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Two brains to rub together – Genes, Cells and Brains

Genes, Cells and Brains: the Promethean promises of the new biology, by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, reviewed by Alice Bell

August 25, 2013
5 min read

genesHilary 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.

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