At the beginning of February, The Guardian published this story about the intention of creating a child with 3 parents: “Doctors in Newcastle have been granted permission to create Britain’s first “three-person babies” for two women who are at risk of passing on devastating and incurable genetic diseases to their children…”. The following is my translation of a critique focused on the whole notion of predictive medicine – ie the accelerating growth of scientific ideology that claims to be able to predict potential “devastating and incurable genetic diseases” and its social function. Whilst genetic medicine is, to a certain extent, capable of predicting monogenetic diseases with a greater or lesser certainty of their transmission through generations, this is used by the propagandists of genetic medicine, which is concerned with all diseases, including those with only a small or even non-existent hereditary component, to parade their ideological science as a potential cure-all.
Translated, February 2018, by SamFanto from the French text
(“Life in double-helix”)
(published in January 2018)
(most of the illustrations have been added by me)
Saying what we are has never been an easy task, but the so-called sciences of life have now been able to specialize their language and methods to the point where one has to be a graduate to be officially entitled to try saying what we are. The different aspects of our bodies, our minds and the bridges we build between them, are increasingly concentrated in the hands of laboratory technicians – the only graduates to master them, or to claim they can. With the birth of molecular genetics, as well as neuroscience a few decades later, this dispossession has only accelerated. First by becoming more and more monstrous in their details, then by penetrating hidden recesses of ourselves that previously seemed unreachable. Today, everyone is supposed to know that love, intelligence, attention, aggressiveness and a good many other of the innermost depths of human beings are just entities that correspond to this or that part of the brain, this or that flow of molecules, this or that gene. And the scientists themselves know that the “corresponding connections” in question correspond in fact only to the need to organize the stew of vocabulary of the computer technicians, biologists and behaviorists who write the lexicon of the sciences of life.
The crude popularization that aims to make science digestible for general consumption can be amusing, and the ridiculous naivety of its content is almost touching. Because the drive, so assiduously studied and exploited by journalists, to simplify what is fundamentally complex, is shared by almost all people. Among the few things that today’s proles still share is the feeling that the earth is no longer under our feet. Even the largest of illusions last no more than one season. The slightest idea that we manage to create no longer holds true as soon as it is drenched in the cold light of day. As uncertainty grows, the comfort of easy certainties becomes a valuable commodity. The most accessible are the answers of those who busy themselves with asking questions. We ask questions that we have been taught to ask and we get the answers we deserve. Scientific communication is good for this purpose and one feels almost consoled to know that if one is clumsy, it is because we lack a little dopamine to oil the synapses where the brain deals with such sensorimotor functions. It’s always good to know that someone is taking care of us…
But (and this is not the first time we’ve noticed it) the ridiculous often hides what is serious. For it is not the elegance of lies that interests the state and investors in scientific esotericism. The figures are not those of a small association willing to contribute to the great millennial debate on the nature of man. The Human Brain Project, a project bringing together more than 80 European research institutions that aim to create a simulation of the human brain, was endowed with 1.2 billion euros in 2013. The NeuroSpin imaging center, opened in 2017 on the apocalyptic plateau of Saclay, is estimated at costing 51 million euros. As well as France-BioImaging (coordinated by the CNRS, funded for 26 million euros), France-Génomique (coordinated by the CEA, funded to the tune of 60 million euros), France Life Imaging (coordinated by the CEA, funded at EUR 37.5 million) to mention only some of the projects in progress. Not to mention the hundreds of projects here and there ranging between a few million and a few tens of millions of euros, all dedicated to “identifying the brain circuits that underlie cognitive functions”, “diagnosing diseases early”, “understanding developmental disorders “(NeuroSpin), and – why not? – creating a supercomputer in the process (Human Brain Project).
When the state and capital are involved, we cannot help but say that something is wrong here. Looking more closely, we note that institutional and financial interest is particularly attracted to neuroscience and genetics for medical use. The integration of the latest advances in the sciences of life into Reasons of State, which is also the reasoning of capital, contributes to what is fundamental to them: the control of bodies and minds. More concretely, there is a convergence of the state, capital and science around the management of populations: increased productivity, lower public health costs and the detachment of current disastrous health conditions from the existing social order.
