Hilary and Steven Rose’s new book is about the politics of biology, but it’s also about themselves. The Roses are professors of sociology (her) and neurobiology (him), both with a long-standing and vocal commitment to the left. They’re married, as the book quickly informs you with a touching reference to their meeting in a new left club on Oxford St. Such anecdotes reflect not just ways in which the personal is political but that the history of biology is both of these things too.
As junior academics in the 1960s, the Roses received an extra £50 a year on their salaries for each of their children. This was due to the influence of William Beveridge, who, as a eugenicist, wanted to encourage such bright young academics to breed. Ideologies, bodies, science and administration wrap together in the Roses’ life history, just as their book argues such matrixes of techno-science affect us all.
The book is both about the large and important abstract entities of its title – genes, cells and brains – and the institutions, people, ideologies, offices, publications and, above all, money that not only help bring such entities into human understanding but direct what we do with them. It is critical, pointed and clear in its explanations of the political economy of modern biology, and how this is significant not only for our understanding of how the world works, but how we imagine ourselves in it and how we choose to engineer it, including engineering ourselves.
The spectre of reductive materialism haunts the book, as one might expect from a Marxist take on biology. I remain unconvinced that Victorian ideologies that influenced early Darwinian concepts of evolution really explain that much about the politics of biology today. There is nothing ‘inherent’ in the sociology of science. Humans are just not so mechanically simple. Still, the Roses offer several useful lines of critique. There’s a neat passage on the ‘outsourcing of ethics’ through the structures and uses of specialist bioethicists. They raise a sceptical eyebrow at Lord Sainsbury’s £11 million of donations to Labour and oh-so-generous refusal to take a salary when he got the job he so coveted as science minister.
They also note the influence of the Wellcome Trust as ‘the ten-thousand-pound gorilla in the genomics room’, not only significantly bankrolling their own science but lobbying the government to follow their lead too. They could probably be more critical of the trust, which may have done an enormous amount of good but should not be above criticism. As Stella Creasy MP has asked, how does it justify its investment in the high-interest lender Wonga?
In some respects the Roses depict society sleepwalking into significant and dangerous changes to the life sciences. Science journalism is partly held accountable, failing in its role as fourth estate with an over-reliance on ‘churnalism’. There’s also a finger pointed at the architects of the new left for simply not paying enough attention to science.
I’d personally cast some blame on the sociology of science for a lack of public engagement, although these issues are complex and the interests that have ‘outsourced’ and obfuscated public debate on the politics of science, for neoliberal ends, have been a force to reckon with.
In some ways, I was left with a sense that the Roses feel it’s too late to save science for the people. There’s a tempting whiff of truth to such pessimism, but I’m more hopeful. For all its socialism, the story told by the Roses seems rather preoccupied by big names. Arguably this is appropriate for a book about science, which is a highly hierarchical business dominated by loud personalities, despite occasional posturing otherwise. But I suspect more social history/ethnographically-inspired empirical work, talking to the middle-ranking workers of science, would have produced a different picture. I think it’s through the building of horizontal networks between such workers that we’ll see positive change.
The book also felt slightly dated in places. It’s all a bit old-new left. What about the newer-new lefts, the ones that write blogposts, not books, that build and break networks online, make internet memes to parody Dawkins and are increasingly more worried by environmental sciences than biology? Where do these new monsters of techno-science fit into the scheme of science in society? Are there ways they might occupy scientific spaces, reclaim areas of knowledge and the very notion of techno-utopianism? Might they break the institutionalised nature of much so-called citizen science and public engagement, ignore the publication relations messages of groups such as the Science Media Centre, pick constructive fights on Twitter with Ben Goldacre and make new social movements for the 21st century all their own? I think they might. Or at least I think they have potential.
If you’re interested in science in society (and you should be, because those who are hold the keys to our futures), read this book. But don’t be taken in too deeply or depressed by its neater stories. Let it make you angry enough to want to learn from more than just the good Professors Rose.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill