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Technoscientific shaping of human nature – But what does nature stand for?

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Synnyt/Origins | Special Issue: Bio/Art/Education | January 2015 1
TECHNOSCIENTIFIC SHAPING OF HUMAN NATURE
– BUT WHAT DOES NATURE STAND FOR?
Mianna Meskus
University of Helsinki
Introduction
is paper aims to unpack the somewhat bold question of what does the concept of nature stand
for, when we are talking about contemporary technological shaping of ‘human nature’. I will explore
the question from several perspectives that have been valuable in my research on the government of life
through medical technologies, and the use of living human tissue in experimental biomedical research.
I will take up some conceptual discussions and methodological stances in the multidisciplinary eld
of science and technology studies (STS) that bring intriguing perspectives to guring out how to
characterize human life today. e paper is based on a presentation at the ‘Bio/Art/Education:
Symposium on Bioart’, held at the School of Arts, Design and Architecture at Aalto University in
Oc tober, 2014.
I
To begin with, let us consider how biological and biotechnological forms of knowledge transform
our societies. ey are often understood to actually transform what it means to be human. is is an
observation that we can pick up from the news headlines in dierent kinds of media, from scientic
journals to popular magazines and science documentaries. Only recently, there has been discussion
on how one can nd out about one’s ancestors through direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry services,
available online. e role of biosciences and biotechnologies in shaping human nature has also been
debated in the case of environmental toxins in food production. Furthermore, it has been discussed
in the case of enhancing athletes’ bodily capacities and performance through the use of synthetic
hormones and, in the case of helping couples to overcome infertility through in vitro fertilization and
surrogacy (Irni, Meskus, & Oikkonen, 2014).
ese are but few examples of the complex ways in which technoscientic knowledge intertwines
with humanity in today’s Western world, and increasingly also globally. e fact that scientic
knowledge transforms the conditions of our existence is of course neither new nor surprising. But there
is, in our time, a sense of novelty and even radicalism in the tempo and scope of technological shaping
of humanity, across developed and developing countries. To capture this sense of novelty, sociologist
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Mike Michael (2006) has oered several observations on how our everyday lives are changing:
Observation 1: Our bodies are increasingly interwoven into information
and communication networks.
Observation 2: Our bodily capacities are transformed, corrected and
enhanced, with the help of biomedical and other kinds of techniques.
Observation 3: Our experience of space is multiplied through and
complexied in technoscientically mediated connections.
Observation 4: Our experience of time contorts as future seems increasingly
nearer.
Observation 5: Our sense of self becomes, paradoxically, at once more
distributed and more singular.
You might want to consider for yourselves how apt or valid you think these characterizations
are, in your personal experience. I would propose that they certainly seem to be central axioms of
contemporary existence that we somehow need to make sense of and take a stance to – whether
we want it or not. ese characteristics are conditioning our present day lives. It is dicult or even
impossible to distance oneself from them.
II
Before proceeding further, the concept of ‘technoscience’ needs to be claried. e concept refers,
rstly, to the ways in which science and technology have become mutually entangled in the modern era.
It refers to the fact that in modern science, technology is indispensable to the production of scientic
knowledge. Scientic knowledge is produced through the development and use of experimental
settings and technical apparatuses (e.g. Haraway, 1997; Latour, 1987).
e elds of molecular biology and genetics are particularly interesting here. In molecular biology
and modern genetics (which relies heavily on molecular biology) the object of knowledge, for example
a stem cell or a DNA sequence, is known in such a way that it can be modied. Anthropologist Paul
Rabinow (1998, p. 141) has characterized modern day biology in the following way: ‘Representing
and intervening, knowledge and power, understanding and reform, are built in, from the start, as
simultaneous goals and means’.
But there is also a more broad use for the term ‘technoscience’. Often it is applied to describe
contemporary societies and cultures in general. Especially Western societies seem to be characterized
by the extension of scientic knowledge and dierent kinds of technologies to ever more spheres of
life. Contemporary technoscientic world circulates facts and things from one sphere of life to another,
with as increasing pace (see Michael, 2006). Textual, material and technological artefacts move from
research laboratories into industrial production lines, local and global markets, the media, everyday
household practices, art galleries, and so forth. Some technoscientic pratices and artifacts are fairly
xed and stabilized. ey have become part of our daily routines. Others are more unstable, uid and
changing – and often also more contested.
