Weekly Roundup, Best “Best Of” Edition

It’s time for our annual Roundup roundup, where I count down the best “best of” science and technology lists from 2015.

10. Reflecting interest in science topics by the mainstream media, Scientific American’s Top 10 Science Stories of 2015 features their list of newsworthy items. Football concussions, drone regulation, and cybersecurity make the cut, as did Volkswagen’s diesel misdeeds.

9. Discovery News’ Top 10 Space Stories of 2015: Readers’ Choice, detailing the year’s most popular NASA missions, observatory discoveries, and commercial spaceflight trials, as well as The Martian.

8. The award for the best science news we didn’t hear about goes to the Smithsonian for Cool Science Stories You May Have Missed in 2015, including weather-controlling mushrooms.

7. Weird Science! The Top 10 Weirdest Science Stories Of 2015 from IFLScience counts down such oddities as DARPA’s vampire drones, human chimerism, and whatever nonsense flatworms are up to these days.

6. Phil Plait of Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog gives us The Top Space and Astronomy Stories of 2015 (in video form, including a transcript with images).

5. For a briefer overview emphasizing Canadian content (the Nobel Prize in Physics, but disappointing results in a poll about attitudes about climate change), check out Quirks & Quarks’ host Bob McDonald’s The top science stories of 2015 that were covered by his CBC radio program.

4. Top 10 STEM Toys for 2015 by The Toy Insider Mom, which includes both last year’s STEM for girls heavyweight GoldieBlox and their more recent lookalike Mighty Makers from K’NEX.

3. Gizmodo’s 10 Scariest, Weirdest, Coolest Robots of 2015, including Canada’s very own hitchBOT.

2. WIRED’s Nick Stockton showcases “all the science heroics from the past year” with All the Most Winningest Science From 2015. Topping the list: reproducibility watchdog Brian Nosek.

And best of all the “best of” lists, thanks to its pleasantly underhyped approach…

1. Mental Floss’ Top 10 Science Stories of 2015 by science journalist Dan Falk keeps the hype on a low simmer instead of the usual rolling boil, sharing our excitement about awesome science news while deftly debunking the nonsense.…

Photo Credit: Johannes Stoetter

Cheating At Life?, pt. VI: Art and the Biotechnological Embodied Self

Last week, we wrapped up by suggesting that the control revolution of biotechnology in the modern era of biopolitics issues a demand for escape; viz., escape from the power relations that immediately take up my body and transform it into something otherwise than my own. The control revolution set forth over both the biopolitical body and the body politic has been established as a decisive problem for modernity. In this week’s post, the final of this series, I want to take some preliminary steps towards framing the question of escape as a flight from modernity, into postmodern thought.

Last week we took up the theme of escape as it appears in Levinas, through and against the philosophy of one of his most important intellectual forebears, Heidegger. We must recall that, for Heidegger, the essence of technology is nothing technological; rather, its essence is Enframing [Gestell]. Enframing is best understood as a gathering together of objects, as within the frame of a painting, that orders and reveals its objects in a particular way. Technology orders its objects in the mode of standing-reserve, in which objects become cease to become objects in their gathering together as such, and rather fall into a mechanical ordering, as in the ‘rods, pistons, and chassis’ of an engine.   Technology, in this sense, transcends mere instrumentality; “man stands within the essential realm of Enframing. He can never take up a relationship to it only subsequently. Thus the question as to how we are to arrive at a relationship to the essence of technology… always comes too late.”[1] The modern crisis is such that the human subject no longer finds itself in the human being, but as an already biotechnological body whose pure exchange-value is the reproduction of biopower. It is this Levinasian bondage of the subject to the facticity of its biological being, in which it finds itself always already in the order of standing-reserve; that is, as already transformed into pure exchange-value. Enframing, as a kind of revealing, is always what reveals the being of the subject to itself. This Enframing, in which the question of the relationship of the human being to the essence of technology ‘always comes too late’, thus destines [‘destining’, Geschick] the subject upon a history [Geschichte] not essentially different from its way of revealing. Here we have another view of Heidegger as a thinker against modernity, in the form of an identifiable ‘end of history’ which being immediately confronts, and in relation to which being is forced to reorient itself as a subject. The view of the essence of technology as pure instrumentality challenges humanity’s freedom in relation to it, precisely because the failure to acknowledge its real essence, which is Enframing, sets being upon a destining in which it is always already revealed to itself as if through the frame, which in an important sense predetermines the history of being (if not in the strong sense of predetermination, perhaps we can say that Enframing sets boundary conditions on the possibility of the history of being). For Heidegger, “[f]reedom is the realm of the destining that at any given time starts a revealing upon its way [my emphasis].”[2] The ‘at any given time’ condition is important; man cannot simply step out of the frame and find his being there once he has set himself upon the course of a destining as Enframing.

