Biocultures Manifesto

By Lennard J. Davis and David B. Morris

In the 1960’s, it was still a radical premise that the analysis of literature needed to consider history and culture.  The stand alone, value-free model of New Criticism made earlier attempts to historicize literature or to place specific literary works in their cultural context seem old-fashioned.  Today, by contrast, it is commonplace to see literary texts illuminated through a study of history and culture, while numerous theoretical perspectives, from feminisms to cognitive post-structuralism, have enriched understanding of both history and culture.  Literary history, in this sense, lends itself to continuous reinvention.  So at the beginning of the 21st century, we make a new (but perhaps in a while old) and counter-intuitive (but perhaps destined to be commonplace) proposal: that culture and history must be rethought with an understanding of their inextricable, if highly variable, relation to biology.  The general name for this phenomenon we call “biocultures.”

Biology—serving at times as a metaphor for science—is as intrinsic to the embodied state of readers and of writers as history and culture are intrinsic to the professional bodies of knowledge known as science and biology.  To think of science without including an historical and cultural analysis would be like thinking of the literary text without the surrounding and embedding weave of discursive knowledges active or dormant at particular moments.  It is similarly limited to think of literature—or to engage in debate concerning its properties or existence—without considering the network of meanings we might learn from a scientific perspective.

Combined, these propositions link with a more synthetic argument: that the biological without the cultural, or the cultural without the biological, is doomed to be reductionist at best and inaccurate at worst.  Make no mistake; we are not aiming to revive the so-called (or Sokal-ed) science wars.  The aim of that moment falsely pitted social constructionism against science.  Social constructionism is self-limited and inaccurate if it implies that social facts may be entirely dissociated from biological facts.  We seek instead, for their mutual benefit, to join the biological and the cultural.

At the outset, this aim will seem most alien to the two groups who most need it—humanists and scientists.  Humanists may respond that they are doing very well, thank you, without needing to clog their intellectual arteries with discussions of functional magnetic resonance imaging technologies and debates about the future of the human genome.  It will seem obvious to them that reading Paradise Lost could hardly require knowledge of the circulatory system or the basal ganglia.  (Although surely Milton’s blindness is more than merely a literary theme.)  They will rightly explain that Oliver Twist makes most sense when you understand the Reform laws but not particularly when you bring in the rise of comparative anatomy.  (Although surely children, oppressed by child labor laws, are constructed as much by the incomplete development of brain and bone and tissue as by ideologies of childhood.)

Likewise, clinicians and scientists  will perhaps acknowledge that reading novels and poems might contribute to one’s being  a  well-rounded person, but probably wouldn’t contribute much to the design of an experiment nor help a surgeon perform a triple by-pass, even if the patient happens to be an English professor (although she could point out, from a cultural perspective, that coronary artery bypass surgery did not exist before the 1960s, that it is now performed on half a million Americans annually, and that presumably very few of them are among the 16% of U. S. citizens—a percentage far larger among minorities—who are not covered by health insurance.)

So it would seem that C. P. Snow’s lament about the two cultures—forever wedded by inverse dialectical relations but doomed to sleep in separate bedrooms—must be sadly acknowledged.

Or not.

We want to use the occasion of this special issue of NLH to send forth a clarion call, invoke a manifesto (despite any residual modernist nostalgia) in the great tradition of the many who have believed in print and reading enough to think that setting into words a counter-intuitive, radical proposition will have some larger effect on knowledge.  Obviously the “Communist Manifesto” the Port Huron Statement, and the “Cyborg Manifesto” have had some profound effects.  Other manifestos have had less calculable or even negligible effects.   The spirit behind a manifesto, however, is less about measurable change than it is about imagined effects and about reconceived communities.

It isn’t that we believe, by stringing some imperative phrases together, we can single-handedly change the way knowledge is formed.  Rather, the reality is that this transformation is already underway.  In every university, in almost every department, there are already scholars working in interdisciplinary fields that require, even demand, a merger of science and society.  From people working on women and health in a gender studies program to professors of English studying how psychological knowledge is used in early 20th-century novels to disability-studies graduate students concerned with the intersection of race and ability—you find a grass-roots, broadly distributed group of researchers who are treading the boundaries between science and the humanities.  And on the other side of the divide, you have bioethicists trying to understand how cultural values influence medical choices and medical educators trying to see how narrative can have therapeutic implications.  The list of fields doing de-facto biocultures is enormous.  These include: public health, medical education, medical humanities, bioethics, criminal justice, epidemiology, identity and body studies, medical anthropology, medical sociology, history of medicine, philosophy of medicine, African-American studies, queer studies, Asian-American, Latino-Latina studies, and the list goes on.

