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Boundaries of the Human in the Age of the Life Sciences


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Conventional wisdom holds that it has been a long time since the humanities had anything vital to contribute to the debate about what constitutes “life”– what distinguishes organic from inorganic matter. The pun on “vital” is historically important here. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, long dismissed as a teenage girl’s horror story until it was made available for serious attention by feminist critics, was actually (among other things) a meditation on the vitalism-materialism debates between John Abernathy and William Lawrence. That debate, we now believe, has long been decided in favor of materialism; as Richard Powers puts it in The Gold Bug Variations– one of the few novels to take up this question at the very late date of 1991, by way of a narrative about the discovery of how DNA codes for the production of amino acids– “it’s all mechanism now.” As a result, the humanities and the life sciences have tacitly agreed to a neat division of labor: the humanities will debate the meaning of life, and the question of what constitutes a good life; the life sciences will determine what life actually is.

In many ways this division of labor makes sense, and has generated stunning insights in the world of genetics and genomics. But in other ways it has reinforced the divide between nature and culture, almost as if we had devised a new version of Cartesian dualism: here, the specialists in the res extensa discover brave new worlds of genetic engineering and bioinformatics, and the specialists in the res cogitans come along a bit later to discuss the ethical, legal, and social implications of whatever the res extensa specialists have developed and patented.

Very recently, some schools of thought in the humanities have begun to challenge that division of labor. The so-called “new materialism,” closely related to but distinct from the emergent field of “object-oriented ontology,” has led us to rethink the relations between the sentient and the nonsentient world, seeing the two as far more dynamically interrelated than the traditional division of labor allows. New work in epigenetics and micro-evolution is beginning to suggest that evolution itself, usually understood as a glacial affair involving time spans in the millions of years, might in fact be a potentially turbulent process in which interactions between DNA and the environment are– again– far more dynamically interrelated than the traditional division of labor allows. And new work in animal studies (together with even newer work in plant studies) has offered a variety of ways of seeing human/nonhuman interactions as having microevolutionary implications– while questioning most of the traditional definitions of the boundaries of the human.

Perhaps the most dramatic and compelling development has come out of considerations of the possibility that we are living in a new geological epoch, that of the Anthropocene, in which human activity has had indelible effects on the biosphere that will be legible in the geological record for eons to come. The term “Anthropocene” was coined in the 1980s by ecologist Eugene Stoermer, but gained currency only in the past decade, thanks largely to the work of atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen (it has not been officially adopted, but is in wide use among geologists). In the humanities, a profound and wide-ranging debate about the Anthropocene was initiated by Dipesh Chakrabarty’s seminal 2009 essay, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” which now stands as one of the most influential statements on the importance of climate change for the human sciences. Chakrabarty’s argument also challenges the traditional division of labor between the natural and human sciences; in his account, the distinction not only carves out the terrain of history, which is assigned to the realm of human activity, but also establishes the natural world as a- or pre-historic. And that distinction subtends, or has subtended until now, a great deal of what we do in the humanities: it informs the Greek distinction between nomos and physis; it structures the Marxist belief that men make history in conditions not of their making, wresting a realm of freedom from the realm of necessity; it appears more recently as John Searle’s distinction between brute fact and social fact. Chakrabarty’s profound insight is that the distinction can no longer be maintained, insofar as the nomos has gotten to the point at which it can change the very fabric of the physis. And there is no creature on the planet, human or nonhuman, that will be exempt from the consequences. Those consequences may eventually involve global catastrophe; but they also involve a crisis for the concept of the historical, and for the concept of the human. For once we have come to terms with anthropogenic climate change, Chakrabarty argues, we need to rethink modernity. We need to rethink reason. We need to rethink history and historicity. We need to start thinking of ourselves as a species, as E. O. Wilson urges us to do, without the scientific reductionism that drove Wilson’s earlier dream of “consilience,” and without forgetting everything we have learned about the various cultural differences, class conflicts, competing regimes of truth, and uneven industrializing developments that have brought us to this moment of planetary crisis. We may even need to contemplate a partial rapprochement with universalism. It is a curious thought– a partial rapprochement with universalism.

Chakrabarty’s essay has, predictably, met with strong criticism from those who argue that we should not think of ourselves as a species, in universalist terms, without first accounting for which members of the species are most responsible for inducing the crises that go under the heading of climate change. But the point holds: though the effects of climate change will be felt most severely by people in impoverished developing nations that had nothing to do with the massive production of greenhouse gases, the very idea of the Anthropocene remains an invitation to think globally, to think of ourselves as a species, as Homo sapiens sapiens who have perhaps not been very sapiens about their stewardship of the planet.

All these recent developments in the humanities, then, would seem to provide decisive grounds for a final repudiation of the legacy of Cartesian dualism. And yet critiques of Cartesian dualism constituted a major branch of twentieth-century philosophy; one would have thought that the Cartesian horse was long dead. One suspects, as Mary Louise Pratt once put it in another context, that when a dead horse is being re-beaten, there are probably a bunch of live ones running around unnoticed. And indeed there is an important unasked question lurking in all these challenges to the division between the human and the natural sciences: what are we to make of the fact that we are being invited to think of ourselves as a species, in global, universal terms, at precisely the moment when species definition seems to be in flux as never before? How are we to think both contradictory thoughts simultaneously– to understand ourselves as humans rather than as members of various tribes and clans, and to understand “the human” as a provisional and highly unstable category?

“The Boundaries of the Human in the Age of the Life Sciences” will take up this question from a variety of angles– appropriately, since the subject cannot be adequately comprehended from any one discipline. Over a two-year period, we propose to bring together a host of rigorously interdisciplinary scholars from the life sciences, the social sciences, the arts, and humanities, in an  innovative format that will produce a salient body of work and generate a productive cross-disciplinary conversation that can be sustained and developed for years to come.