The supreme danger of a “destining [that] reigns in the mode of Enframing,” is exactly the problem of the modern constitution of biopolitics and the biotechnological transformation of the body. “This danger attests itself to us in two ways. As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but does so, rather, exclusively as standing-reserve, and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve.”[3] That is, man comes to the point of encountering himself only in the commodity form, as instrument of biopower. “Meanwhile man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth.”[4] Here we find the modern constitution of the sovereign body as the biopolitical body, which excludes ‘bare life’ [zoē] from the body politic precisely by including it in the sovereign sphere as standing-reserve, on the threshold of inclusion into the political body [bios] only on the condition of its transformation to a commodity form under biocapitalism, whose labour-power is biopower. This returns us to Agamben’s claim that “the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power,”[5] coupled with a logic of the sovereign structure of the law in which the self-constitution of the sovereign is always as an exception from the juridical order, putting the sovereign body on the threshold of what is included and what is excluded from the sphere of law. The sovereign body as biopolitical body includes in the form of the incorporation of ‘bare life’ into the political body, and excludes in the form of a rejection of ‘bare life’ outside of the threshold of the sphere of law, the political body which the sovereign immediately is.

The modern era of biopolitics leaps forth dramatically from history in the form of the Third Reich – so much so, that Agamben eventually equates the sovereign body with the body of the Führer: “[t]he Führer’s body is… situated at the point of coincidence between zoē and bios, biological body and political body. In his person, zoē and bios incessantly pass over into each other.”[6] The Führer’s word is immediately law [nomos] setting forth into the sphere of law, which sets forth immediately from his self-constitution as bios including zoē only as an exclusion from self. In The New Biopolitics, “Body is knowledge, and knowledge is power”[7]; in the body of the Führer, knowledge can also be read nomos in this sense.…


Science Isn’t Broken? Of Course It Is!

According to FiveThirtyEight.com’s Christie Aschwanden, “Science Isn’t Broken. It’s just a hell of a lot harder than we give it credit for.” Aschwanden’s article is a remarkably clear and forceful tour of all things wrong with science—poor statistical practice, poor study design, conscious and unconscious manipulation of data, outright falsification of data, plagiarism, fraudulent peer reviews, predatory publishers, fake authors of gibberish articles in mostly fake journals, ingrained psychological biases, and over-enthusiastic journalists breathlessly reporting on each new study as if it is the Truth etched in stone. But despite all that, she concludes that:

Science isn’t broken, nor is it untrustworthy. It’s just more difficult than most of us realize. We can apply more scrutiny to study designs and require more careful statistics and analytic methods, but that’s only a partial solution. To make science more reliable, we need to adjust our expectations of it.

Aschwanden is one of my favorite science journalists, but in this case I feel like she dipped her toes into the abyss and turned back, unwilling to to take that final step into the terrifying unknown of admitting that yes,  science is broken—obviously, deeply broken. It is permeated by perverse incentives that reward publishing results over discovering truth, and corporations are hijacking scientific institutions to give their products the stamp of scientific validation. No simple fix in how journalists report about science or to the details of statistical practice or study design will fix it.…


Cheating At Life?, pt. V: Neoliberal Biocapitalism

Last week’s discussion wrapped up by talking about the transformation of the body under the biotechnological revolution of the modern biopolitical era. Today, we’ll begin by rounding out our analysis with a more detailed treatment of Levin and Lo’s recommendations for the regulation of financial markets grounded in biological systems approaches to complexity. By the end of this movement in the present essay, my hope is that the control revolution set forth by biopolitics upon both individual bodies, as well as the body politic, will appear to be total. Finally, the question issued by biopolitics as a decisive problem for modernity, will be a question of escape.