So if academics and others are already voting with their research feet, why come up with complications for the head?  First, there isn’t a good umbrella term to describe what all these folks are doing.  You can’t call it bioethics, or disability studies, or science studies, or medical humanities, or anything else that won’t in effect exclude a wide variety of other work.  Second, by giving the name “biocultures” to these varied activities, we hope to consolidate and validate this terrain.  For example, before disability studies became an accepted term, people working in a variety of allied fields and with a variety of impairments did not necessarily see any commonality in their varied approaches.  But with the advent of an umbrella term, a new and exciting synergy has come to pass.  Likewise with nanotechnology, feminist studies, or critical race theory.  We are not necessarily nominalists, but we do believe in the power of a name to consolidate scattered research agendas and to generate change.

Beyond the work of specific researchers, we also need to pay attention to the broad categories of knowledge we are calling science and humanities.  It wasn’t always true that they were divided by  a rigid firewall.  -In the 18th and early 19th century, people might do scientific work and also pursue a serious interest in literary matters.  The rise of professions put an end to such hybrid interests. Part of the project of biocultures is to trace the history of that divide. We want to understand the process by which certain researchers became associated with calling their results “hard” facts and others became associated with “soft” associations and values. While we don’t deny the existence of facts, as data confirmed, for example, through a process of randomized double-blind experiments, we do question the notion that some facts are harder than others.  We do question the social and discursive strategies and rules that produce the conditions for facts to arise.  And we do question the notion that the humanities is a realm cut off from facts and restricted to the study of values and feelings.

In questioning the science-humanities, facts-values divide, we also believe that a better and stronger science can emerge from a productive engagement with the knowledge base developed over the past 100 years in the humanities and social sciences.  This argument stresses that science is only as good as its categories and methods—and that methods and categories  have been thoroughly questioned, elaborated, and refined on the humanities side of the divide.  For example, many scientific studies in their protocols use race as a category.  Researchers might be studying the effects of a particular drug on African-Americans (as compared to its effects on the “white” population).  Most experiments use a very blunt instrument in determining who is African-American: simply asking the subjects, as the national census does, to self-identify.  On the humanities side of the campus, however, the issue of race has been analyzed to a much more sophisticated degree than a simple notion of self-identification.  Wouldn’t experiments using “race” be better—produce more reliable facts–if they employed a biocultural notion of what race in fact means?

There are significant advantages in increasingly specialized professional sub-fields that can produce technological and conceptual breakthroughs by means of intensely localized analysis.  Such analysis, among its side benefits, tends to spin off new interdisciplinary subfields that further advance knowledge.  So this manifesto isn’t a call to abolish specialization, whether in the sciences or in the humanities.  And we recognize the dangers of too broad or too general a way of knowing that may dilute knowledge or excuse ignorance.  (A breath-taking reductiveness is often achieved by a structural or strategic  ignoring of the knowledge base of other disciplines.)  To be frank, knowing what the other discourse thinks can be plain confusing.  Life is so much easier if we keep to our own kind.

But knowledge isn’t an easy proposition.

The biggest counter-arguments in this kind of discussion inevitably involve airplanes.  Science and medicine, particularly at the research end, are conflated with technological advances, and the argument goes something like this:  Every time you fly in an airplane, you prove that science isn’t socially constructed and that science knows what it is doing.  And this specious argument can be extended to the claim that literature, opera, art, and social-science don’t have the faintest thing to do with keeping that plane up in the air or guiding it to a destination.

In response, we’d say—keep the airplanes flying, but we have much to add about the history of aviation, representation of flight in literature, the metaphorics of being sky-high, the economics of global transportation, the sociology of travel, and so on and so on. Likewise, keep the brain scans working and keep studying how seratonin works, but we have much to say about the mind-body problem and can help interpret data, so, for example, when you are studying where OCD lives in the brain, you don’t assume that OCD is a free-standing, simple disease rather than a complex set of observations and behaviors (a disease-entity) linked inextricably to cultural norms.

