Excerpt from “The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America”

9/29/11

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charge is the case with embryo-related research. In 2005 the Genetics and Public Policy Center found that three-quarters of Americans opposed human embryo cloning for research. A 2008 survey sponsored by the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center found that when the question of embryonic stem cell research is put in terms of curing disease most favored the research, but when described as destroying embryos a small majority opposed it. Five polls by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life from 2004 to 2007 found that a majority agreed that it was “more important to continue stem cell research that might produce new medical cures than to avoid destroying the human embryos used in the research.”

These results suggest how conflicted Americans are about basic questions of science and ethics. This is nothing new; deep-seated worries about science that are as old as the Enlightenment itself have been poured into bottles made new by the experiences of the twentieth century. The sociologist John Evans has found that conservative Protestant religious groups in the United States do not reject science per se. Rather, they “are opposed to scientists’ influence in public affairs not because they do not agree with their methods, but for moral reasons. . . . [T]he relationship between religious persons and science is far more subtle than the dominant assumption of religious opposition to science due to a total rejection of scientific methodology.” The problem is not mistrust of science so much as it is mistrust of scientists.

Biopolitics refers to the ways that society attempts to gain control over the power of the life sciences. Although ideas about the role of biology in politics may be found at the earliest stages of Western philosophy,biopolitics promises to become far more prominent as the power of the modern life sciences becomes ever more obvious. The old politics of biology operated in the dark about the underlying mechanisms in question. The new politics of biology arise in the midst of rapidly growing understanding of basic life processes, with seemingly limitless opportunities to direct individual and social change. Simply put, in the modern politics of biology the stakes are about as big as they can get. The modern abortion controversy has elements of both biology in politics and the politics of biology, especially as it has been a recurrent theme in the United States since the 1970s. As an example of biology in politics, the positions taken by pro-life and pro-choice forces have served as organizing principles. In an example of the politics of biology, each side attempts to manage the power behind the decision to continue a pregnancy or not. But the binary simplicity of the abortion decision itself (i.e., to abort or not) and the relative straightforwardness of the positions one may take on this issue in its strictly political sense (pro-life or pro-choice) are being vastly outstripped by the scenarios forced upon us by the new biology. As biological knowledge grows and as its applications become available, far more complicated and subtle new issues will emerge that can be brought under the heading of biopolitics, the new politics of biology.

[Editor's Note: This post is an excerpt from Jonathan Moreno's upcoming book, "The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America"]

Jonathan D. Moreno is one of thirteen Penn Integrates Knowledge university professors at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, of History and Sociology of Science, and of Philosophy. In 2008-09 he served as a member of President Barack Obama’s transition team. Follow @

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  • Saumitra

    Great article – can draw parallels with masterpieces like ‘Selfish Gene’ or ‘The God Delusion’ by the most famous atheist of all – Richard Dawkins. Religion and faith are there to strengthen ourselves and not to weaken. We should rem’ber – Service to mankind is service to God !

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