Letter from the Editors
By the Volume 23-3 Editorial Collective
Every science simplifies: to understand and analyze phenomena in any domain we build a model, taking some features as salient and representing them directly, others as more incidental and provisionally ignored. Yet there is also a unique intimacy to life sciences. Every theory about life makes value judgments in choosing some aspects of living beings as more worthy of examination. And since we are alive, such decisions also make value judgments about us.
It should not be surprising, therefore, that life sciences have been a site of political struggle from the outset. Quasi-evolutionary theories have been concocted to claim a segment of humanity as “special” or “chosen”, with the right, even the duty, to dominate and terrorize others. Such theories motivated some of the deadliest, most gruesome campaigns of organized violence in recent history, the consequences of which we still live with today.
As these struggles continue, we find ourselves on the precipice of a new biological era. During the decades in which Science for the People was inactive, biology has seen the advent of DNA sequencing, reproductive cloning, and genome editing. Our understanding of genetics has been flipped on its head: the prevalence of regulatory DNA and the confounding effects of epigenetic modification alone have complicated the central dogma. But as with all new technologies and observations in science, these breakthroughs have crashed upon the rocks of our socio-political environment. In many instances, these discoveries have run far ahead of public debate and democratic oversight. Their potential for abuse by capitalist and state actors against the interests of the vulnerable remains an outstanding concern.
In many instances, these discoveries have run far ahead of public debate and democratic oversight.
As an activist organization, Science for the People has sought to interrogate the politics of the life sciences since its inception. The Sociobiology Study Group (SSG), which in time joined forces with Science for the People, was formed at Harvard in 1975 by Drs. Jonathan Beckwith, Stephen J. Gould, Ruth Hubbard, Richard Lewontin, and many others. The SSG emerged in response to the speculative attempts by their colleague Dr. Edward O. Wilson to extrapolate evolutionary theory and genetic inheritance to explain human behavior in his 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Wilson’s attempt to establish sociobiology as a legitimate science, the SSG argued, would “help to support maintenance of the status quo and to convince people that revolutionary changes in social relationships (e.g. class structure and sex roles) are impossible.”
Although Wilson held considerably more nuanced views than his cursory conjectures about “man” let on, the members of the SSG were quite correct to anticipate that the ideas from Sociobiology were ripe to be appropriated for reactionary political agendas. The SSG’s efforts were collected in the 1977 issue of Science for the People under the theme “Biology as a Social Weapon,” and expanded upon in widely read works such as Stephen Jay Gould’s 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man and Richard Lewontin’s 1991 critique Biology as Ideology. These contributions have been invaluable in informing the debate on the political implications of biology and they remain relevant to this day.
However, many applications of life sciences for political ends are considerably more subtle. Present-day authorities, public and private, are concerned with making sure that the lives, choices, and relationships of millions of people fall into certain acceptable ranges and follow predictable grooves. Some political views, social pursuits, sexual preferences, and life callings are seen as more acceptable, others less so, trapping our bodies in a complex web of influences guided by hegemonic interests. Such social forces were described by Michel Foucault as “biopolitical,” or deployed with the aim to “make live and let die.” Biopower, per Foucault, keeps people alive but tightly constrained, ostensibly liberated but, paradoxically, highly disciplined in their everyday lives. The only way to escape is by dying. Foucault contrasted this kind of power to that of traditional sovereigns, which affirmed itself through spectacular displays of violence such as public executions, but for the most part left people to run their own affairs — letting live, and making die.
Now, as in the 1970s, members of SftP have come together in the Biology and Society working group to present a new vision for bio-politics.
Social control today, as Foucault and others who expanded on his work have pointed out, employs both the logics of making live and making die to biopolitical aims. The frameworks and findings of life sciences are deployed as precision tools that pamper, nudge, frustrate, and constrain the more privileged members of the body politic, and as blunt instruments that draw imaginary lines to portray others as inferiors, unhealthy stains which can be removed only through repression.
Our members and members of other grassroots organizations recognize that biology, like all of science, is political. Our work is the stuff of life itself.
As activists, we take to heart Foucault’s definition and expand upon it to articulate a new conception of “bio-politics,” so hyphenated to highlight the necessity of productive exchange between science and politics. Our members and members of other grassroots organizations recognize that biology, like all of science, is political. Our work is the stuff of life itself. The imperative to raise consciousness about systemic effects on our work, and how systems of social power use our work, is always present. Today, this is as clear as it has ever been.
Now, as in the 1970s, members of SftP have come together in the Biology and Society working group to present a new vision for bio-politics. In the pages of this issue, we wrestle with the problem of merely surviving capitalist and state structures. We pay tribute to our forebears with a profile of Dr. Ruth Hubbard, a trailblazing biologist and one of the founding members of the SSG and SftP, as well as an interview with the legendary feminist scholar and scientist Dr. Donna Haraway, who reflects on the problems of sociobiology and new visions for bio-politics. Our writers confront the urgent need to understand the implications of new technologies, from CRISPR to computational neuroscience to genome-wide association studies, in a society that has not fully grappled with the dangers of biological determinism. They tell of old specters that continue to haunt our science, from the refusal of mainstream psychology to fully acknowledge systemic racism to the settler colonialism underlying the deadly mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic in Native American communities. Yet within all of this, we find a way forward. Kriti Sharma writes an arresting meditation on the stories we tell ourselves to survive as scientists and how we may imagine a liberatory biology. Our working groups report on their own struggles to make this vision a reality.
As the pandemic has made clear, those in power are all too ready to let the powerless die, and science has been selectively utilized to protect those deemed worthy. Despite this, we see systems of care and mutual aid emerging from the ground up and the masses putting their bodies on the line to protest the police murders of countless Black and Brown people. It is our right and responsibility to engage in these efforts as scientists, as activists, and to continue the struggle for the common good. We use the tools of bio-politics to carry on the liberatory work of those who came before us, to put our knowledge to use for the emancipation of humans and all life on Earth.
The Volume 23, Number 3 Editorial Collective
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has been a difficult time to publish a magazine. A great number of people have volunteered their time, labor, and knowledge to produce this issue — for this we are deeply grateful. We also thank our subscribers, Patreon supporters, and donors whose financial support makes it possible for us to continue to pay our contributors. You can support this work by subscribing to the magazine or to our Patreon, or learn more ways to support our work here.
Camille Rullán, Managing Editor
Bennett McIntosh, Publisher