The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture
by Adam Robbert
Richard Lewontin has an excellent write up in the New York Review of Books on Evelyn Fox Keller’s new book The Mirage of Space Between Nature and Nurture. Lewontin is infamous for both his research in genetics and his Marxist approach to the political economy of science. With Lewontin we get the exceptional case of a theorist who is both highly trained in, and thoroughly critical of, his scientific profession. I have not had a chance to look at Keller’s new book, though from the sound of Lewontin’s review it seems relevant to those of us interested in problematizing and thinking deeper about notions of “nature” and “culture” as they relate to important topics in evolution, gender, identity, genomics, and the commodification of the scientific enterprise. Lewontin writes:
Evelyn Fox Keller sees “The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture” as a consequence of our false division of the world into living objects without sufficient consideration of the external milieu in which they are embedded, since organisms help create effective environments through their own life activities. Fox Keller is one of the most sophisticated and intelligent analysts of the social and psychological forces that operate in intellectual life and, in particular, of the relation of gender in our society both to the creation and acceptance of scientific ideas.
The discourse around genetics in news, media, and advertising always troubles me as it paints a picture that brings to mind the old preformationist images that dominated 19th century biology and easily slides into essentialist claims about identity and development. Such claims lack empirical evidence, and in my mind are more the ploy of high-tech research companies peddling you upgrades and treatments that lack scientific validity for the benefit of their own profit margins. The genetics industry is the bearer of the new snake-oil. This, however, is not simply an issue of greedy profiteers selling you products based on bad science (there is nothing new about that), but rather is connected to something far more insidious: the patenting of your own genetic structure by corporations, and the bioethical issues involved in the genetic modification of species. THIS NY Times article can give you some information on this frightening controversy, where the human genome is quickly being mined and patented for profit, as this quote indicates:
The court ruled that DNA isolated from the body was eligible for patents because it was “markedly different” in its chemical structure from DNA that exists inside the chromosomes in the body. As a result, the isolated DNA is not simply a product of nature, which would not be eligible for a patent.
All of sudden being able to label what is “nature” and what is “culture” becomes not just a epistemological or ontological issue, but a legal and ethical one. What is at stake in these conversations? Who gets to decide on these differences, particularly when there is so much literature that problematizes the nature-culture divide? Who speaks for the genome in the market place? Scientists? Lobbyists? Corporations? Governments? Tangled times lay ahead.
We already know, for example, that companies like Monsanto have wrecked immeasurable havoc on local communities, both economically and ecologically, in and around Brazil and throughout central America by introducing GMO crops into the nations agricultural and ecological systems. These GMO crops, once introduced into the region, spread beyond the boundaries of Monsanto’s growing fields, once this happens the GM crops form hybrid species with the local crops- this is largely an inevitable process that occurs between all neighboring plant species. Monsanto, being the insidious profiteers they are, have cleverly patented the genes in their GM crops and are now legally entitled to receive payment from anyone growing or selling their crops- even when those crops are hybrids unintentionally produced from Monsanto’s neighboring grow fields! Thus local farmers end up having to pay fees to Monsanto if their crops interact with the GM Monsanto crop.
I am not fundamentally against genetic engineering, or even the consumption of genetically modified food- the planet is quite an elaborate chemical engineer in itself. But clearly it is a grievous piece of legislature that makes possible the further alienation of people from food production- even if said GM food turns out to be more resilient, more abundant etc. Patenting genomes in this way is biopiracy plain and simple. Where is “nature” in this discussion? Clearly what is “nature” cannot be thought in this context without also thinking: What is capitalism? What is governmentality? What is biopower? What is international trade? Again, the discourse called “culture vs. nature” just won’t do.
But what then, for people like Lewontin and Keller, is going on in our genomes? Are all genetics really epigenetics? How does one describe the complex factors that are involved in organismic development and gene expression? It seems that we have misled ourselves in thinking these questions and are stuck with the same old awkward binaries that can’t seem to get the job done (e.g., nature-culture, nature-nurture, genetic-epigenetic). It is telling when problems at the micro level (genetics) and problems at the macro level (ecosystems) encounter the same stumbling blocks. The problem at the genetic level lies in understanding what is “innate” to a particular organism and what is historically contingent. My sense from reading the literature is that all gene expression is historical, there is no “pre-history” from which “human” history emerges, the whole cosmological and biological enterprise is a historically expressed and circumstantially contingent process. Likewise, with ecosystems, the central issue for the past hundred or so years has been how to link the evolutionary development of species with the physical structure of ecosystems, again this presents itself as a problem only when “environments” are thought as distinct from “organisms.” Thus the nature-culture problem is a biological, philosophical, ethical, and legal-political problem all at once, and we should not cede this discussion to anyone of these factions without due process.
My own stake in these debates lies precisely in what Lewontin highlights as one of Keller’s main insights: we have created a false division between “living objects” and “external milieus.” This distinction between living and nonliving objects (or natural and cultural ones) is for me a philosophical issue as much as it is a scientific one. This is precisely why, for me, we need a new cosmological description of objects that sees living and non-living entities as co-existing on the same ontological plane, and not one that bifurcates nature into primary substances and derivative qualities, or one that gives primacy to either organisms or environments. My critique here, following Lewontin, lines up nicely with Graham Harman’s distinction between “underming,” or reducing entities to primary properties (as in evolutionary ecology), and “overmining,” or reducing entities to greater systemic flows and processes (as in ecosystems ecology). In a previous post I began unpacking Tim Morton’s object-oriented ecology (a project I myself am looking to develop) and find it to be a way forward that I think can make great contributions to not just the important ethical and political necessity of thinking biology and evolution, but also its very ontological and cosmological character. Exciting times lie ahead.