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Cheating At Life?, pt. II: Genealogy of Modern Life

If you haven’t already, click here to read Part I of this series, introducing the problem of life at the margins of political economy in the modern era of biopolitics.

Recently I wrote about a species of parasitic wasp, the course of whose evolutionary history has effectively performed a genome modification on certain species of Lepidoptera –butterflies and moths – taking place over about the past 100 million years.  What is fascinating about the wasps, who transfer part of their own genome into the lineage of Lepidoptera through the injection of an archaeal virus into the host, seem to incur in a mutually advantageous relationship of reciprocity; this, because the bracovirus transmitted by the wasps has been adapted by the host species, so as to provide a natural resistance against the similarly structured baculovirus: a common environmental pathogen that they face.

What makes cases of mutualistic species interactions such as these so interesting is that they challenge the dominant research paradigm in evolutionary biology and related disciplines, like evolutionary ecology, molecular genetics, zoology and population science.  The Neo-Darwinist worldview still implicit in the popular research of many such disciplines essentially provides an explanatory structure or set of epistemic aims, which conducts standards of the justified acceptance of particular hypotheses as true or truth-baring, is a result of the initial research success of a tendency that gave rise to Huxley’s “Modern Synthesis” of the mid-20th century, between the laws of classical genetics and evolutionary laws operating at the level of populations.[1]  On the Neo-Darwinist view, species interactions are still largely envisioned in terms of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the only trace of mutualism is taken to be ‘mutual exploitation’ (here I am quoting evolutionary ecologist Emily Jones, lead on a recent study of evolutionary cheating which confounds the Neo-Darwinian worldview and to which we shall return; Jones is quoting her old graduate studies advisor, apparently an adherent of the orthodox view).  Perhaps the most familiar, if discredited view, at the furthest logical extension of the Neo-Darwinist paradigm, is the story of the selfish gene, and of the genetic transfer of cultural “memes”, advanced by Richard Dawkins.  Dawkinsian levels of biological reduction are not typically considered to be a ‘hot topic’ at the forefront of biological research anymore, but the related debate between mutualistic and competitive interactionism is.

Jones’ study notes that, from the early development of Darwinism in the mid-19th century “[t]hrough the 1980s, interpretations of the causes and consequences of cheating in mutualisms developed largely in the absence of any theoretical framework”[2] on cheating as such.  The study takes the form of a literature review, revisiting empirical data on several of the best studied cases of what had hitherto been considered prime examples of evolutionary cheating.  Despite the ‘absence of any theoretical framework’, the metaphor of competition was suffused throughout early modern research on species interactions: mere occupants referred to as ‘parasites’, orchids luring pollinators labeled as ‘deceptive’, and so forth.  The noted absence of a unifying theoretical framework is interesting.  It can be taken to suggest the presence of structural factors, primordial to the epistemic activity of theorizing, by virtue of which diverse programs of research were able to converge upon the veridicality of what was and is ultimately a social metaphor.

I suggest that an adequate explanation of the sway that the metaphor of competition had on early modern evolutionary biology, which today is challenged by studies like Jones’, must be understood with respect to two key factors: i., the conceptual revolution ushered in by the early history of evolutionary theory, whose champion was to be Charles Darwin, which transformed Western rationality in such a way that the social and political being of humankind was seen as capable of explanation by and subjection to biological controls; and ii., the rise of the capitalist class in the bourgeois revolution of mid-19th century Europe, whose own self-justification and ideals of class freedom were a problem for it.  The aristocracy and old feudal monarchies were associated with the Church, whose overthrow as the cornerstone of social and cultural knowledge was already aided and abetted by the earlier Copernican Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.  Through this overthrow, a mechanistic world brought into view by the Newtonian and Cartesian cliques was brought under the control of man’s industrial and technical mastery, decentered from the designing hand of an increasingly distant divine creator.

We may tentatively advance the thesis that the success of a political revolution is partially contingent upon an accompanying revolution in the understanding that legitimates the new regime.

