Trust me

Steven Shapin

  • French DNA: Trouble in Purgatory by Paul Rabinow
    Chicago, 201 pp, £17.50, October 1999, ISBN 0 226 70150 6

The DNA molecule is as interesting in social theory as it is in science. It is the great Modernist molecule: the ultimate chemical basis of our common humanity, what makes biologically equivalent all those whom the Enlightenment supposed to be created equal. The fact that we know these things about DNA testifies to the authority of the greatest Modernist cultural enterprise, the natural sciences. DNA is also an anti-Modernist molecule: a molecular warrant for all the natural differences the conservative thinker could ever want to identify and insist on – differences between unique individuals, between the sexes, races and nations. From this point of view the idea of French DNA – its distinctive populational characteristics – makes as much sense as the idea of, say, Bill Clinton’s DNA. And DNA is a Post-Modernist molecule, since fragments of our contemporary expert culture insist that the reflexive condition for believing these things about DNA, or indeed disbelieving them, is ultimately ascribable to the workings of DNA itself, while the knowledge of those workings is an authentic item of our culture. So what are the intellectual, institutional and legal schemes of things in terms of which the Frenchness of DNA might come to be insisted on?

The question at issue is no longer what anthropologists and sociologists should make of biology: whether they should seek ‘consilience’ and model their inquiries on those conducted by their more influential colleagues in the natural sciences, so pursuing the reduction of human action to biological bases. That’s an old argument, though biological reductionism – recovering nicely from the embarrassments of eugenics and Nazi science – is enjoying a notable return to social scientific favour.

The new question is one that has not confronted social scientists before because the realities that occasion it have not existed before: what sense should they make of a world in which biomedical science bids to create not just new social realities but new sorts of social actor? Exotic infertility medicine produces practical challenges to the integrity and adequacy of existing kinship categories. More ordinary biomedical technologies require both theoretical and practical responses to questions about the Rights of Man unimaginable to Jefferson or the Jacobins. Under what conditions may human body parts be commodified – seemingly mundane bits like skin, blood and corneas as well as fancier ones like eggs, sperm, fetal tissue, kidneys and, crucially, genes and personal genetic information? What place in our social classifications is to be made for the hybrid entities that bio-medicine is ushering into being – prosthetic, transfused, transplanted, transgenic? Who are we as biological entities, and how do we make descriptive and prescriptive distinctions between the inalienable components of self and the commodifiable bits of not-self? What are the rights and values pertaining to this ‘we’ whose configuration advances in biomedical science require us to decide on and even to enshrine in law? Who can alienate our biologically constituent parts and under what circumstances?

We’re familiar with both the hype and the paranoia, and the scepticism they engender is wholly healthy. It may be some-years-to-never before we, or our clones, become immortal, while the best defences against a biotechnologically empowered Big Brother remain the democratic responsiveness of political institutions, the transparency of political decision-making, and the will of the media to create an informed populace. But between the hype and the paranoia the realities are already slipping less noisily upon us, whether our legal structures and cultural sensibilities are ready for them or not. And the realities are quite wonderful – and disturbing – enough.

If physics occupied the leading edge of scientific modernity-making fifty to a hundred years ago, biomedicine plausibly does so now, presenting social scientists concerned to describe and interpret the present order of things with a series of related questions about the biomedical sciences. What does late modernity look like from the point of view of these sciences? What kinds of social world are they helping into existence? What social configurations are they using to effect their ends? And, given the enormous influence possessed by biomedical scientists, who are these people and what is the nature of the institutions in which they work? What moral warrants stand behind their claims to truth and their authority to realise the consequent technologies?

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