In the end, all branches of knowledge interpret.  Interpretation isn’t all that they do, but it constitutes a massive common ground.  Scientists set up experiments to generate data that they interpret.  Literary critics interpret texts. Judges interpret the law.  Sign language interpreters and translators transform one language into another.  Theologians interpret the Bible or the Koran.  Sociologists interpret human activity, and anthropologists interpret kinship systems or modes of behavior.  Psychoanalysts interpret dreams; and neurologists interpret PET scans of dreams.  If we are all interpreting data, then we are doing more or less the same thing.  If we can’t help interpreting, if interpretation is something that humans do across cultures, wouldn’t it make sense from a biocultural perspective to consider minds as embodied, as constrained or enabled in their interpretative acts by the structure of brain and body in connection with a material environment always shaped or informed by culture?  Wouldn’t we all benefit by learning the rules or norms by which various discourses produce and interpret their findings?  Wouldn’t such knowledge help us improve our own perhaps distinctive interpretative norms and skills? Biocultures argues for a community of interpreters, across disciplines, willing to learn from each other.  This learning, while not discord-free, offers a model for dialogue and holds out a promise that interpretative disagreements need not become occasions for violent conflict.  It also suggests that the humanities may learn from other disciplines how to study significant textual features and affiliations accessible outside a narrow or exclusive focus on interpretation—features perhaps traceable through explorations in cognitive neuroscience such as fMRI brain imaging studies or through anthropological explorations in material culture and in social practice, which connect language and sign systems with what meaning (or meaning alone) cannot convey.

To this end, we need to change our modes of thinking, the arrangement of our discourses, the inviolability of our professions.  We need to develop curricula so that we can do biocultures better.  Now, at this moment, most bioculturalists are amateurs.  The work they have done outside of their own field is based on curiosity, interest, and obsession.  They have learned a second discipline often with the imperfections and indelible accents that mark a second language.  What we need now is a way that students in the humanities can learn how to do experiments and that students in science can learn about philosophy and theory.  We need to find such a way before students have learned to speak an inherited, confining, discredited language of hard and soft, of fact and value, of mine and yours.  Maybe the liberal arts never were as liberal or freeing as its proponents believed–liberal, that is, in the etymological sense that referred to a knowledge worthy of (slave-owning) citizens as distinct from slaves.  Maybe what we need is even a new program or division of biocultural studies, where important questions such as what constitutes freedom cannot be divorced from equally important (and intrinsically related) scientific questions about humans and their limits.

The side benefit of a biocultural revolution is an informed citizenry.  In the old days we taught civics because we recognized that ordinary citizens needed basic knowledge of their polity so they could vote intelligently and discuss reasonably in the public sphere.  Now we need to teach biocultures so that ordinary citizens can understand the scientific advances (often inextricable from ethical difficulties) that will impact our lives and the lives of future citizens.  Most citizens today could not reasonably vote on such issues as stem-cell research, nanotechnology, genomic and genetic screening, climate change, energy consumption and so on—yet nothing short of the destiny of the human race and the Earth are at stake.

So what starts out as a donnish call to bring the sciences and the humanities together concludes on a millennialist (not necessarily alarmist) note.  The issue isn’t merely academic; in fact, the academic side of things turns out to be something far more than what the public means by the phrase “merely academic.”  Is it in keeping with a manifesto to claim that the outcome is necessary, historic, revolutionary, earth-changing?  If so, then we risk the claim.  The impending risks that follow from continuing down the old science-humanities divide may make the time for renewed academic risk-taking seem absolutely urgent.

This is a manifesto not only about risks but also about benefits.  The benefits of a biocultural approach are many, varied, and, at this point, unpredictable.  As you read through the essays collected here, we hope that you may be moved to imagine additional possibilities within a biocultural approach.  No manifesto, however, should conclude without a series of provocative assaults on the received wisdom it disputes.  You may load these bullet points into your computer and fire them off to friends and foe.  The spectre of biocultures is upon us.

  • Science and humanities are incomplete with out each other
  • It is untrue that the humanities are the realm of values and the sciences the realm of facts.
  • Science isn’t hard and the humanities aren’t soft.
  • You can’t fully understand the results of a given data set without knowing the historical, social, cultural, discursive fields surrounding the data.
  • Any contemporary research needs more than a cursory background in history and in the history of the concepts it employs
  • You can’t study a subject that is an object.
  • You can’t study an object that isn’t a subject.
  • Diseases are disease entities
  • If you divide truths in half you get half-truths.
  • If you divide knowledge, your knowledge is divided.
  • Pain is always in your head because your brain is.
  • Nothing human is universal or atemporal.
  • Embodiment is necessarily biological, and knowledge is always embodied.
  • A fact is a socially produced conclusion.
  • The boundary between organic and inorganic is no longer clear.
  • Technology has become human; humans have become technologies.
  • Patients and experimental subjects are part of the decision-making process.
  • Science can be postmodern; postmodernisms can be scientific.
  • Biology, as a science, cannot exist outside culture; culture, as a practice, cannot exist outside biology.
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