WHO'S IN YOUR GENES »
The German numbers-man, Leopold Kronecker famously quipped: "God made the integers, all else is the work of man." Before him, our founder of the laws of planetary motion, Johannes Kepler believed that numbers and their spatial equivalents – triangles, squares and circles – were the language of God. Being something of a Pythagorean revivalist, Kepler preserved the ancient ideas of Pythagoras, another numbers-man, who went as far as to equate numbers with gods. The fact is, all of these men were links in a long chain that began, as far as we can tell, with the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians who were both adepts with numbers and geometry. Having used them to count the stars and determine their celestial cycles, they concluded that numbers and geometry were the tools of the gods to keep the universe in proper order.
Actually, that's only partially true. To refer to numbers as "tools" probably would have been blasphemous at that time.
They were entities in and of themselves, with their own personalities and dignity. Author and Physicist, David Park, sums it up best
when he writes "The ancients were sensitive to the individuality of numbers. Numbers are even or odd. Some are
prime, others are composite. There are squares and triangles and cubes. If a number can be both square and
triangular, there must be something special about it. Try 36, and take my word that the next one is 1225."
Park then gives an analogy to help us grasp the personification of numbers: "For a Pythagorean,
the series of numbers from 1 to 100 is like a line with a hundred people in it. No one would
think that the only difference between the people numbered 31 and 32 is their order
in the line, for every one has an individual nature."
Again, that last part – "No one would think that the only difference
between the people numbered 31 and 32 is their order
in the line" – is only partially true. There are plenty of
"people" who hold such a perception.
They are called Corporations, "whom", by the end of the 19th Century, came to enjoy "person" status.
The etymological root of the word Corporation, corpus, means "body", and true to their name the corporation
is legally acknowledged as a united body with an identity. Just as the human body exists as a whole of its parts, let's say, cells;
the corporation is comprised of individuals who function as cells to the corporate body. Just as we tend to not personalize the cells
of our bodies (or even think about them), the corporation has an impersonal position about its "cells", focusing mainly on their efficiency
of function. But it's not just corporations that stripped down people to mere numbers. Like all institutions, corporations have fostered a culture
(in this case a quantification culture), that engenders similar thinking among its personnel. (Even that word – personnel – sounds a bit dry and drab).
The Pythagoreans would have recoiled from our modern perception and treatment of numbers. Today, numbers are lifeless. They are "thought-objects" that we use to budget our lives. To revisit the thought that they could be gods, no doubt, causes us to look askance at that philosophical period in history. How exactly did numbers go from mystical to mundane?
The conventional answer is enlightenment.
Enlightenment has changed a great many things we presumed to be sacred. It ensured that numbers are no longer agents of fortune, unless of course we are talking about winning the lotto. Enlightenment dispatched with the idea that our Earth (and every creature on it, especially man) lay at the center of the universe. No doubt, that wacky sun-center idea when first proposed earned more than a few skewed faces during its day. Today, Enlightenment's latest battle is with God and the institution that supports it.
Well, again... that is only partially true. The real battle with religion is really just a battle with we humans. Make no mistake – whether it be demoting numbers from gods to grist; displacing the Earth 93 million miles away from the front and center stage; or banishing the Bible to the fiction section of bookstores – the battle is always with we humans. The Earth could care less where we humans placed it. The real affront was to the human ego, which begrudges the very idea of periphery importance. Where we placed the Earth in the universe never really changed the Earth itself. It didn't even change the world, only our world-view. The same is true with today's battle of Darwinism vs. Design: the real threat is at the now crumbling paradigm of man's preeminence.
Let us refer back to the above quote by David Park, which clings to the presumption that there is something intrinsically exceptional about the human being and the human experience. At the time when numbers were "unique" entities with their own personalities, the human being was still deemed to be a salient species "made in the image of God". Many people are now conceding to the secular view that we humans are little more than protein machines; wetware running primal programs for sex, satiation and survival – nothing more. The brain, once the darling of our individuality, has been reduced to neuronal bits and bytes. Joseph Ledoux, in his book Synaptic Self, puts it this way:
"My notion of personality is pretty simple: it's that your 'self', the essence of who you are, reflects patterns of interconnectivity between neurons in your brain. Connections between neurons, known as synapses, are the main channels of information flow and storage in the brain. Most of what the brain does is accomplished by synaptic transmission between neurons, and by calling upon the information encoded by past transmissions across synapses."
