Biotech is about more than ownership. It’s about what human beings are

Last week’s announcement that the federal government will seek to legalise a new technique aimed at eliminating mitochondrial disease, a rare but potentially fatal condition that robs the body’s cells of energy, is unlikely to cause much of a stir on the left. As many Arena editors and contributors have argued over the years, debates about new biotechnologies (whether IVF or cloning or genetic modification) tend to devolve quickly into sub-Galilean stoushes between science and religion, with the question resolved, increasingly, in favour of the former. The stem-cell-research controversy is a case in point, and I’ve no doubt the debate around the gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 will follow suit. Generally speaking, little room is given for humanistic and social reflection, let alone political theorisation.

Certainly the material Left has been largely absent from the debate about biotechnology as it relates to the nature of human being. Of course, it remains suspicious of ‘big’ biotech, especially as it concerns GM crops and the patenting of new seed varieties, where the issue is principally one of ownership. But otherwise it will tend to line up alongside (or behind) the scientific community, accepting new techniques and procedures as steps towards humankind’s mastery of nature. In Fully Automated Luxury Communism, British author Aaron Bastani provides a stunningly incurious example of this approach, suggesting that CRISPR is no different in principle from all previous endeavours to improve human health. ‘[H]ow much difference is there between improving nutrition for health outcomes and optimising our biological programming?’ asks Bastani, before answering his own question with a blasé ‘Not much’.

The more general cultural reverence for ‘progress’ is now such that the government’s legislation is almost certain to pass both houses, and to do so without any of the agonising that has accompanied other ‘conscience’ issues, such as the voluntary-euthanasia debate in Victoria in 2017. For while ‘mitochondrial donation’ involves a rather more radical procedure than its media pet name ‘three-person IVF’ would suggest (it allows for the creation of an embryo containing nuclear material from a parent couple and mitochondria from a female donor), it is a lot less novel and attention-grabbing than the luminous puppies, neutered mosquitoes and self-injecting tech libertarians of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing phenomenon. It will also, we are assured, prevent much suffering, a lot of it children’s suffering.

Nevertheless, socialists should take this opportunity—should take every opportunity—to think carefully about the ‘advances’ taking place in the biotech sector, not only at the level of ownership but also at the level of the technology itself. Yes, it is crucial to prevent human suffering. But we also need an intellectual framework within which to consider the scientistic thinking involved in the biotech sector generally, and how it relates, at a deep level, to the more recent neoliberal turn in cybernetic capitalism. Not to do this would be a huge dereliction, a failure to engage meaningfully with what will be one of the twenty-first century’s defining processes.

As it stands, the objections put forward in the Senate report on mitochondrial donation all come from religious bodies, who object to assisted reproductive technologies in general, and on principle, on the grounds that they necessitate the creation of excess embryos, which are often destroyed or used in research. For them, the proposed procedure, which requires the destruction of one embryo in order to furnish another with healthy mitochondria, violates the dignity that is owed to human life. To paraphrase the Plunkett Centre for Ethics (part of the Australian Catholic University), it treats human life as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself.

The report dismisses these concerns, saying that it sees no ‘new’ ethical dilemmas, and I doubt very much that the parliament (which will be permitted a conscience vote) will come to a different view. As Simon Cooper has written, the scientific status of biotech is such that it is seen as ‘inherently ethical’. The one ethical consideration that might have stymied the process—the medical imperative to ‘do no harm’—is the one that is likely to ensure its passing: not to pass the legislation would be to do ‘harm’ to future sufferers.

The means–end distinction is a good one, however, and one needn’t be religious to take it on board. For the notion that (potential) human beings—that life—can be ‘mined’ or even created in order to provide other human beings with the material they need to be healthy and happy represents a momentous shift in how we view human being itself, when compared to earlier historical eras. Combine this ‘techno-scientific’ outlook with the ‘ends’ sought by neoliberal capitalism—endless commodification in pursuit of profit—and the potential for disaster increases. Guy Rundle has written about the potential for a ‘catastrophe of human self-transformation through technologies—of media, brain, body—that would so effectively “unground” the species that there is a collapse of the capacity for meaningful or rich shared existence’. Marbled as they are into a human desire for good health and longevity, new and emerging biotechnologies could well be a step along that road.