The breaking down of the last vestiges of feudal society, in which peasant and lord alike were tied to the land; the ascendancy of merchants, financiers, and manufacturers; the growing power in France of the noblesse de la robe in parallel to the old noblesse the l’épée – all were in contradiction with a world view that saw changes in state as only occasional and unusual, the result of irregular reallocations of grace.  Reciprocally, a world view that made change an essential feature of natural systems was inconceivable in a social world of fixed hereditary relations.  Human beings see the natural world as a reflection of the social organization that is the dominant reality of their lives.[3]

We can see that early Darwinism furnished Europe with just the right ideological conditions to justify the rise of the bourgeoisie as the new ruling class.  In this sense, the early development of Darwinian Theory is best understood as an event which effects a reciprocity between the material reality and ideological conditions of bourgeois class rule.  This reciprocity is made even clearer when we consider that the idea of evolutionary adaptation was, for Darwin, a post hoc explanatory mechanism of natural selection, inspired by his reading of Malthus’ (1798) Essay on the Principle of Population.  It is from Malthus’ essay that Darwin developed the idea of the ‘struggle for existence’, which assures the evolutionary successes of individuals whose hereditary traits would allow them to appropriate resources from the environment with maximal efficiency in direct competition with others. …


Cheating At Life? Biopolitics at the Margins of Political Economy, pt. I

In recent weeks, Daraprim – a generic drug used to treat the potentially deadly toxoplasmosis – has been the center of a biopolitical drama.  Overnight, the life-saving drug saw a 5000% price hike, drawing attention to other recently publicized price-inflation scandals in the American pharmaceutical industry, and rearing the head of capitalistic enterprise in the biotechnological world.  Although brought down slightly in price amid public outcry, the medicine that once cost around $13.50 per pill still hovers in the hundreds.  Recently, San Diego based drug company Imprimis has introduced a direct competitor to Turing Pharmaceuticals’ Daraprim, for a lower price.  The surprise, the outrage, and the rush to regulation and price balancing abandoned to the free market, all signify what has caught us off guard at the modern intersection of biopolitics and biotechnology; we have entered into the era of biocapitalism.

Aristotle famously states in Book I of the Politics that “man is by nature a political animal [zōon politikon]”.[1]  This assertion is, in its essence, a birth of biopolitics in Athenian Antiquity.  If we are by nature political animals, then the sphere of political law would appear to be a special case of natural law; or, the study of the laws of nature has a strong positive normative valence for political constitution.  We might understand Aristotle as claiming that human beings are teleologically oriented towards the constitution of the polis, as the notion of final and formal causes are essential to his understanding of generality in the expressions of natural law.  It would follow that what is good for us qua living, rational, embodied organisms, is equally good for the constitution of the polis.  Good living [eu zēn] is necessary for ‘the good life’, or ‘happiness’ [eudaimonia]

Biopolitics suggests that the body is always already politicized.  This can be understood in several ways.  We can understand this to mean that the body is immediately transformed into a commodity, equal in value only to its own labour-power and reproduction.  We can understand it to mean that research in the biological sciences – evolutionary biology, zoology, ecology, population sciences, genetics and bacteriology, etc. – reveals intimate facts about the nature of life itself, and that our knowledge of these natures has a transformative effect on our constitution of political organization, in the form of the modern state.  For Foucault, biopolitics is a modern governmental technology, which serves to construct a regime of truth inextricable from the power structures tied to neoliberal political economy and inseparable from political rationality.[2]  I propose that the former two claims, on the new commodity form of the biopolitical body and the biopolitical transformation of political understanding, can only be understood with a more literal interpretation of the Foucauldian sense of biopolitics as technology.  The biotechnological revolution, especially in the fields of medicine and agriculture, is essentially a revolution in a certain means of production.  The health of the body politic falls to the care of the capitalist state, which only implements its medicines from the free market, in the form of a neoliberal approach to financial regulation.

The marriage of biocapitalism and biotechnology consummates the power relations suggested by Foucault, through the technological appropriation of the body, for the purpose of a transformation of labour-power wherein the living body of the labourer at once produces her own organic subsistence.  The biocapitalist no longer needs to provide the means of subsistence to the worker from out of his own profits; the cyborg union of living and dead labour already provides sustenance for itself through its own work.  Labour-power is transformed into biopower.  Many of these critical concepts appear at first as mere wordplay.  In what follows, I hope to demonstrate how each comes into effect through the use of concrete examples, picked out from modern biology and political economy.  I will take up the topics of evolutionary ‘cheating’, the ideology of the modern biological orthodoxy, biological systems models of complexity suggested as regulatory frameworks to tame the anarchy of the capitalist free market, and a brief Marxist critique thereof, in an attempt to reveal sites of struggle in the era of biocapitalism.  Ultimately, I shall argue that the modern dominion by biotechnology and the immediate appropriation by biocapitalism of the biopolitical body besets human subjectivity with a bondage from which it has no escape.  Rightly framed as a decisive problem of modernity, I shall turn to postmodern thought in an attempt to address the possibility of freedom from biotechnology and biocapitalism.  This last movement of the present essay shall hint on Heidegger and Levinas, on towards the Italian postmodern philosopher Gianni Vattimo.  In a way, the main thread that I draw through these arguments belongs to Levinas.  The most pressing problem for being – a being born into the biopolitical body and always already under biotechnological and biocapitalist control as such – is the problem of escape.[3]

[1] Aristotle, Politics I.2 (1253a1).