Levin and Lo’s article offers four specific insights from evolutionary biology and ecology that its authors suggest regulators ought to take into account: i., “too big to fail,” ii., “adaptive regulation,” iii., “homeostatic mechanisms,” and iv., “robustness and resiliency.”[1]  We concluded, after taking a look at the varieties of living things at the margins of what evolutionary biologists typically consider to constitute ‘Life’, and by following a review of evolutionary ‘cheating’ that calls into question basic unspoken assumptions about actual standards of the justified acceptance of biological theories and the sociopolitical foundations of modern biological worldviews, that there exists a certain identifiable liberalizing trend in the biopolitical sphere of late neoliberal capitalism.  Perhaps this comes as no surprise; the ideology of many liberal academics and of the ruling class more generally is that the neo-capitalism of modern neoliberalism has grown past the violent and bloody stages of ‘classical’ capitalism so vilified by Marxists and other more radical theorists.  If Life itself becomes a “cultural or artificial construct open to calculative and regulative interventions of administration,”[2] then presumably control over the biopolitical body could be softened under neoliberal administration (or even reappropriated for the socialized production of a latent biopolitical ‘biosocialism’).  It seems we can rest assured that the result of a union between biological systems theories and political economy will not result in brusque normative pronouncements by the former along the lines of the orthodox view captured by the title of Jones’ study: “Cheaters must prosper”.

‘Too big to fail’ makes the analogy between the unrestricted growth of financial institutions – noted as one of the key precipitating factors of the 2008 Financial Crisis – and the malignant growth of cancerous tumours.  ‘Adaptive regulation’ suggests a set of improved frameworks for environmental responsiveness modeled on the individual adaptations of organisms to specific problems posed by their environment, and specifically proposes allowing financial regulators to restrict leverage restrictions to a risk analysis between the assets of financial institutions and the macroeconomy.  We saw earlier that evolutionary adaptation was a post hoc explanatory mechanism posited by Darwin, inspired by a social metaphor that was popularized by Malthus.  The epistemic aim of evolutionary adaptation provides ideological justification for the class rule of the bourgeoisie, slated on a vision of gradual progress towards perfection and dynamic systems of change that allowed for an upwards social mobility that became the dominance of an entire class in society.  To concretize new class relations under the rule of the capitalist class, the entire dynamics of change which saw their rise had to be posited as a ‘Homeostatic mechanism’, whose internal dynamics only ever achieve the illusion of change, as if in a Parmenidean bubble of being.  The particular mechanisms suggested on the biological systems approach suggest the “imposition of frictions to slow [the] growth [of financial institutions]”[3] brought about by privatized innovation.  This apparent effort to renormalize and reduce internal inequalities within the existing economic system is thus seen to serve the double function of preserving existing class relations, while minimizing the direct personal financial impact of being the subordinate party to a control dynamic.  In this way, to paraphrase Levins and Lewontin, ‘Whig biology already mimics Whig history and political theory’, with its long history of mass pre-revolutionary labour unrest subdued and abated by the capitalist class, if not through the direct expression of force, then through ostensibly generous concessions and reforms, all in the name of preserving the existing political order.  Finally, ‘Robustness and resiliency’ urges the application of the notion of ecosystem robustness to the market, effectively connecting the deleterious outcomes of financial oligopolies to a reflection of the damage sustained by ecosystems as a result of the loss of biodiversity.

