biological because the two are constantly going together. It doesn’t mean to say that either narrative is wrong. But it does mean that it is a mistake to say whether it is more genetic or more cultural. Sociologists have a nice concept. We say we can’t speak of nature here and culture there, you can only speak of nature/culture. However that doesn’t mean to say that we don’t recognise the story of biologists as real—it’s just that what we say is that all the time they are producing their stories about nature, those very stories themselves are culturally influenced. Equally I can’t produce a story about culture without nature being right in there in the very production of the story.

Sam: So you are criticising the separation of biological and cultural questions; the endeavour of finding, say the genetic component....

Hilary: You want component all the time—there isn’t an adequate conceptualisation.

Sam: What about the rest of nature? Is there an adequate biological conception of other organisms? Or should we be looking at organisms in terms of their culture?

Steven: As a biologist I would say that you can’t ignore development and put the gene rather than the organism at the centre of biological understanding. The argument made by molecular biologists is that ‘in the beginning, at the origin of life, there was DNA and life is defined by the existence of a self replicating molecule’. That is categorically wrong because DNA does not self replicate—it needs an environment, a cell in which it is embedded, a multitude of enzymes and within a biologically living membrane. You can’t understand cells without placing them within the framework of the organism and you cannot understand the organism without its embedded environmental context (which includes predators and prey and the physical and material world around it). I am not talking about culture here, I am talking about ‘reductionism’ in the context of understanding living systems.

Sam: If reductionism doesn’t work, what would a genuinely holistic account of human beings and human society look like?

Hilary: I don’t think that is feasible. There are different disciplines. They all have their own canons, their rules of procedure, and we have to respect the other disciplines, but also recognise the danger that just because one has a very good biological hammer, it doesn’t mean the entire universe is a nail. The way things are going we are likely to land up with some very interesting biology but nonetheless one that can’t grapple with the kind of problems it might have been able to, if it hadn’t lost the organism - which produces a different biological narrative and perhaps one that is more useful.

Steven: Well it’s coming back now through epigenetics.

Sam: Can you explain what epigenetics is?

Steven: It is a recognition that you cannot reduce the complexity of being human to our 20,000 genes. You have to understand the way we -or any other organism - use those bits of DNA during the developmental process to generate the cells, proteins and so on. Epigenetics is the beginning of the way geneticists are approaching the question of development. And that is to understand the ways that the organism actively picks on particular genes at particular times in the developmental process. It is the start of understanding why it is that only 2% of the DNA in the human genome is composed of genes (DNA sequences) that code for proteins. The overwhelming majority of the rest, what they used to call junk DNA, is part of the way in which the cell chooses, uses, translates, edits, joins together, links up different bits of DNA in order to make the products it needs.

Sam: You mentioned that it began in the 1930s?

Hilary: Yes, with Joseph Needham and co. They were an extraordinary group of biologists who began to think about this. But they just couldn’t develop it theoretically or technologically. They could not translate it into doable research. Competing with them were the geneticists and biochemists and the giant funding agency, Rockefeller, which opted for the molecular approach.

Sam: Is there a modern equivalent to Rockefeller?

Hilary: If you want to talk about modern examples Wellcome, the world’s biggest non-governmental biomedical funder, is not a passive player and which has funded UK BioBank. So you know, we have been talking about very subtle things which I as a sociologist, you as a philosopher would recognise. But it is also about incredibly clunky obvious things like –if you put in £100 million onto something, it’s going to grow. A lot of scientists will stop doing what they were doing, and go after the money. This type of science requires vast amounts of money. There is a difference between Darwin doing his researches in his own garden and the Wellcome funded Sanger Institute in Cambridge with its multimillion pound DNA sequencers.

Sam: There is quite a bewildering description in your book of the various political interests involved at various levels of scientific inquiry from genetic science to neuroscience.

Steven: Yes but broadly we can say that the science has gone the way it has because the molecularisation and digitalisation of life is particularly suitable and attractive to current modes of production. To reduce the complexity of human biosocial life to individual units - genes - which control us, which can be manipulated, added to or subtracted from the living cell fits nicely with Margaret Thatcher’s claim that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families.

Sam: There is also government and corporate interests in cell and neurotechnology. Could you summarise what we should be most concerned with?

Hilary: A very British approach is the desire to be ahead of the game, particularly in stem cell research. They’ve tried to achieve this by having robust but very modest regulation. They keep the ethical bar quite low and this is extremely convenient for the growth of science. Britain has committed itself to as fast production as possible, getting ahead, hoping to catch the science, hoping to catch the markets. Sideways evidence of this is if you ask any civil servant in the department which funds science (BIS) ‘What is science policy?’ they will tell you ‘wealth creation’. That is what UK plc want to get out of science.

Steven: At the level of neuroscience, the drivers also include the military, especially in the US, with their interest in new surveillance techniques and new forms of weaponry. Bizarrely the gaming industry is very interested in brain computer interfaces to expand their potential market. The pharmaceutical industry is a major player. The numbers of those estimated to suffer from depression or anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or other similar categories have simply rocketed up so that at any one time at least 30% of the population of Europe ‘ought’ to be on some form of psychotropic drug. So the major drivers include industry, aided by pressure from patients groups and people in psychic pain, and the military.

Sam: Can you elaborate on the military?

Hilary: We wouldn’t have Artificial Intelligence (AI) without military funding.

Steven: Virtually the whole of the development of AI in America from the end of the Second World War to the 1980s was funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and it is DARPA that has been pressing forward with new techniques to improve thought reading, mind scanning, brain surveillance techniques and brain disorientation techniques.

Hilary: They are hoping to be able to put your head in an MRI scan and tell whether you are a potential psychopath or better still, a potential terrorist. I mean we are talking pure snake oil here.

Sam: You describe neuroscience as a fully fledged technoscience...

Steven: Most of the findings that have come out are essentially driven by the technologies available. So you wouldn’t be able to do brain imaging without the MRIs, the MEGs. So the science and the technologies are inextricable. The machines both make possible the science and help shape how it is understood.

Hilary: You can’t talk about science apart from the technology anymore. It’s meaningless.

Sam: Hasn’t that always been a feature of science? I mean people like Galileo and Descartes were artisans.

Hilary: Yes and no. I mean they could make their own technology. In most areas of science that’s no longer possible. Craig Venter’s superfast sequencing of the human genome was only possible because of his collaboration with Mike Hunkapiller’s company which invented and manufactured the sequencers. But neither of us is trying to rubbish the whole of genome research. It’s produced much interesting science, and, some very positive health related outcomes.

Sam: I was going to mention that. One of the things you brought up in the book is the genetic disorder ‘familial hypercholesterolaemia’ (FH) which Hilary you suffer from. This discovery and the effective treatment of it would not have been possible without genetic research.

Hilary: Well the drugs that were found to treat FH were not found with genetics and I didn’t need a genetic test for diagnosis. A cholesterol test is sufficient. On the broader issue though, if you took a completely totalising view and said that nothing anyone did in a capitalist culture would ever produce worthwhile knowledge—that would really be a flat earth statement, and neither of us are flat earthers. Of course it produces knowledge, but what we are asking is—is this the kind of knowledge that those of us who want to extend social justice in the world, really want to have? Or do we want science to move in another direction?

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First published: 20 February, 2013

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