A deep divide wrought by the discovery of the double helix

By Sean Hughes, Contributing Writer

Jonathan Moreno’s “The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America” bridges the academic and popular genres. It is an erudite and sophisticated work, covering a considerable amount of intellectually substantial material in less than two hundred pages of narrative. Moreno’s aim — in which he succeeds — is to provide an historical and philosophical framework to enrich present bioethical debates.

The march of science is a particularly American issue because the notion of progress and belief in science were central to the country’s founding. With the development of the country led by scientifically inclined people such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, it “is fair to say that no nation has ever been founded by people who were more oriented toward the pursuit and propagation of knowledge than the United States.” Indeed, the form of government was itself an experiment. The influence of the founders’ pro-science philosophy can still be seen today in patent laws that allow the patenting of genes, Moreno suggests.

Yet tension has long existed between a desire for scientific progress and concern over science’s tendency to undermine the shared assumptions of society and life’s mysteries. So, too, has science long been exploited for nefarious ends: eugenics, unethical medical experiments, atomic weapons. The controversies playing out today over possible misuse of new knowledge are but contemporary manifestations of ambivalence toward science.

Nonetheless, Moreno identifies the elucidation of the structure of DNA as a transition into a new period, a shift from empirical studies of biology to rational manipulation of the mechanisms of life. Since that change, the rapid pace of scientific discovery has brought more and more heated debates. New alliances have formed in response to these changes, upending traditional right-left divides. Moreno argues that debates are best understood as between “bioconservatives,” those on the right and left who are skeptical of scientific advances, and “bioprogressives,” who are broadly pro-science.

Moreno is openly a bioprogressive, but “The Body Politic” is no screed. He rigorously and fairly examines the arguments of bioconservatives on the right and left; in so doing he unveils the philosophical and historical frameworks underlying the conflicts.

Rightist critiques of biotechnology tend to be based in metaphysical and philosophical concern over the ramifications developments such as genetic engineering have for human dignity and the concept of naturalness. In a surprising but compelling turn, Moreno argues that in addition to being heavily influenced by a number of German philosophers, it is Karl Marx in particular who provides the intellectual foundation for the arguments of bioconservatives on the right. Central to their arguments are Marxist notions of alienation and commodification, applied to biotechnology rather than capitalism, but coming to similar conclusions.

Bioconservatives on the left tend to be concerned with possible environmental and social justice consequences of biotechnological developments, such as pollution and corporate control of indigenous farming practices. Moreno argues, in fact, that leftist bioconservatives are more likely to pragmatically aim to reduce the negative consequences of biotechnology than to reject it wholesale.

Outside of this cerebral sphere, debates over bioethics have become politicized and heated. They’ve led to tragic spectacles such as the prolonged media attention paid to Terri Schiavo, who, while in a vegetative state, was the center of a seven-year legal battle to remove her from life support. (Two weeks after her feeding tube was removed in March 2005, Schiavo died.) Moreover, profound differences in what issues become salient in different regions suggest that rarefied academic discourse doesn’t always transfer equally into the political sphere. For example, European publics are much more likely than the American public to object to genetically modified food — to the extent of keeping it out of their markets — while Americans are much more moved by all things embryonic than are Europeans.

Perhaps most significantly, Moreno argues for an offensive — rather than defensive — attitude toward biotechnology. The notion of human dignity and the definition of naturalness have essentially been ceded to bioconservatives; Moreno reclaims these for bioprogressives. As he illustrates, to do so is quite simple: advancements in the life sciences lead to longer, healthier lives, giving us the ability to thrive in previously unimagined ways and thus providing the possibility of heightened human dignity. Moreover, naturalness need not be defined by bioconservatives. After all, is not the use and development of ever better tools a fundamentally human trait?

“The Body Politic” is a challenging and rewarding work for the serious student of the interface between society and the life sciences.

Reprinted from Real Change Newspaper, Seattle, Wash.

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