As Sheila Jasanoff suggests in Can Science Make Sense of Life?, biology’s move from the ‘field’ to the laboratory in the nineteenth century changed our view of life dramatically. Thanks to innovations in instrumentation, we began for the first time to see elements of life that we couldn’t see with the naked eye, with the result that the very idea of life began to move away from the social, the visible and the environmental. At the same time the notion began to take hold that we might be able to manipulate nature at the most fundamental level, as opposed to simply harnessing its power or insulating ourselves from its dangers—a shift analogous to the splitting of the atom at Trinity in 1945. Ever on the lookout for new opportunities, capitalism was intimately involved in this process, which was catalysed in the 1990s as neoliberalism hit its stride and the (partly private) Human Genome Project worked to ‘decode the book of life’. Today, the biotech industry is considered to be worth over $100 billion in the United States alone. Globally, it is expected to surpass $700 billion by 2025.

To believe that the emergence of biotechnology, which instrumentalises biological knowledge, has had no effect on our view of human being is naive, to put it delicately. In fact, what has happened is that we have come to see life in an entirely novel way—one implicit in Bastani’s phrase ‘biological programming’. The Human Genome Project in particular has encouraged us to see ourselves in informational terms, a perspective that has merged over time with developments in cognitive science, which regards mental processes (and humans themselves) as essentially computational. Increasingly, and in ways that are deeply related to the cybernetic reorganisation of capitalism, we are beginning to think of ourselves as no different in kind to other technologies—as ‘biological algorithms’, to use Yuval Noah Harari’s phrase. (Harari, by the way, is an advocate for this view, claiming that there is no essential difference between a coffee machine and the human being using it. This similarity of vision in part explains why he can be critical of Silicon Valley and yet warmly embraced by its CEOs)

As Jasanoff notes, breakthroughs in the life sciences have made it more acceptable for biologists to claim ownership of the meaning of life, with the result that biology’s material descriptions have gradually taken on prescriptive force. The danger, she writes, is that ‘life devolves into just another object of conscious design, valued mainly for our ability to manipulate it, commodify it, and profit unequally from those acts of appropriation’. Nor is this danger entirely theoretical. In order to set people’s minds at ease, advocates for mitochondrial donation will sometimes compare it to organ donation (mitochondria are ‘organelles’—subcellular structures that perform certain jobs in the cell, much as organs do in the body). But organ donation has not been without its ethical complexities or problematic aspects . For example, many people in the global South have literally dismembered themselves in order to meet the demand for replacement organs. Though by no means the only factor at work, the biologistic view of human beings as autonomous aggregations of stuff may be partly responsible for such dehumanisation, especially when combined with the utilitarianism at the heart of neoliberal capitalism.

The vote on mitochondrial donation may seem a long way from such considerations. But the point is that such practices become increasingly acceptable the more we view ourselves and each other as biologically malleable. For such technologies challenge what it is to be human, alienating us from ourselves and others, abstracting us from the embodied, relational experience that is just as fundamental to our humanity as the make-up of our DNA. Reproduction is a social relationship, not merely a biological phenomenon. To legalise mitochondrial donation may indeed be the moral thing to do, but the broader trend of which it is part requires thoroughgoing analysis, not only by religious groups but also by a material Left whose best traditions have always placed science within a radical humanist frame, not the other way about.

The Small Matter of Our Humanity

Simon Cooper, 2002

It is a measure of how the biotech revolution threatens to reconstruct our taken-for-granted ways of being that nobody really wants to talk about it.

About the author

Richard King

Richard King is an author and critic based in Fremantle. His website is The Bloody Crossroads.

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As you describe so well in this article and your last, Richard, the Trinity test and mitochondria mining are key markers of a larger process that perhaps was first marked by the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. Here techno-science intersected with the state during a hot-then-cold war to accelerate the task of reconstituting what had been considered one of the building blocks of matter. The project built upon an emerging line of intellectual intervention to relativize both the meaning and practice of ‘the natural’. Niels Bohr’s quantum theory had unsettled modern laws of dynamics and spatial measurement, just as Albert Einstein’s theory of temporal–material relativity had signaled an emergent way of rethinking (and unsettling) the nature of time itself. This is what might be called the postmodernization of science, an emerging layer overlaying the continuing modern emphasis on test tubes, machines, and patterned hypotheses. Now we are doing it to ourselves. Thanks for making the connection.

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