[2] Foucault, ‘The Birth of Biopolitics’ in Michel Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), 73-79.

[3] Levinas, De l’évasion (‘On Escape’, 1935).…

Weekly Roundup, Post-election #Cdnsci Edition

One of the first actions of the new Liberal government was the reinstatement of Canada’s long-form census on Nov. 5th, one day after its swearing-in. The data collected in the 2011 National Household Survey, the shorter, non-mandatory version of the survey, has been confirmed not be compatible with previous StatsCan data collection efforts, and not to provide enough information about the effectiveness of social programs. The long-form census had broad support across segments of Canadian society, and its cancellation in 2010 was denounced by almost everyone, even inspiring a song in favour of its preservation. The move for its reinstatement occurred in time for the next planned census, in 2016, to the relief of researchers at the University of Toronto. A Globe and Mail editorial argues that in addition to the return of the long-form census, the Liberal government must reinvest in StatsCan, undoing the deep budget cuts of the Harper era.

Another major science policy issue during the campaign, the unmuzzling of Canadian federal scientists, took place the next day. These scientists are now permitted to discuss their work with the media and the public. Under Harper, scientists were treated as “second-class citizens” hundreds of scientists in the public service were “asked to exclude or alter technical information in government documents for non-scientific reasons” according to a 2013 survey.  Celebrations at the unmuzzling were mixed with warnings that better Canadian science policy requires restoring lost jobs, repairing damaged relations between government and NGO agencies, reversing decisions relying on bad or no evidence; basically, overturning the many issues of Harper era’s science policy. Policy expert Paul Boothe warns, in addition, that government scientists must maintain a difficult balance of objectivity and loyalty no matter who’s in charge.

Weekly Roundup

We still have no idea what to eat, but now we’re worried about meat. And sugar. And potatoes.  And cranberry sauce.

Want an original costume this Halloween, or an entirely unoriginal one? Just ask Google. If you’re a science fan, you can build a playable Pumpkris or perform some spooky experiments or find the geekiestgeekiest costumes.

And the onslaught on science was painstakingly documented, which tends to happen when you go after librarians.” The newly elected Canadian Liberal government has pledged to reverse muzzling policies affecting federal scientists and to reinstate the long-form census.

Should field biologists kill rare specimens of species for study? Many disagree with this longstanding natural history practice, as suggested by to recent debates over the actions of the AMNH’s Christopher Filardi who euthanized a moustached kingfisher for further study.

The BMJ has retracted former Memorial University nutrition scientist R. K. Chandra’s study on the links between eczema risk and  infant formula/breastmilk, thanks in part to a 2006 CBC documentary.

It is not a good time to be one of higher education’s fields of study in the humanities and social sciences, as they have been the target of disdain across the political spectrum. In Canada, Stephen Harper has been notoriously anti-sociology. Now potential Republican candidate Jeb Bush has dismissed the college majors of psychology and philosophy, linking them to  jobs in the fast-food industry. In response, psych majors are describing their meaningful work on Twitter using the hashtag #ThisPsychMajor.…

Weekly Roundup

We have no idea what to eat.

Women suffer the deleterious health effects of stressful jobs more strongly, and should be relegated to career choices better suited to the feminine temperament, like “scientists and architects.”

Dark side of the moon(base).

Back to the Future II’s “future” happens tomorrow (October 21st, 2015). We’ve already seen a working hoverboard prototype; which of the film’s other predictions have come true?

“What was once whispered privately in laboratories and offices is being discussed publicly, loudly, and clearly.” WIRED looks at why we’re not putting up with sexism in science anymore.

Lastly, a bizarre story from the GMO wars, in which University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta, whose ties to Monsanto were revealed in a FOIA-aided investigation, had previously interviewed himself on the topic of GMOs via his pseudonymous science podcast personality Vern Blazek.…


How likely is it that there are aliens around KIC 8462852?