Here, it appears that the face of biopolitics itself has become merely a partisan issue.  The internal dynamics of the proposed biological systems approach, to the liberal theorist, will appear in the light of the progress of an advanced western capitalism towards egalitarian self-regulation and the eventual dissolution of internal difference, in the form of the reduction of social and income inequalities.  To the left of liberalism, Marxists will decry the homeostatic mechanism as an ideological barrier to the true destiny of progressive historical change after the bourgeois revolution, in the name of the proletarian revolution and the progress towards socialist society.  Marxist critique thereby always positions itself in relation to the dynamic system as in the relation of ‘Critical theory’ to ‘Traditional theory’, as Lyotard argues, who equally connects the traditional systems theories [Systemtheorie] to technocracy[4]; if the modern constitution of the biopolitical body were to become the target of such a Marxist critique, we could perhaps expect the latter to ground the revolutionary theory of political bodies in a symbolic reappropriation of the mummified remains of Lenin, installed by Stalin in a mausoleum in the Red Square in the center of Moscow, whose embalmed body surely can be taken to represent the immediate transformation of the modern political body into pure exchange-value.  But herein lies precisely the program with the Marxist critique, which is that there is no Archimedean point to which one can safely take flight in the hospices of critique.

… in countries with liberal or advanced liberal management, the struggles and their instruments have been transformed into regulators of the system; in communist countries, the totalizing model and its totalitarian effect have made a comeback in the name of Marxism itself, and the struggles in question have simply been deprived of the right to exist. 


Cheating At Life?, pt. IV: The Body and the Modern Biopolitical State

If you recall, we began this discussion with an interesting example of mutualistic interaction between species: that between parasitic wasps and host species of Lepidoptera, the latter of which is conferred with the apparent benefit of a selective adaptation that guards the species’ lineage from a common environmental pathogen.  On the orthodox view, identified by Emily Jones’ study, it might have been said that the parasite was cheating the host, tout court, glossing over the reciprocal relationship through which the host species also benefits from the exchange.  The study itself identifies plenty of similar examples.  Two Labroides bicolar, a species of cleaner fish, will partner themselves so that a guest may feed on the parasites of its host.  That the guest will occasionally take a bite out of its host had previously been considered an instance of cheating; however, a review of the literature suggests that it is unclear whether (or not) the host fish ascertains a measurable ‘fitness increase’ from having been bitten, thus making it unclear whether this counts as a case of cheating.[1]  Several Allomerus and Crematogaster ant species exhibit the peculiar behaviour of flower castration, sterilising plant growths on the host trees that have become habitat (called domatia) to the colony.  This reduces fecundity, but results in more vegetative growth, to the advantage of the ants, who have thereby evolved to extract a greater advantage out of their host; however, whether this counts as evidence of cheating must contend with new evidence showing that one species of sterilizing ant, albeit at the expense of plant reproduction, actually promotes overall plant fitness beyond the timeline of the colony’s occupancy.[2]  In these cases, it appears that the perception of evolutionary cheating falls to the preconception of a basic set of ontological assumptions grounded in lived social reality, where interactions are experienced as in a world of competitive individualism, rather than cooperative mutualism.

In fact, there seems to be a larger tendency in biology of which rethinking ‘cheating’ is only part, not yet equal in influence to the Neo-Darwinian paradigm, but perhaps approaching it.  New evidence of genome fusion and horizontal gene transfer, as in the case of the parasitic wasp, have complicated the phylogenetic Darwinian model of the ‘Tree of Life’, which now appear to contain circular root systems and intertwining branches, representing cooperative collaboration at the levels of evolutionary histories which challenge the old rigidly individuated branches.[3]  New research on prions, plasmids, archaeal viruses and cell organelles has suggested that, “whatever sense we might try to make of the Dawkinsian idea of selfish genes, molecular replication [i.e., ‘Life’] is always, and has always been from the pre-cellular molecular community to the present, the achievement of ensembles of molecules, not of individual molecules.”[4]  If the thesis of the genealogy of the modern era of biopolitics is correct, then there appears to be at least some evidence of a tendency towards liberalism within the sphere of biocapitalism, even if the liberalistic trend appears only at the margins of the existing intersection of biocapitalism and biotechnology.

This question was in the forefront of my mind when, recently, the most obvious road sign at this intersection appeared to me in the form of an opinion article, jointly published by evolutionary ecologist Simon Levin, and Andrew Lo of the MIT Laboratory for Financial Engineering, in a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).[5]  The article suggests meeting the challenge of market complexity and the possibility of instability in an era of collapse with the introduction of biological systems models into new regulatory frameworks to safeguard the state from the financial meltdown of a late capitalism in full crisis.

