This briefing conveys the need for critical examination and understanding of the financialization of risk before proposing improvements to science-policy connections around extreme climate events. Continue reading
Five offspring of a couple in a remote area of Turkey grew up walking quadrupedally on their hands and feet, as portrayed in the popular science documentary ‘Family That Walks on All Fours.’ Among the various angles of research on the siblings was genetic analysis identifying a mutation in a gene on chromosome 17 influencing cerebellum development and the work of certain evolutionary biologists try to link this gene to the evolution of human bipedalism 3 million years ago. Indeed, other deleterious effects of the gene are depicted as reversing the progress in fine motor coordination and intelligence that accompanied human evolution. Continue reading
The trip from Chicago to Ann Arbor on Day 17 took us through Kalamazoo, where we had late afternoon tea (or coffee) with Lynne Heasley, an environmental historian who teaches at Western Michigan University. She’s also an accomplished photographer and recently created a web portal for her work. Lynne described the campaign to prevent a proposed private development on the dunes of the Lake Michigan shoreline.
We arrived quite late in Ann Arbor. Our host, Paul Edwards, was leaving early in the morning to teach then to fly to Madison. The conversation time was short but generative. A side comment of Paul’s about using Splintered Urbanism in his teaching led me into his writing on infrastructure and that of Leigh Star and Geoff Bowker (see here and here and here). Given that I have been intoning on the need for discussions about genomics to pay more attention to the social infrastructure implied by their grand claims, I need to learn more about this line of work in STS (science and technology studies). Genomicists know a lot about building (or growing) infrastructure to develop their results, as Joan Fujimura reminded me two days before, so I need to revise my argument.
Joan Fujimura, a sociologist of molecular biology, convened a group of graduate students and a post-doc for me to talk with. She let me know that some people had read a recent Biology & Philosophy paper of mine (but it turned out they meant my commentary on race and genetics, not my critique of heritability studies) and said “most of us are interested in genomics and complexity. Presenting the PKU example may be good.” I decided to try to get discussion of the implications of heterogeneity for understanding problems that concern me in heritability studies and in STS (science & technology studies) more generally. To introduce myself, I’d connect heterogeneity with the 3-angle approach to heterogeneous (or unruly) complexity that has run through my work, that is, critical thinking about science, interpretation of science in its social context, and bringing these back into science through refelctive practice and participatory pedagogy.
In the spirit of the last term, after introducing the term and two examples I asked participants how people deal with heterogeneity, where people might be researchers in natural sciences, in social sciences, or in STS—their choice. Contra the spirit of participatory pedagogy, my themes may have come across more clearly if I’d given a standard presentation on one part of my work.
Anyway, out of the discussion came the pertinent objection from Joan that people are building infrastructure based on new genetic knowledge and STS scholars are study this. (This was said to moderate my contention about heterogeneity, control and social infrastructure.)
Human quadrupeds: Social infrastructure (or its absence) makes genetic conditions hardwired
‘Family That Walks on All Fours’ is a popular science documentary on the United States Public Broadcasting Network (2006). Five offspring of a couple in a remote area of Turkey have grown up walking quadrupedally on their hands and feet. The documentary describes various angles of research on the siblings: MRI brain scans show a reduced cerebellum, the region of the brain controlling balance and movement; genetic analysis identifies a mutation in a gene on chromosome 17 influencing cerebellum development; and evolutionary biologists try to link this gene to the evolution of human bipedalism 3 million years ago. Indeed, other deleterious effects of the gene are depicted as reversing the progress in fine motor coordination and intelligence that accompanied human evolution. Scientific disputes arise over these interpretations. But then it is also observed that no medical treatment or physical therapy has been available since the children failed to shift from crawling to walking upright. Following the introduction of a simple walking frame, then exercising between parallel bars, the quadrupedal adults learn to walk upright.
The quadrupedal condition may have been genetic in origin, but it was the social infrastructure—or lack thereof—made it hardwired. Adjustments to that infrastructure then softened that wiring. Could the corollary also hold: The application of genetic knowledge to reshape human life will always involve reconstruction of the social infrastructure? Under what conditions—or crises—will that reconstruction become possible?