Ledoux delivers the one-two punch with the next paragraph:
"Given the importance of synaptic transmission in brain function, it should practically be a truism to say that the self is synaptic. What else could it be?"
Ledoux, admits that this conclusion will be unsatisfying for most people; an understatement really. After all, we went from the center of the universe, to hairless monkeys to a wet bag of neurons. Next we'll just be...
Or have we already reached that point? If we have, what then is the difference between persons 31 and 32 standing in David Park's proverbial line? Not much except how their brains and bodies carry out genetic operations.
So yeah, numbers and humans share a lot in common: when ripped from the bosom of holiness and holistic-ness, there's not a whole lot left except a bunch of raw and random code and codons. Just as the Pythagoreans would have scoffed at our modern number perspective, most of us take offense at our treatment as biological and commercial quanta. And yet just as the idea of sacred numbers has vanished from the mainstream, leaving only freemasons and numerologists to survive their legacy; we may someday see the unthinkable day when the only people who persist in the belief of Sacred Man are those who will be written off as New Agers. If this scenario seems implausible then consider that much of our current language used to discuss humanitarian issues is not a language at all, but rather statistics and metadata. The World Bank released its 2011 database publication which provides, among other details, the "National poverty estimates with 577 data points for 115 countries; economic performance indicators; new indicator measuring national income adjusted for consumption of capital... and issues in measuring the economic and social phenomena as civil registration, economic measures that also address sustainability, data revisions, and the various sources of data on business environment, trade, capital flows and debt."
The heavy use of accounting jargon might be what we would expect from an International Bank, but that's kind of the point.
Our Capital Culture has created a new set of social axioms that tell us that the qualitative lives of human beings can be understood with
quantitative data. Not many of us question it. Quite the opposite; we accept it as a commonsense social value. The World Bank and IMF advertise
themselves as global institutions that extend loans to developing countries for investment in technologies (i.e. infrastructure) that will
bring their economies into the 21st Century and raise the quality of living for its citizens. Or something like that. The whole idea is
based on the historical observation that, as Timothy Ferris puts it in his book The Science of Liberty,
"growing economies, spurred by
free markets and access to scientific and technological progress, may lift (developing countries) above the $9,000 (GDP per capita) mark..."
It all sounds good on paper, but as the Uruguayan journalist, writer and novelist, Eduardo Galeano, responds: "Where do people earn the Per Capita Income? More than one poor starving soul would like to know. In our countries, numbers live better than people."
We are not likely to escape from this paint by numbers portraits of the human being. For one, the end-goal is to upgrade developing countries with science and technology. Two, it is science that feeds the data that measures the success of this goal. Science knows all about data and demographics. Its statistical gathering approach to all things material lends itself well to economic and material concerns. Qualitative data on the other hand, which is to say personal anecdotes and the experiential, do not constitute as "evidence" in the scientific and neoliberal domain. Quantitative data is ambivalent to "Human Dignity". For that we must turn to poets, artists, philosophers and humanitarians. Of course, it is difficult for us to imagine Maya Angelou making an admissible report to the World Bank or IMF; nor can we imagine a Pythagorean numerologist being asked to crunch the data. Even if Maya were asked to submit a report-poem about the human condition in, say, the Philippines, her testimony would scarcely compare in perceived-value as a single statistic pulled from the World Banks 2011 database publication.
That corporations share person status with people more than hints at our ambivalence of personhood. It also suggests
that the "Dignity of Man" may only be a varnish for his real value, which is economic in nature. The conversion of
Sacred Man to Statistic Man was accelerated by disease, specifically The Black Plague and later Syphilis, both
of which necessitated the rapid expansion of hospitals, which were quickly reaching their maximum holding capacity.