The economy is, after all, the product of the machinations, institutions, and interactions of individuals from one particular animal species, Homo sapiens. The unique abilities of our species—abstract thought, forward-looking and planning behavior, and social interactions, including sophisticated communication, computation, and large-scale cooperation—imply that the interactions are particularly subtle and complex. Nevertheless, they are still the product of animal behavior and the sooner we acknowledge this fact of nature, the sooner we can explore novel approaches to improving financial regulation.[6]

Never mind whether we have in fact become “technosapiens,”[7] or perhaps Homo economicus,[8] in transcendence of our species history qua Homo sapiens, as some suggest.  If the thesis of the modern constitution of the biopolitical body is at all correct, then it seems we are fully fallen into some form of each of these new evolutionary histories with something like a large-scale computational program for resolving the complexity of the late capitalist marketplace, encoded in the language of evolutionary biology.

Yu and Liu make the Foucauldian pronouncement in “The New Biopolitics” of the new commodity form of the body under biocapitalism: “Body is knowledge, and knowledge is power.”[9]  Here we may also look back to the first book of Marx’s Capital, in which it is said “that the labourer instead of being in the position to sell commodities in which his labour is incorporated, must be obliged to offer for sale as a commodity that very labour-power, which exists only in his living self [my emphasis].”[10]  Capital’s consumption of labour-power, whose value is determined by the means of subsistence of the worker as a living organism, is at one and the same time the production of the commodity form.  With knowledge in the modern age largely exteriorized to computation and massive stores of data decentralized from knowing subjects, Jean-François Lyotard declares that “[k]nowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its ‘use-value’”[11] and becomes pure exchange-value, in its immediate consumption and reinvestment into capital as a form of reproduction: a production of labour power’s living subsistence.  Biotechnological knowledge of the biopolitical body is thus equivalent to biopower, which always already has its value fixed as pure exchange in the economics of biocapitalism against other commodity forms, in an irreversible abstraction from the use-value whose value is fixed as a function of the reproduction of labour power in the form of the subsistence and health of the living worker.…

Weekly Roundup

Handy ammunition for the next passive-aggressive note you leave in the office kitchen: coffeemaker drip trays are breeding grounds for varied bacterial communities.

From mouldy to marvellous: the revamped Canada Science and Technology Museum, slated to reopen in 2017, will be an “immersive heritage experience.” Just make sure you keep the crazy kitchen.

Just in case pregnant women didn’t have enough to worry about, stress hormones are passed on through breast milk. But don’t worry too much; it’ll just stress you out.

Most research isn’t groundbreaking (an extra reason to take the science news cycle with a grain of salt).

Reinventing the condom is turning out to be more difficult than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation initially thought.

After $2.5 million US dollars, there is still no evidence that we’re holograms (Arnold Rimmer, Jem, and the Doctor from Star Trek Voyager excluded, of course).


Cheating At Life?, pt. III: The Unequal Constitution of the Modern Biopolitical State

In the previous section, we looked at a genealogy of the Neo-Darwinist worldview in the modern biological sciences.  Today, we’ll be looking at this same genealogy as disclosing the modern constitution of the biopolitical – and specifically, biocapitalist – state.  For those who missed last week’s post, you can find it here.

The idea is that, following the Darwinian Revolution, the development of the modern political era up to and including the current era of neoliberal global capitalism has taken the form of the immediate politicization of the body.  The genealogy of the modern state of biopolitics, according to Foucault, takes root decisively in the conjunctive development of early modern science and the development of modern political economy in Europe.  We could trace this line of thought back even further, to Aristotle, who in Book I of the Politics makes the well-known claim that “man is by nature a political animal [zōon politikon]”[1]; the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, arguing from the collapse of the classical distinction in Athenian Antiquity between bios (‘life’ or a particular way of life) and zoē (‘bare life’), and rethinking sovereignty and the modern biopolitical state, theorizes that “the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power”[2] – and further, that the production of this biopolitical body is none other than the self-constitution of the sovereign body as such.  Theoretical literature on the modern constitution of state power as biopolitics blended with biocapitalism is vast, interesting, and important; however, it is not my immediate concern here.[3]  If it is true that modern bodies are always already politicized, then all sciences of living organisms – evolutionary biology, population sciences, ecology, molecular genetics, et cetera – have become sites of struggle.  This means that alternative biological theories can and should be decided upon primarily with appeal to sociopolitical values.  Failure to answer the summons issued by the modern biopolitical era to the life sciences as a site of struggle will ensure that the only relevant ideological force acting on the constitution of the modern body will be exerted by the neoliberal management of biological research itself.