III
As a sociologist and researcher in science and technology studies, this movement or circulation
of humans and nonhumans oers, to me, a fruitful entry point to the analysis of present day life. I
have previously studied the historical circulation of techniques used in governing our reproductive
bodily capacities, through the ethically contested cases of racial hygiene and contemporary practices of
foetal testing (Meskus, 2009a, 2009b, 2012). I have also looked at another form of new reproductive
technology, that of IVF or in vitro fertilization, from the perspective of ordering of human-nonhuman
relations (Meskus, 2014a, 2014b). At present, my research follows the circulation of living human
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body parts, that is, human pluripotent stem cells, from patients, to research laboratories, and to the
developing drug markets (Meskus & de Miguel Beriain, 2013; Meskus, forthcoming). ese research
encounters with technoscientic shaping of the human body have brought me to the situation where
the issue of shaping of human ‘nature’ seems to lurk around the corner.
If we focus on – and even celebrate – our ability to shape, to modify, to transform that something
which is called human nature, what do we imply?
Do we imply that there is Nature that awaits our transformative interventions but that, nevertheless,
exists prior to human intervention?
Do we imply, on the contrary, that human biological existence emerges, in essence, through
modication and is, as such, exible and resilient?
I shall reveal my cards straight away. I argue we should tackle these questions as mutually
informative, not as mutually exclusive. ey seem like opposite philosophical stances to the question
of nature, but they need not be so. It is necessary to acknowledge and to account for how bioscience
and biotechnologies create, in practice, new forms and boundaries of life. As such, they also transform
the conditions of society and culture. So, nature is being shaped and there is ample evidence of it, as
the examples I mentioned in the beginning of this paper indicate.
However, it is salient to acknowledge that the conditioning relations also apply to the opposite
direction: biological factors such as genes, microbes, stem cells, and evolutionary processes, structure
and shape the forms of life and nature. What is important to note here is that this need not take us
to biological reductionism. Biological factors and processes carry with them active, surprising, and
changing powers. As feminist theorist Vicki Kirby (2008) emphasizes, biological processes can and
need to be studied without bringing in the postulate of these processes as ‘pre-scriptive’ (see also
Meskus, 2014a).
erefore in social research, and perhaps also in art and artistic practice, it seems fruitful to keep
oneself analytically attentive to both how humans shape nature and, how nature shapes humans. In
my own work this attempt has led me to study the ‘constitutive relationalities’ (Haraway, 2006: 141)
of humans and cells. It is evident that scientists modify and intervene with the biological material they
work with, in the lab and on the Petri dish. However, an equally relevant and interesting perspective
is to look at the eectivity of this biological material, of living pluripotent stem cells, on humans.
ese cell-level agencies condition and transform human activity and experience. ey ‘do’ or perform
both expected and unexpected things. ereby they also produce cognitive, aective and embodied
eects in researchers studying them (Meskus, forthcoming). We might call this the unescapable and
mundane relationality between bioscientists and the living, experimental material they work on.
IV
Technoscientic shaping of human nature underscores the fact that ontological dualisms that are
the legacy of Western philosophical thinking, such as nature/culture and social/biological, seem to blur
and even to crumble. I want to dedicate a few words to this aspect in my attempt to answer the tricky
question presented in the title of the paper. One of the classical texts in science studies and particularly
in feminist science studies is the “Cyborg Manifesto”, written by biologist and feminist theorist Donna
Haraway, in the beginning of 1980s. In this text Haraway (1991) explores the ambiguous distinction
between worlds that are considered ‘natural’ and those that are considered ‘crafted’. Taking medicine
as one example, she underlines that modern medicine is full of cyborgs, of couplings between organism
and machine.
In another seminal text in STS unpacking the ontological categorization of nature/culture,
philosopher Bruno Latour (1991) claims that ‘we have never been modern’ and that our understanding
of nature and culture as separate spheres of the world, is fundamentally awed. Latour ags up the
Synnyt/Origins | Special Issue: Bio/Art/Education | January 2015 4
rather complicated and provocative idea that it is thanks to the modern imaginary of nature and culture
as ontologically separate that we are actually able to produce new hybrid entities at an ever increasing
pace. Latour claims that hybrids such as frozen embryos, genetically modied maize, tissue banks,
psychotropic drugs, and sensing robots, can be created and are experienced as justied on the condition
that we simultaneously retain nature and culture as separate entities and believe their ontological
boundaries to be intact.