Under these conditions, the poor were corralled in a new system where diseases and patients were categorized under a system of numbers. This tabulated approach was a paradigm shift in a field of medicine that was still defining both itself and the human body. It didn't go over well with everybody. People were becoming polls and numbers to the physicians who sought to understand how disease was born and proliferated in the body. Debates ensued between supporters and opponents of this new statistical system. Theories of disease gradually evolved from superstitious causes to more natural and material explanations. Such material theories were driven by the practice of human body dissection, which sparked the enlightened view of the human body as a machine. In fact, in a strange and provocative coincidence, the same year that Nicolaus Copernicus displaced the Earth (and man) from the center of the universe with his publication On the Revolutions
of the Heavenly Spheres, the anatomist and physician Andreas Vesalius published his groundbreaking book,
The Fabric of the Human Body, which showcased a compilation of realistic illustrations that pulled back the
veil of fabric flesh to reveal the mechanical anatomy underneath. These two pivotal publications contributed to
the shift from life animated to life automated. With a touch of true showmanship, Vesalius conducted
a public dissection of an infamous criminal on the same year as his book was released.
Such dissections had always been a source of controversy. Enlightened and educated physicians and philosophers may have had a vapid view of the body, but for the public it was still difficult to dissociate man's inherent sanctity from his body, be he living or dead. Consequently, laws were passed that made only those criminals who had been condemned to "Death and Dissection" the only legally viable candidates for public dissections. Though well intending, this prohibition only served to create a black market for zombie bodies. This was now an era where disease was viewed as a material agent; man was viewed as a material being; and, because hospitals were still over-populated with the terminally ill, patients came to be viewed as research material. Anatomists and surgeons, who were hungry to cut open cadavers and expand on medical knowledge, sidestepped the prohibition on dissection and began preying upon the hospitalized poor for their human material. The sickly poor, of course, had little physical or socio-economic power over their circumstances and became the unwitting grist for medical and scientific investigation. Diseases were intentionally left untreated so that its regression could be documented. When the subject died, they were sold under-the-counter to anatomists for dissection. In many cases, the recently dead became the recently resurrected after body snatchers reclaimed their cadavers from the grave and sold them off. When the supply was really low, these so-called Resurrectionists resorted to murder. William Burke and William Hare are two of the most infamous names from this period, killing 17 people to meet the demand of anatomy lecturer Doctor Robert Knox. Finally, the Anatomy Act of 1832 loosened the leash and dead bodies were legally back on the market.
The word Autopsy comes from the Greek word Autopsia; a fusion of "Autos" and "Opsis" meaning "Self" and "Eye", respectively. The word was used by the Neo-Platonist Iamblichus in reference to Egyptian initiation rites designed to serve the purpose of a "self seeing" revelation. Today, it simply means to cut open a cadaver and "see for oneself" what's inside. It took awhile for us to get from one form of autopsy to the other. It isn't surprising that the de-regulation of the sacred dead was a result of both enlightenment and economics; it is, after all, enlightenment and economics that drives our continued secularization of the living body. John Stuart Mill summed up man as an enlightened entity aspiring for wealth and uniquely capable through his rationality to assess how efficiently that wealth could be obtained. This was man, not in his natural environment, but in his economic one. "Rationality" was an important ingredient because it was man's rationality, his reason and his enlightenment, that raised him to such heights in the first place. This illustration of man, as painted by Mills, came to be called in the 19th Century, Homo•Economicus.
For the Homo•Economicus, "all is numbers", just as the Pythagoreans put it. Only the Pythagoreans
were talking about a "higher-plane". Homo-Economicus is talking about "the bottom line."
As Wendy Brown put it in Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics, "all dimensions
of human life are cast in terms of market rationality." By "all dimensions of human life" she is
being quite literal. We have long since put the dilemma of the sacred dead body behind us,
having successfully secularized it. What remains is to finalize this secularization of the living
body. It must be defined, irreducibly, as some form of data that can be converted into a type
of currency. This has already happened according to Robert Lee Hotz who tell us in his
essay Falling from Grace: Science and the Pursuit of Profit that "Physicians who
treat families with genetic diseases are approaching geneticists and offering
to 'sell you my families' – meaning that they will, for a fee, give the researcher
their patients blood samples. Scientists who isolated certain genes from
the blood samples then patent them and profit from their use in genetic
tests." He goes on to assure us that, "Such a thorough mingling
of public research and private enterprise, although troubling
to some is now the rule."