Like many, I was fascinated and excited to read about KIC 8462852, “The Most Mysterious Star in Our Galaxy.” According to Ross Anderson, writing for The Atlantic, citizen scientists looking at data from the Kepler Space Telescope for signs of extrasolar planets picked out KIC 8462852 as having a very peculiar light curve. Whereas stars with orbiting planets show dips in their brightness of up to 1% as planets pass between them and our telescopes, KIC 8462852 showed dips of up to 22%:
Kepler's light curve for the entire 1580-day observation period, showing two large dips in brightness, near days 793 and 1520. Source: Boyajian et. al, "Planet Hunters X"
Kepler’s light curve for the entire 1580-day observation period, showing two large dips in brightness, near days 793 and 1520. Source: Boyajian et. al, “Planet Hunters X”

Tabitha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale working with the Planet Hunters program, and her coauthors considered several possible explanations for the dips, including instrument malfunction, dust orbiting the star, contamination of the star’s light curve by nearby stars, and comets disturbed out of their usual orbits by a passing star. They found severe problems with each explanation, but settled on a comet as the most likely possibility.…

Weekly Roundup

Do you like black coffee? Celery? Tonic water? Beer? You may have psychopathic tendencies. Or you may just be a person who likes to eat and drink stuff.

Yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day, celebrating the contributions of the woman we generally (but not always) consider to be the first computer programmer. It’s also a time to highlight historical women scientists as well as encourage girls’ interest in technology. There are events worldwide; in Canada, there will be a Wikipedia edit-a-thon at York University on Oct. 29th. In addition to her role as STEM touchstone, Lovelace has also become something of a steampunk heroine.

The Dr. Oz ShowNot as terrible as it was before.

Finally, a debate on the state of federal science policy during the election. Candidates from each party (including the Conservatives, who refused to participate in a similar debate earlier in the election) answered questions from Bob McDonald, host of CBC’s Quirks and Quarks on federal research, muzzling, and the environment.

Queen’s University emeritus professor Arthur McDonald will share the 2015 Nobel Prize in physics with  Takaaki Kajita for their work demonstrating neutrino oscillation, which required a non-zero mass for neutrinos and consequently challenged the Standard Model of particle physics. Science fiction fans will recognize SNOLAB, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory laboratory where McDonald conducted his research, as the location of a portal to a parallel dimension of Neanderthals in the Hugo award-winning Robert J. Sawyer novel Homonids.

Thor’s hammer Mjolnir can only be wielded by someone “worthy”; in Marvel comics and shared universe of films, it’s the most prominent example of Arthur C. Clarke’s adage that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Indeed, Thor‘s filmmakers relied on Clarke’s “magi-tech rule” to explain the abilities of a pantheon of Norse gods/benevolent aliens. Now someone’s built a real-life Mjolnir with its own “worthiness” criterion, thanks to an electromagnet and fingerprint scanner.…

Will You Ever Be Able to Upload Your Brain? – The New York Times

The Singluarity is not so near?

Futurist Ray Kurzweil is famous for arguing that “The Singularity is near,” meaning that soon humans and machines will merge; we will be able to upload our minds to the cloud and live forever. Kenneth D. Miller, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, agrees that something like this could one day be a reality, but he doubts that it will be anytime soon:

Much of the current hope of reconstructing a functioning brain rests on connectomics: the ambition to construct a complete wiring diagram, or “connectome,” of all the synaptic connections between neurons in the mammalian brain. Unfortunately connectomics, while an important part of basic research, falls far short of the goal of reconstructing a mind, in two ways. First, we are far from constructing a connectome. The current best achievement was determining the connections in a tiny piece of brain tissue containing 1,700 synapses; the human brain has more than a hundred billion times that number of synapses. While progress is swift, no one has any realistic estimate of how long it will take to arrive at brain-size connectomes. (My wild guess: centuries.)

Miller goes on to explain all of the additional difficulties future scientists would encounter in this endeavor due to the enormous complexities of our brain’s anatomy. His argument is fascinating even if you aren’t hoping to live for eternity on Google Drive; I had no idea just how complex the components of our brain such as neurons and synapses are. Each synapse is a world in itself.

Kurzweil’s rebuttal would be that although all of these tasks appear intractable now, the exponential growth of scientific knowledge will reduce the difficulty of each problem Miller identifies far faster than the pace of current scientific progress suggests. One of Kurzweil’s favorite examples is the Human Genome Project, which took 7 years to sequence the first 1% of the humane genome and just another 7 years to sequence the last 99%. I suspect, however, that even exponential growth might not save Kurzweil in this case. After all, not all rates of exponential growth are equal and it’s not like we have full-brain “sequencing” machines just yet.