Following the analysis from last week’s post, we can say that the metaphor of competition, and other metaphors of the particular social mobility of the bourgeoisie, become prevalent in the biological sciences precisely because biology in the era of biopolitics is always already politicized as such.  Convergence on the usage of terms evoking unfairness and exploitation, abuse and the extraction of use-value without cooperation, in the absence of any pre-established well-defined theoretical unity, is neither a surprise, nor a merely coincidental epiphenomenon of the ill-refined definition of ‘cheating’, as suggested by Jones’ study.  It merely suggests a pre-existing politicization of bios that immediately exonerates itself, by the extension of the logic of the individual constitution of the bourgeois political body to the study of life itself.  In this way, evolutionary cheating is not significantly different from plain old rigorous ontological and epistemological reductionism from Descartes to Dawkins, which (some have argued) stems equally from the competitive ethos, presenting in a worldview in which phenomena of higher orders of complexity are seen as effected by the individual collisions between socio-cultural, genetic or bio-mechanical atoms.

The modern age of biopolitics as a new order of social control has been especially pronounced in the rapid development of biotechnology since the end of the 20th century.  The new and constant biopolitical initiatives of neoliberalism: the Human Genome Project; the ever-presence of genetically modified crops (GMOs) in the sphere of agriculture; genetic pre-screening for the ‘treatment’ of heritable chronic conditions like Huntington’s disease and Tay-Sachs; neuro-reductive renormalizations towards neurotypicality through neuro-chemical and physiological interventions, as in the treatment of depression, schizophrenia, and a host of other disorders of psyche in the West; these all point towards the phenomenon of the modern constitution of the state as being none other than the constitution of a biopolitical body, idealized against the backdrop of sociopolitical conditions that provide preconceptions – to evoke Aristotle – of what constitutes ‘the good life’.  Those excluded from the constitution of the body politic – included only in the sphere of ‘bare life’, as Agamben would say – fall into the real risk of becoming social pariahs.[4]  Biocapitalism announces the new age of biotechnological control over the body politic; in it, we have the effective material synthesis between the impulse to control through direct mechanical manipulation, characteristic of the rise of the capitalist class through the first Industrial Revolution in the means of production, and the modern constitution of the era of biopolitics ushered in by the Darwinian Revolution.

As a new stage or sub-form of capitalist development, biocapitalism, to some extent, presents a biotechnological “utopia” of promoting and optimizing life.  On the same hand, biotechnology has come to represent the capitalistic advanced productive forces, opened up new room for the technological, industrial and consumptive innovation of capitalism, and promised health, beauty, wisdom, longevity and environmental protection through organ transplant, reproductive intervention, bio-medicine, genetically modified food and bio-fuels, and other benefits.  A genetically based value system is created, and life is no longer a natural and immutable destiny, but rather a cultural or artificial construct open to calculative and regulative interventions of administration…  However, what one discovers beneath biotechnological revolution and its seductive promises is actually a “control revolution.”[5]

Later on in the paper just cited, Yu and Liu address the inevitable proliferation of new polarizations and systematic oppressions under biocapitalism, almost summarily, in their statement that “only a small number of people can get access to designer genes [my emphasis]”[6].  This echoes Kitcher’s more moderate thesis, that the new biotechnologies of the genetic revolution, while potentially a positive force for driving social change, can be expected only to exacerbate existing socio-economic inequalities if introduced into a milieu where such inequalities already exist.[7]  Biopolitics is itself only a modern framework or context of political reality.  Thus, for Yu and Liu, the fact of the biotechnological revolution as a control revolution suggests the rise of the biocapitalist state.…

top of tree

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.