In 1973, Ananda Chakrabarty and General Electric applied for a patent on the bacterium Pseudomonas which consumed crude-oil much better than any other bacterial strains that came before it. The patent suffered a ping-pong journey of rejection and appeals before landing in the lap of the Supreme Court which ruled in June of 1980 that "Anything under the sun that is made by man" can be patented. Since that ruling damn near everything under the sun, from transgenic mice, fish, sheep, cows etc. have become patented property of doctors, research scientists, universities and corporate "persons" in the form of biotechs, and pharmaceuticals. Human genes were also thrown in the mix; the most infamous example being Myriad Genetics seven patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes which code for proteins involved in the repair of damaged DNA. Mutations of these genes increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and Myriad Genetics, by having a patent on these genes, was wont to charge high diagnostic prices to women seeking to be tested. This resulted in a successful lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Association for Molecular Pathology to have the patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes overturned. The success was short lived. In a 2 to 1 decision, the United States Court of Appeals ruled that "isolated DNA molecules do not exist in nature... they have to be chemically cleaved from their chemical combination with other genetic materials... Thus, when cleaved, an isolated DNA molecule is not a purified form of a natural material, but a distinct chemical entity." In other words, a gene, because it was isolated, was an invention.
The seal has been broken and in the Post-Chakrabarty Era we must now clarify the divide between our proteins and those of "lower" organisms. We can pretend that this divide is clear under religious and moral pretenses, but these principles are not necessarily shared in the mind of a Scientific Enlightenment which eschews defining life with vague philosophical terms in favor of discrete, quantifiable terms. Chakrabarty, in his essay Patenting of Life-Forms: From a Concept to Reality remembers GE's patent lawyer Leo I. MaLassoi as being confounded as to "why an invention could not be patented simply because it was living. To (MaLassoi) a living microorganism is nothing but a composition of matter and genetic engineering techniques..." But isn't this also true of macro-organisms?
The law has a way of exposing just how hazy our "self-evident" axioms really are, and the marketplace has a tendency
to exploit this haziness. For example, it was self evident to early Americans that "all men are created equal",
an assertion that later required legal clarification so that it could actually include all men. More clarification
was needed so that women too could be included in this ideology. Until that clarification was resolved human life continued
to qualify as property. Eventually the concept was abolished; but in 1930 the Plant Protection Act circled us right back
to the idea that living organisms could in fact be property and therefore patent protected. 50 years later, the Bayh-Dole
Act and the Stephenson-Wyler Act widened the doors for the patenting of scientific research under the pretense that "ownership"
and its inherent market benefits would motivate technological innovation – which it did. However, it also forced U.S. courts
to clarify for itself and the rest of us what exactly constitutes "lower-life forms", "higher-life forms", or even "life"
in general; and which of these three if modified by human intervention can be patented. It is not entirely implausible to
anticipate a legal resolution that will answer the question "what is life?"
in a manner that could be eerily similar to Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution which decreed the African slave to be 3/5 of a person (see http://topics.law.cornell.edu/constitution/articlei).
Can we imagine a future where certain organisms will be legally qualified as 3/5 alive?
Around the mid 1980s the US Patent and Trade Office began granting patent rights on human genes. One controversial scenario involved a doctor patenting a cell line derived from the spleen of one of his patients. Timely with these events, PBS journalist and commentator, Bill Moyers conducted an eleven-part TV series called "In Search of the Constitution" where America's guiding document was put up for re-appraisal by interviewees whose day jobs involved understanding and interpreting America's most hallowed document. The term "Human Dignity" was a recurring theme cited as the fundamental value of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. So popular and picturesque is this principle of human dignity that other Post World War II countries have taken their cue from the Americans by concretizing this idea on paper. For instance, Article 1 of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany states: "The dignity of man shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority."
Dignity of Man? Human Dignity? Do those terms even hold-up in the face of biotechnological reductionism? Is there really an inherent "dignity" to the human being? Or is this just an ideological residue of the good old days when man was made in the image of his creator, given dominion over the earth by his creator, placed in the center of the universe by his creator, and given pre-existing, inalienable rights by his creator?