In terms of the theme of this symposium, the shaping of biology in doing art, I think both these
thinkers oer ideas as to how to approach the technoscientic world in a realist and positive, yet critical
and sensitive manner. Haraway, in particular, is very critical about asymmetric gender relations, but
at the same time writes that ‘a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which
people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, and not afraid of permanently
partial identities and contradictory standpoints’ (Haraway, 1991, 154.) Conducting research on new
reproductive technologies and experimental science, I have found this kind of research ethos extremely
helpful. It helps in sensitizing to both the positive and the more dangerous aspects of technological
shaping of our life. It encourages acknowledging the complexities of technoscientic practices, that
rarely are either good or bad.
Having said this, I shall end my paper with a glimpse on the morally loaded manner in which the
concept of nature has historically been and still is used. I wish to add to the conceptual relations of
nature/culture and social/biological the dimension of moral evaluation, as the gure below indicates:
NATURE / CULTURE
nature culture
social biologial
Evaluative dimension: ‘natural’, ‘normal’, ‘expected’
SOCIAL / BIOLOGICAL
V
When we are exploring the technoscientic shaping of nature, be it human or nonhuman, it is
quite evident that we are moving on a morally loaded terrain. Biological and technological knowledge
and the way these are applied in practice, raise political and ethical controversy. us, to analyze
what ‘nature’ stands for in Western use, takes us to practices of valuing and evaluation. is of course
is paradoxical given that one corner stone of our philosophical thinking is to perceive ‘nature’ as
something real, separate, and out there. So what has valuation to do with nature?
Let us look at the English dictionary entry for the concept of nature. According to Oxford
Dictionaries (www.oxforddictionaries.com), as a noun it refers to ‘the phenomena of the physical world
collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth,
as opposed to humans or human creations. It also refers to ‘the basic or inherent features, character, or
qualities of something’, and ‘the innate or essential qualities or character of a person or animal . When
further exploring the uses of the concept, one nds that an exemplary phrase of its use is one that the
Synnyt/Origins | Special Issue: Bio/Art/Education | January 2015 5
negative: ‘against nature’ means ‘unnatural in a way perceived as immoral.
e emphases here are my own. e point here is to see that the denition of nature consists of
an evident semantic ambiguity. Nature refers to other than human, but also to human. It signies
something that is innate or essential. However, it also refers (via the example of negation) to something
that is natural as in normal, and morally acceptable.
In her discussion on ‘the nature and the natural’, biologist Evelyn Fox Keller (2008) points at
this slippage between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought to be’, in the use of the concept of nature. Her project
is to disambiguate the relation between biological nature and the natural. She wants to root out the
persistent eorts to ground moral order upon natural order. However, Keller admits that the task is a
hard one. e tendency to place moral order upon perceived natural order seems immune to much of
the powerful critique biologists themselves, for example, have presented towards this tendency. It is
somehow alluring and frighteningly easy to think that something considered natural is for that reason
also moral. Vice versa, that which is regarded as morally right is often seen as depicting an order of
nature.
If we search for a current example where this ambiguity is prevalent, we might want to consider
again the case of new reproductive technologies. Technoscientic shaping of reproduction, through the
donation of gametes, in vitro fertilization and through freezing, selecting and transferring embryos, is
perhaps one of the most evident practices where nature, technologies and moral debates come together
(e.g. ompson, 2005). e phenomenon conates and confuses sexuality, gender roles, biological
‘laws’, family politics, kinship relations, microscopic technologies, religious norms, et cetera. My point
here is to underline that if we explore the multiple ways in which human and nonhuman natures
are being modied and transformed and if we try to develop an approach to that is simultaneously
realist, broadminded and critical, it is useful to remember the inbuilt ambiguity in our understanding
of nature. is means that we will constantly come across confusing understandings of what is and
what ought to be, and what is inherent or articial. We are enforced to operate within this confusing
semantic framework, because it is so eective in our everyday thinking as well as in many social,
political, and economic practices.
