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

9/29/11

No particular group, right or left or somewhere else, is immune from the sense that change is accelerating at an ever faster pace with each passing year. The experience of too-rapid change, whether trivial or profound, is a characteristic of modernity. Information technologies are perhaps the sentinel sources and examples of what Alvin Toffler called “future shock” in 1970, right around the time that a young Bill Gates programmed a GE computer his school purchased using proceeds from a rummage sale. Information scientists cite Moore’s law, the idea that computing capacity doubles every two years.

We’ve all experienced the anxiety, frustration, and even resentment that accompanies the introduction of a new version of a software product on which we depend, or the realization that people younger than ourselves have adopted a new technology that makes the pace and style of their lives seem very different from our own.

Reservations about rapid technological change are widely shared regardless of political party or philosophy. In America the tension between approval of science and worry about the rapid changes it can bring bubbles up in special ways when moral or cultural choices seem to be involved. We’ve seen this tension play out time and again in our seemingly endless controversies about the teaching of evolution, reproductive rights, the moral status of the human embryo, the origins of the universe, and nearly all the issues of science that relate to human values.

Sensitivities about science are understandable. People rightly feel that high stakes are involved when science pushes familiar boundaries, and most of all when it seems that our customary and largely workable moral framework is being challenged. Americans seem especially touchy about such challenges. Ours is in many ways a deeply conservative country where the vast majority (generally around ninety percent) consistently report that they believe in God. The prominence of faith among Americans becomes even more striking when compared with modern western Europe, the historic source of America’s core Enlightenment values of rationality and science. There, the proportion of believers is around fifty percent. Americans admire science but also treasure traditional values, which are in some ways threatened more by science than any other institution; our attitudes tend to assemble at the extremes. In this sense, America is both the principal product and the main stage for the ongoing drama of the Enlightenment. Here are these universal values of truth, freedom, and equality founded on reason rather than the authority of a church or sovereign rulers. But is reason enough, or does it threaten those very values?

The ever-quickening pace of discovery in biology is an especially volatile source of “wedge” issues in our politics because it puts into question our familiar values about life itself. These questions are particularly clear when human dignity seems to be threatened, as critics 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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