Book Review: The Body Politic by Jonathan D. Moreno

Posted: October 17, 2012 in Ethics, Policy, Science, Science Communication

I recently finished reading The Body Politic, The Battle Over Science In America, by Jonathan D. Moreno. While I would not label this book as light summer reading, I found the discussion accessible and that the book provided a great background on biopolitics.

Dr. Moreno is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and editor-in-chief for the Center for American Progress’ Science Progress. He is “a philosopher and historian who specializes in the intersection of bioethics, culture, science, and national security, and has published seminal works on the history, sociology and politics of biology and medicine.”

In the preface Dr. Moreno states, “My goal in this book is not to suggest final answers to the ethical questions, but to develop a larger historical, philosophical, and cultural framework that can enrich the moral conversation.” Over the past eight years Dr. Moreno has given presentations and talks at universities and professional organizations around the world and the information that appears in The Body Politic are based on these discussions.

The book starts with a question. Who owns science? The discussion that follows deals with the mistrust many Americans have in science and scientists and the reasons for said distrust. Next is a description of biopolitics. Dr. Moreno defines biopolitics as “the ways that society attempts to gain control over the power of the life sciences.” Dr. Moreno claims that traditional left-right political leanings do not directly follow people’s issues and fears pertaining to science and biomedical research. He uses embryonic stem cell research as an example. “Some on the left oppose these changes as further threats to human equality, while some on the right worry about the implications for human dignity.” Moreno posits that mainstream bioprogressives favor private enterprise, much like the usual business conservatives.

Chapter one deals with science in America and the influence of science and scientific thought on the crafting of the constitution and the philosophy of early political figures such as Tomas Jefferson. Dr. Moreno explains that the Civil War and the subsequent creation of the National Academies of Science by President Lincoln were the first large instances of federal government investing in scientific enterprise. He explains that during this time, biology was much more based on observation rather than experimentation, and thus issues surrounding evolution and the origins of life were still yet to be had. He writes, “Nineteenth century obstacles to investment in science and innovation were financial and political, not moral.”

The general public’s support for basic scientific research has been maintained over the years, even during Ronald Regan’s presidency when America was seemingly retreating back to a more conservative mindset; “Whatever reservations Americans might have about the implications of science or the trustworthiness of scientists, at least in practical terms they are enthusiastic about the need to continue scientific research.” Although Dr. Moreno importantly warns, “Though Americans have resolved themselves to the value of governmental investment, they no longer identify scientific and technological progress with moral progress, as was the case a century ago.” For this reason it seems, Dr. Moreno focuses his book on biology and not chemistry or physics; moral dilemmas arising from biological research and technology far outnumber those arising from research topics in chemistry or physics.

Chapter two deals with heredity and eugenics. Moreno writes, “ Many classical philosophers similarly argued that the lives of citizens belong not to themselves but to the state. Without citizens, they reasoned, there would be no state, and the state thus has the right to enforce its interest in survival.” This line of reasoning formed the basis for eugenics and selective breeding carried out in the early 1900s. Moreno argues that because the government had a responsibility to improve the human condition, politicians were able to justify sterilization procedures as a way to decrease the burden on the state and thus the burden on its population. The disaster that was eugenics has far reaching implications for recent advances in genetic testing. Dr. Moreno writes, “Defenders of modern genetics note that the question now is not one of state control but of personal choice, or the advent of consumer rather than state eugenics.” Again, people’s beliefs surrounding prenatal genetic testing do not toe traditional party lines. People from both sides of the political spectrum oppose many forms of prenatal genetic testing; conservatives mainly because of their opposition to ‘playing god’ and progressives mainly because of their fear that such technology will unfairly favor the wealthy and thus lead to a further distancing between socioeconomic classes.

Chapter three deals with the increasing mistrust in science and scientists by the general public. Dr. Moreno writes, “Even if the biologists don’t literally create a new world in the wake of synthetic biology, genetics, and a raft of related disciplines and technologies, the old one will never be the same.” Previously, people have held clearly defined views of nature and human existence, but with recent advances in genetic technologies and synthetic biology, these previously clear lines are beginning to become blurred, and Dr. Moreno hypothesizes that it is the unknown and unfamiliar blurring that scares people. Many fear that advances in science and technology will impinge on human dignity and privacy and give too much power to government and/or large corporations. Adding to people’s mistrust in scientific enterprise is the ever-increasing mistrust of government control. Dr. Moreno explains that in order to be successful, governmental agencies will have to demonstrate and prove to the American public that they can be “legitimate stewards of the power of the new biology.” Also significant to the ‘legitimation crisis’ is the increase in global science endeavors in the 21st century. “Science now proceeds as a global political force of its own through what has been called a “world policy,” resistant to local cultural sensitivities.” Moreno suggests that the answer to the increasing mistrust in science is not only to increase science education for the general public, but also to increase scientists’ knowledge of and sympathy toward public concerns and fears. Certainly there are numerous governmental and private organizations that aim to help scientists engage the general public, but a necessary step is scientists willing to invest the time and effort required for such public outreach.