Doing empirical research in social sciences diers of course in many ways from doing art, even
though both ‘doings’ would be interested in what nature, or biology, is and how it can be modied for
various purposes. As the presentations in this symposium show, the merger of technology and biology
transforming our everyday life interestingly also aects artistic practices. To conclude and perhaps also
to pave the way for further discussion, I suggest it would be interesting to explicate and to compare
they ways in which activities of bioart come across the issues touched upon in this paper; the exible
yet existing boundaries of nature and culture, and the moral orderings attached to these boundaries.
References:
Haraway, Donna J. (1997) Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan©_Meets_
OncoMouse™. New York: Routledge.
Haraway, Donna J. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. e Reinvention of Nature. London: Free
Association Books.
Haraway, Donna J. (2006) When we have never been human, what is to be done? Interview with
Donna Haraway. Interviewer Nicholas Gane. eory, Culture & Society 23(7/8): 135–158.
Irni, Sari, Meskus, Mianna & Oikkonen, Venla (eds.) (2014) Muokattu elämä: Teknotiede,
sukupuoli ja materiaalisuus [Molded Life: Technoscience, Gender and Materiality]. Tampere:
Vastapaino.
Synnyt/Origins | Special Issue: Bio/Art/Education | January 2015 6
Keller, Evelyn Fox (2008) Lecture: Nature and the natural. BioSocieties 3(2): 117–124.
Kirby, Vicki (2008) Natural convers(at)ions: or, what if culture was really nature all along? In
Alaimo S and Hekman S (eds) Material feminisms. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University
Press, pp. 214–236.
Latour, Bruno (1987) Science in Action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Michael, Mike (2006) Technoscience and Everyday Life: e Complex Simplicities of the Mundane.
Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Meskus, Mianna (2009a) Elämän tiede. Tutkimus lääketieteellisestä teknologiasta, vanhemmuudesta
ja perimän hallinnasta [Science of Life: A Study on Medical Technology, Parenthood and the
Government of Heredity]. Tampere: Vastapaino.
Meskus, Mianna (2009b). Governing Risk through Informed Choice: Prenatal Testing in Welfarist
Maternity Care. Teoksessa Susanne Bauer & Ayo Wahlberg (toim.) Contested Categories. Life Sciences
in Society. Farnham & Burlington: Ashgate, pp. 49–68.
Meskus, Mianna (2012) Personalized Ethics: e Emergence and the Eects in Prenatal Testing.
BioSocieties 7:4, 373–392.
Meskus, Mianna (2014a) Agential multiplicity in the assisted beginnings of life. European Journal of
Women’s Studies, published online 22 April 2014. DOI: 10.1177/1350506814530691.
Meskus, Mianna (2014b) Hedelmöityshoidot ruumiillisena kokemuksena [e embodied experience
of infertility treatment]. In Irni, Sari, Meskus, Mianna & Oikkonen, Venla (eds.) Muokattu elämä:
Teknotiede, sukupuoli ja materiaalisuus. Tampere: Vastapaino, pp. 51–85.
Meskus, Mianna (forthcoming) Biopolitics, Ethics, and Stem Cell Science. New York: Palgrave
Macmillan.
Meskus, Mianna & de Miguel Beriain, Iñigo (2013) Embryo-like features of induced pluripotent
stem cells defy legal and ethical boundaries. Croatian Medical Journal 54:6, 589–91.
Rabinow, Paul (1998) Genetic and molecular bodies. In T. Yamamoto (ed.), Philosophical designs
for a socio cultural transformation. Beyond violence and the modern era. Tokyo: EHESS & Rowman &
Littleeld Publishers, pp. 135-150.
ompson, Charis (2005) Making parents: e ontological choreography of reproductive technologies.
Cambridge & London: e MIT Press.
Mianna Meskus works as PI and Lecturer of Science and Technology Studies at the Department
of Social Research, University of Helsinki. She has been a visiting fellow at the BIOS Centre
at London School of Economics and Political Science and at the Department of Social Science,
Health and Medicine at King’s College, London. She has published in journals such as BioSocieties,
European Journal of Women’s Studies, and Contemporary Social Science. She is the author of the book
(translated title) Science of Life: A Study on Medical Technology, Parenthood and the Government of
Heredity (Vastapaino, 2009), and co-author of the book (translated title) Molded Life: Technoscience,
Gender and Materiality (Vastapaino, 2014). See her home page at http://blogs.helsinki./meskus/in-
english/
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