by Dr. Steven Best

Abstract: As the debates over cloning and stem cell research indicate, issues raised by biotechnology combine research into the genetic sciences, perspectives and contexts articulated by the social sciences, and the ethical and anthropological concerns of philosophy. Consequently, I argue that intervening in the debates over biotechnology requires supra-disciplinary critical philosophy and social theory to illuminate the problems and their stakes. In addition, debates over cloning and stem cell research raise exceptionally important challenges to bioethics and a democratic politics of communication.

Baboon used for xenotransplantation
Credit:© 2001 Organ Farm/Carlton TV

Anyone who thinks that things will move slowly is being very naive. –Lee Silver, Molecular Biologist

As we move into a new millennium fraught with terror and danger, a global postmodern condition is unfolding in the midst of rapid evolutionary and social changes co-constructed by science, technology, and the restructuring of global capital. We are quickly morphing into a new biological and social existence that is ever-more mediated and shaped by computers, mass media, and biotechnology, all driven by the logic of capital and a powerful emergent technoscience. In this global context, science is no longer merely an interpretation of the natural and social worlds; rather it has become an active force in changing them and the very nature of life. In an era where life can be created and redesigned in a petridish, and genetic codes can be edited like a digital text, the distinction between ‘‘natural’’ and “artificial’’ has become greatly complexified. The new techniques of manipulation call into question existing definitions of life and death, demand a rethinking of fundamental notions of ethics and moral value, and pose unique challenges for democracy.

As technoscience develops by leaps and bounds, and as genetics rapidly advances, the science–industrial complex has come to a point where it is creating new transgenic species and is rushing toward a posthuman culture that unfolds in the increasingly intimate merging of technology and biology. The posthuman  involves both new conceptions of the ‘‘human’’ in an age of information and communication, and new modes of existence, as flesh merges with steel, circuitry, and genes from other species. Exploiting more animals than ever before, techno-science intensifies research and experimentation into human cloning. This process is accelerated because genetic engineering and cloning are developed for commercial purposes, anticipating enormous profits on the horizon for the biotech industry. Consequently, all natural reality—from microorganisms and plants to animals and human beings—is subject to genetic reconstruction in a commodified ‘‘Second Genesis.’’

At present, the issues of cloning and biotechnology are being heatedly debated in the halls of science, in political circles, among religious communities, throughout academia, and more broadly in the media and public spheres. Not surprisingly, the discourses on biotechnology are polarized. Defenders of biotechnology extol its potential to increase food production and quality, and to cure diseases, endow us with ‘‘improved’’ human traits, and prolong human life. Its critics claim that genetic engineering of food will produce Frankenfoods, which pollute the food supply with potentially harmful products that could devastate the environment, biodiversity, and human life itself; that animal and human cloning will breed monstrosities; that a dangerous new eugenics is on the horizon; and that the manipulation of embryonic stem cells violates the principle of respect for life and destroys a bona fide ‘‘human being.’’

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