Chapter four deals with the stem cell debate, cloning, and attempts at creating a bioethics commission within the US Congress. Dr. Moreno writes, “The scientific promise of human embryonic stem cell research, when set against the question of the embryo’s moral status, acted as a wedge in fissures that had scarred over. It also contributed to the decisive and perhaps irreversible transformation of bioethics into biopolitics, the politicization of the ethics of biology.” As he has consistently pointed out throughout the book, Dr. Moreno again provides evidence that this new biopolitics does not follow traditional left-right political framework. Both Presidents Bush and Clinton restricted stem cell research and this at least in part resulted in the increase of biomedical scientists becoming involved in “…vigorous political activity for the first time during the 2008 presidential campaign, as they rallied around candidates they saw as friendlier to science.”

Chapter five, one of my favorites but also one of the most difficult, gives a thorough description of the philosophies behind bioconservative and bioprogressive thought. Dr. Moreno writes, “A particular pair of linked themes cuts across the left-right spectrum and at least superficially unifies the bioconservatives: commodification and alienation.” Commodification is the ability of the free market to turn the body or parts of the body into items of monetary value. Right leaning bioconservatives worry about how commercialization of the human body could undermine traditional values and human dignity. Alternatively, left leaning bioconservatives worry about how commercialization of the human body could aggravate social and economic inequalities already plaguing the country. Dr. Moreno spends time discussing how Marxism and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger shapes bioconservative thought. He contrasts such thought with that of the transhumanists. Moreno quotes Nick Bostrom, “[t]ranshumanism holds that current human nature is improvable through the use of applied science and other rational methods, which may make it possible to increase human health-span, extend our intellectual and physical capacities, and give us increased control over our own mental states and moods.” Transhumanists are among the left’s bioprogressives while libertarians make up much of the right’s.

Chapter six deals with abortion and the right to life and the recent advances in chimera and hybrid technologies and synthetic biology. At the end of the chapter Dr. Moreno writes, “….in our biopolitical preoccupation with biological breakthroughs we might be allowing history to effect a sort of sleight of hand, where the real action (and dangers) are in neuroscience rather than say genetics or stem cells.” Everyone knows that abortion and stem cells are huge political issues, but no one is yet talking about how advances in both neuroscience and computer science may have huge ethical and moral implications in the near future. “The motivating idea of biopolitics has been the fear of biology without humanity. The converse, humanity without biology, might rather be what we should worry about.”

In the seventh and final chapter Dr. Moreno makes a case for science progress. He writes, “As the new bioethical issues emerge and flow into the new biopolitics, progressives need to link technological advance to individual opportunity and a greater sense of social solidarity. Bioprogressives should acknowledge that not all applications of new knowledge are acceptable and should urge a shared sense of responsibility for the direction of science. At the same time, a robust appreciation for the importance of innovation must be central to any progressive philosophy.”

Overall I very much enjoyed reading this book. I found the history of biopolitics, from the framing of the constitution to current day debates regarding genetic testing, very enlightening. Prior to reading The Body Politic, I knew little of the philosophy regarding conservative and liberal views on scientific progress. I do wish Dr. Moreno spent a bit more time explaining bioprogressive thoughts on the right. While I understand that libertarians desire freedom from government, you just have to listen to Ron Paul’s opinions on abortion to realize that its not just that simple. I particularly appreciated Dr. Moren’s suggestion that scientists need to do a better job of understanding the fears and reservations people have regarding scientific progress. The Seattle chapter of the Forum on Science Ethics and Policy (FOSEP) is hosting the election night Science Café put on by the Pacific Science Center. I am very much looking forward to the opportunity to engage the general public on science policy topics.

I agree with Paul Root Wolpe, Director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University, when he states “The Body Politic is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of American political thought about science, the dynamics of current controversies such the stem cell debate, and the battle between those who see science as a route to a better future and those who see within science the potential for a loss of our sense of human distinctiveness and dignity.”


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