Book Review: Genes, Cells and Brains

  • Hilary Rose and Steven Rose (2013) Genes, Cells and Brains: the Promethean promises of the new biology (London: Verso). This review first appeared in Red Pepper.

Hilary and Steven Rose’s new book is about the politics of biology, but it’s also about themselves. The Roses are professors of sociology (her) and neurobiology (him), both with long-standing and vocal commitment to the left. They’re married, as the book quickly informs you with a touching reference to their meeting in a New Left Club on Oxford St. Such anecdotes reflect not just ways in which the personal is political but that the history of biology is both of these things too.

As junior academics in the 1960s, they received an extra £50 a year to their salaries for each of their children. This was due to the influence of William Beverage who, as a keen eugenicist, wanted to encourage such bright young academics to breed. This story warns us to beware of simplistic hero-building, but also that ideologies, bodies, science and administration wrap together in the Roses’ life history, just as their book argues such matrixes of technoscience effect us all.

The book is also about the large and important abstract entities of its title – genes, cells and brains – and the institutions, people, ideologies, offices, publications and above all, money that not only helps bring such entities into human understanding but direct what we do with them. It is a book critical, pointed and clear in explanations of the political economy of modern biology, and how this is significant not only for our understanding of how the world works, but how we imagine ourselves in it and how we choose to engineer it, including engineering ourselves.

The spectre of reductive materialism haunts this book, as one might expect from a Marxist take on biology. This is a reading I have never quite got behind. It is, itself, just too reductive. I remain unconvinced Victorian ideologies that influenced early Darwinian concepts of evolution really explain that much about the politics of biology today. There is nothing ‘inherent’ in the sociology of science. Humans are just not so mechanically simple. Still, the Roses offer several useful lines of critique. There’s a neat passage on the ‘outsourcing of ethics’ through the structures and uses of specialist bioethicists. They raise a sceptical eyebrow at Lord Sainsbury’s £11 million worth of donations to Labour and oh-so-generous refusal to take a salary when he did, finally, get the job of science minister he so coveted. They also note the influence of the Wellcome Trust as “the ten-thousand-pound gorilla in the genomics room”, not only significantly bankrolling their own science but lobbying the government to follow their lead too. They could probably be more critical of the Trust, which may have done an enormous amount of good, but is not be above questioning. As Stella Creasy’s asked, should they invest in Wonga?

In some respects the Roses paint a picture of a society that sleepwalked into significant and dangerous changes to the life sciences. Science journalism is partly held accountable, failing in its role as 4th estate with an over-reliance on churnalism. There’s also a finger pointed at the architects of the new left for simply not paying enough attention to science. I’d personally cast some blame at the sociology of science for a lack of public engagement, although these issues are complex, and the forces that have aimed to narrow, ‘outsource’ and obfuscate public debate on the politics of science to rather neoliberal ends have been a strong force to reckon with.

In some ways, I was left with a sense the Roses feel it’s too late to save science for the people. There’s a tempting whiff of truth to such pessimism, but I’m personally more hopeful. For all it’s socialism, the story told by the Roses seem rather preoccupied by big names. Arguably this is appropriate for a book about science, which is a highly hierarchical business dominated by loud personalities, for all its occasional posturing to be otherwise. But I suspect more social history/ ethnographically inspired empirical work talking to the middle-ranking workers of science would have pulled out a slightly different picture. More normatively, I think it’s through the building of horizontal networks between such workers that we’ll see positive change.

The book also felt slightly tired, and a bit dated in places. It’s all a bit old-new left. What about the newer-new lefts, the ones that write blogposts not books, that build and break networks online, that flirt with sceptics in the pub, make internet memes to parody Dawkins and are increasingly more worried by environmental sciences than biology? Where do these new monsters of technoscience fit into the scheme of science in society? Are there ways they might occupy scientific spaces, reclaim areas of knowledge and the very notion of techno-utopianism? Might they break the institutionalised nature of much so-called citizen science and public engagement, ignore the publication relations messages of groups like the Science Media Centre, agree and disagree in equal measure with Ben Goldacre and make new social movements for the 21st century all their own? I think they might. Or at least I think they have potential.

If you’re interested in science in society (and you should be, because those who are hold the keys to our futures), read this book. But don’t be taken in too deeply by its neater stories, and certainly don’t let it depress you too much. Let it make you angry enough to want to learn from more than just the good Professors Rose.

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