Adding complexity to our models does not necessarily give us a more realistic picture of brain circuits because we do not know enough about the details of this complexity to model it accurately, and the complexity can obscure the relationships we are trying to grasp.

That adding more detail to a model does not always increase model performance is an effect that has been well-studied in the domain of climate science. Are there philosophers studying brain modelling as well?

Source and Image: Will You Ever Be Able to Upload Your Brain? – The New York Times

The history of science has been West-centric for too long – it’s time to think global

Schaffer & Sivasundaram: The history of science has been West-centric for too long

If you’re like me, you probably give a brief nod to non-Western science in your history courses. Perhaps you discuss Arabic astronomy or Chinese clocks. And then you get back to the familiar narrative of Copernicus, Newton, and Darwin. Historians of science Simon Schaffer and Sujit Sivasundaram are trying to change that—to tell a truly “global history of science”:

“A standard tale is that modern science spread around the world from Western Europe, starting about 500 years ago based on the work of those such as Newton, Copernicus and Galileo, and then Darwin, Einstein, and so on,” explained Schaffer. “But this narrative about the globalisation of science just doesn’t work at all. It ignores a remarkable process of knowledge exchange that happened between the East and West for centuries.”


“Successful science is seen to be universal in its applicability,” added Sivasundaram. “Yet, accounts of scientific discovery, heroism and priority have been part and parcel of a political narrative of competitive ownership by empires, nations and civilisations. To tease this story apart, we focus on the exchanges and ‘silencings’ across political configurations that are central to the rise of science on the global stage.”


Over the past two years, with funding from UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, he and Schaffer have undertaken a programme of debates to ask whether a transregional rather than a Eurocentric history of science could now be told.


To do so, they teamed up with researchers in India and Africa, including Professor Irfan Habib from Delhi’s National University of Educational Planning and Administration and Professor Dhruv Raina of Jawarhalal Nehru University, and in December 2014 held an international workshop at the Nehru Memorial Library in New Delhi. “And now our debate is also being carried forward by a new generation of early-career researchers who came to the workshop,” added Sivasundaram.

You can watch Shaffer and Sivasundaram discuss the project and some of its challenges here:


Source and Image: The history of science has been West-centric for too long – it’s time to think global


No, Scientists Have Not Found the ‘Gay Gene’ – The Atlantic

This Thursday, Michael Balter at Science Magazine (and many others) reported that geneticists had found “that epigenetic effects, chemical modifications of the human genome that alter gene activity without changing the DNA sequence, may have a major influence on sexual orientation.” As Balter observes, such a finding could be welcome news for LGBTQ rights advocates, as it would combat those who argue that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice.” On the other hand, such a finding could suggest the possibility of biomedical interventions, a prospect that I find very disturbing.

Fortunately, Ed Yong of The Atlantic dropped some common sense and statistics on the whole affair:

The problems begin with the size of the study, which is tiny. The field of epigenetics is littered with the corpses of statistically underpowered studies like these, which simply lack the numbers to produce reliable, reproducible results.


Unfortunately, the problems don’t end there. The team split their group into two: a “training set” whose data they used to build their algorithm, and a “testing set”, whose data they used to verify it. That’s standard and good practice—exactly what they should have done. But splitting the sample means that the study goes from underpowered to really underpowered.
If you use this strategy, chances are you will find a positive result through random chance alone.


There’s also another, larger issue. As far as could be judged from the unpublished results presented in the talk, the team used their training set to build several models for classifying their twins, and eventually chose the one with the greatest accuracy when applied to the testing set. That’s a problem because in research like this, there has to be a strict firewall between the training and testing sets; the team broke that firewall by essentially using the testing set to optimise their algorithms.


If you use this strategy, chances are you will find a positive result through random chance alone. Chances are some combination of methylation marks out of the original 6,000 will be significantly linked to sexual orientation, whether they genuinely affect sexual orientation or not. This is a well-known statistical problem that can be at least partly countered by running what’s called a correction for multiple testing. The team didn’t do that. (In an email to The Atlantic, Ngun denies that such a correction was necessary.)

So it seems that this is probably all just a case of bad scientific methodology; yet another instance of scientists abusing significance measures to manufacture spurious findings. Which should come as no surprise, given that it is absurd to think there could be such a simple genetic cause of such a complex trait as sexual orientation.