We might argue that "Natural Rights" do not come from a mythical "Creator" but are simply "naturally" acquired on the merit of simply having been born human. Aside from the arbitrary line drawn that conveniently endows man with these rights (while excluding the rest of the animal kingdom); such an assertion seems as hazy as saying the Rights are God-given. Besides, Mother Nature doesn't exactly afford the right to life, liberty, property or the pursuit of happiness to any of her species. These are all the idyllic inventions of man. Ask Mother Nature about Rights and she scratches her head, like a monkey, wondering, Rights? What Rights? I never gave you any Rights? Opposable thumbs, yes. Rights, no. Mother Nature isn't the kindest of mothers, either. There's a reason we don't call her Mother Nurture. In fact, she's more like a father: she equips us with one or two weapons and then sends us out into the wild to fend for ourselves and survive on our own merits. If there can be such a thing as Evolutionary Rights there are only two: the Right to Fight and the Right to Flight. You don't even have the Right to Fuck. You are encouraged to do so, but certainly not entitled. As to "Human Dignity", you can almost hear the great roaring laughter by all of the animal kingdom.
When the laughter finally thins itself out, we can finally deal with the conundrum of God-given rights in absence
of a God. "Human Dignity" becomes an anachronism in an evolutionary environment; ambiguous in a scientific environment; and, as we've seen with gene patents, humans are ambivalent about "Human Dignity" in a marketplace environment.
Science and Technology has been bedfellows with Business and Politics in the past and they are still romping away as a four-some now, producing ideological off-spring that challenge even the most precious axioms of old: that human life is sacred; that the human being is special and that the human body is free. We have progressively (or regressively, depending on your position) fallen from noetics to numbers; from persons to proteins, and from proteins to property. Meanwhile the law can't seem to make up its mind which Rights take precedence: The Inalienable Rights of a Person who was once created by God or the Rights of the Corporate Person created by Law.
It is an interesting thought-experiment to wonder how things might have turned out if the Earth had remained at the center of the universe: would our mis-informed reverence create an alternate future that precludes even the very idea of a home planet that can be patented? From the center of the universe we'd either scratch our heads, or laugh hysterically at any doomsday nutcase warning us of the day when the Earth would have to be protected from patent protection. Alas, things just didn't turn out that way. Enlightenment giveth... and it taketh away. After being demoted to third rank from the sun, those "Save our Planet" slogans just don't have the same ring if we were still standing in the center of the universe. The same will most likely be true for any "Save our Humans" slogans.
Paul Farmer, a medical anthropologist who travels abroad, working as a public health and social medicine activist and advocate in developing countries, writes passionately about "violations of social and economic rights" in his book Pathologies of Power: "Within this competition-driven market model, individuals in a society are viewed (if at all) as autonomous, rational producers and consumers whose decisions are motivated primarily by economic or material concerns. But this ideology has little to say about the social and economic inequalities that distort real economies." Farmer makes a case for Economic Rights because, well, Human Rights have proven to be a joke. An offensive claim, sure; but consider here that Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan's Foreign Policy Advisor, was recorded as dismissing the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as "a letter to Santa Claus."
Put simply, it isn't always clear how seriously we humans take the issue of Human Life (or just Life) and the Natural Rights that are presumed to come with it. We write and talk about Life and Human Rights with regal words and imagined sounds of American horns humming in our heads; but after we've finished writing and lecturing about the "Dignity of Man", we show how we reeeaaally feel about our inherent dignity by ignoring all reports of violations against human life and human rights. Homo-Economicus has already shown us how he reeeaaally feels about our so-called dignity by consistently putting it up on the traders market. Economic Rights may be all we can hope for in a Social-Darwinian world where, even if there were a Judeo-Christian God, he seems to have adopted the business model of out-sourcing the protection of our God-given rights to the military might of men who are, again, ambiguous about how much political area these Rights actually cover.
In the age of this Biotechnological Enlightenment we are Body and nothing more. This may not be a philosophical truth, but it is an economical fact. Jean Baudrillard, in the essay The Finest Consumer Object : The Body, writes that "The material evidence of the 'liberated' body... expresses the supplanting of an outdated ideology – that of the soul, which is inadequate for a developed productivist system..." The essay quips, quite dangerously, that "self-evidence is false evidence." Perhaps this is true: that all men are created equal and is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness may be, as Kirkpatrick put it, "a letter to Santa Claus".
The 21st Century Enlightenment seems to have placed us at a cross-roads. At the very least, it warns us that we are approaching a fork in the road. The words "Know Thyself" are inscribed in the forecourt of Apollo's Temple at Delphi, but we may yet see them again at the nearing juncture; not as a call for Autopsia, but as a warning. We must choose who we are in this world:
Are we "Only Human?"
Or, dammit, are we Human?