Another excerpt from P. Taylor, “Infrastructure and Scaffolding: Interpretation and Change of Research Involving Human Genetic Information,” Science as Culture, 18(4):435-459, 2009
‘Gessen’s genetic counselors recommended an oophorectomy. But Gessen balked…
Our culture doesn’t yet have the infrastructure to handle the consequences of the recent revolution in genetic testing. But we’ll need it…’
Review of Gessen (2008), Blood Matters, in International Herald Tribune
10-11 May 2008.
In 1845 the young Karl Marx proclaimed that the ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’ But what mode of interpretation should guide people in effecting change? That’s no simple matter. Marx himself spent the following forty years of his life elaborating his interpretation of historical and ongoing social transformations.
In 1865 Francis Galton, sought to promote social progress by interpreting patterns in data drawn from human relatives. As Galton proclaimed early in his forty years of research:
If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that are spent in the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create! …Men and women of the present day are, to those we might hope to bring into existence, what the pariah dogs of the streets of an Eastern town are to our own highly-bred varieties (Galton 1865, 165-6).
Fast forward to 2008. Genomics entrepeneur, Craig Venter, and science communicator, Richard Dawkins, converse about change that flows, almost without interpretation, from information about organisms’ genes:
Venter: [W]e isolated the chromosome from one bacterial species and transplanted it into another one. The chromosome in the species that we transplanted into was destroyed, and all the characteristics of one species went away and got transformed into what was dictated by the new chromosome… This was a precursor to being able to now design life… And we have major problems we’re trying to overcome by looking for solutions, changes in modern society.
Dawkins: It’s more than just saying that you can pick up a chromosome and put it in somewhere else. It is pure information. You could put it into a printed book. You could send it over the Internet. You could store it on a magnetic disk for 1,000 years, and then in a thousand years time, with the technology that they’ll have then, it will be possible to reconstruct whatever living organism was here now. So, this is something which was utterly undreamed of before the molecular information revolution… This is a major revolution. I suppose it’s probably ‘the’ major revolution in the whole history of our understanding of ourselves (Venter and Dawkins 2008).
This essay addresses the relationship of interpretation to change, at two levels. One level concerns the revolutionary claims of molecular biology and biotechnology about using genetic information, read literally or with a minimum of interpretation (construing the term broadly), to reshape human life. The other level, less grand in ambition, concerns the relationship in social studies of science and technology (STS) between interpreting projects in the life sciences and influencing their direction. Claims like those of Venter and Dawkins are fantasies, they involve worlds envisaged and mentally inhabited so as to escape the practical difficulties of action (Robinson 1984). In the material world many diverse materials, tools, and other people have to be engaged to realize any enduring result. Social infrastructure has to be built if human life is to be reshaped. This perspective matches interpretations in STS that emphasize the heterogeneous engineering or construction involved in establishing knowledge and making technologies reliable (Latour 1987; Law 1987; Clarke and Fujimura 1992, 4-5; Taylor 2005, 93ff). However, two shortcomings in such interpretations concern me: More self-conscious attention is needed to how such interpretations are intended to influence change in science or technology and in society. In particular, more development is is needed in the conceptualisation of the structure of the social context of scientific and technological developments and of human agency in the ongoing restructuring of that context….
=Opening excerpt from “Infrastructure and Scaffolding: Interpretation and Change of Research Involving Human Genetic Information,” Science as Culture, 18(4):435-459, 2009
Clarke, A. and J. Fujimura (1992). What tools? Which jobs? Why right? The Right Tools for the Job: At Work in Twentieth-century Life Sciences. A. Clarke and J. Fujimura. (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 3-44
Galton, F. (1865). Hereditary talent and character. Macmillan’s Magazine 12: 157-66, 318-327
Latour, B. (1987). Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. (Milton Keynes: Open University Press).
Law, J. (1987). Technology and heterogeneous engineering: The case of Portugese expansion. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes and T. J. Pinch. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), 111-134
Robinson, S. (1984). The art of the possible. Radical Science Journal 15: 122-148
Taylor, P. J. (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Venter, C. and R. Dawkins (2008). Life: A Gene-Centric View—A Conversation in Munich. Edge 235