We therefore affirm that the integration of neuroscience with reasons of State is in order to deepen the relations of domination. The powerful and the possessors are not in the process of creating a “new man”, as some eschatologists, disgusted by certain technologies, claim. Those who dominate us are content to eternalize the same man – always more flexible & bent, always more docile and always more stupid. Although the “control of the living” through gene manipulation presents an exceptional and irreversible danger, the latter is only a small part of the doors opened by the technosciences of life over the last few decades. Possibilities that make no break in the perennial logic of domination and exploitation, but paralyze with ever greater precision critiques of it, thus moving further away from the possibility of spitting in its face.
That said, we cannot be satisfied with just responding to the sensational headlines proclaiming this or that new conquest by science; we cannot restrict ourselves to inverting scientists’ gibberish as if they’re taken literally, believing that by doing so we have created a real opposition to their delusions. The wax wings of simplistic metaphors melt quickly in the sun of reality: “mastering the living” does not master much at the sub-cellular scale which is commonly referred to as “the living”; it is content with the management of beings, calibrated to the needs of production. In this sense, the sciences of life are only social sciences that do not admit to their name. Their object, therefore, is not nature, but society. Their effect is not the conquest of life as such, but the deepening of relations of domination that have existed for a long time. This is why science, as well as all its collateral damage, are not additional layers, but are an integral part of the world of domination and exploitation that traps us. We therefore invite ourselves to attempt a concrete critique of the sciences of life, and of genetics and neurosciencei in particular, based not on the heavy threat of a catastrophe, but on disgust for all humiliation, especially when it’s institutionalized.
Techno-science: at least since the Second World War, science has been definitively merged with technology, changing its means and perspectives, their aims and their development. For this reason, today’s science is inseparable from technology.
Eugenism: from the Greek eu (“good”) and gennaô (“to engender”), literally “to be born well“. The term was conceived by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, in 1883. Galton himself considered eugenics as “the science of good births,” modeled on the breeding of cattle. At the beginning of the 20th century, a number of countries passed laws allowing for the elimination of those who were perceived as “unfit” through, amongst other things, sterilization, and selection at birth.
Gene: In the literature of biologists, a gene is presented as a basic unit of heredity. From a physiological point of view, genes are often described as DNA sequences (deoxyribonucleic acid) playing a determining role in protein synthesis. Yet it’s known that most such sequences do not contribute to the production of proteins. For this reason, genes remain physiologically undefined.
Relations of domination: the power of capital to put wage labor at the center of social relations, the coercive power of the state, but also informal forms of domination, such as the family, religion, tradition, and social milieu.
Concerning predictive medicine, which is an open door beaten hollow by genetics, where we discover the jabbering chatter of its dilettantes, how they agree with the state, and that medicine can do anything but treat people
“One of the most widespread diseases is diagnosis.”
– Karl Kraus [see note 1 at bottom of page]
“Of all Passions, that which enclineth men least to break the Lawes, is Fear. Nay, apart from some generous natures, it is the onely thing, when there is appearence of profit, or pleasure by breaking the Lawes, that makes men keep them.”
– Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
For us poor mortals it may seem strange that in the case of neuroscience, as well as genetics which is inseparable from it, the monstrous facilities for medical use, so dedicated to curing the living, in reality do not cure much. Neuroscientific therapy, like its big sister gene therapy, is essentially a phantom that scientists announce with each new discovery. Except for extremely ridiculous cases, such as the oxytocin spray to solve your emotional problems, which is extremely dangerous, or the so-called baby with three parents, neuroscience therapy, like gene therapy, remains firmly non-existent in practice. In general, neither neuroscience nor genetics have the conceptual or technical means to intervene in the “pathogen” of a disease. With each technological discovery, such as the “DNA scissors” CRISPR-Cas9 in recent years, learned scientists show how delighted they are to finally be able to intervene “with precision”, forgetting all their previous refinements, where, obviously, they temporarily tinkered with the genome without knowing very much what could come of it. Nevertheless, neuroscience and medical genetics will remain confined for a very long time to diagnosis – this is because of the total confusion of their fundamental conceptsi, as well as the predictive role they have established within medical techno-science.
What use can medicine make of this enormous techno-scientific tool whose only real practical power lies in diagnosis? If we see medicine as a system of knowledge and practices whose aim is to treat humans in a somewhat coherent way, then the recent techno-sciences of life do not contribute anything to such a system. If, on the other hand, medicine was a theoretical and institutional assembly whose main purpose is to manage populations in the prevailing socio-economic conditions and goals, then diagnosis would have a specific social role to play.
To remove some confusion, let us mention that medicine has always had a social role. The latter is not specific to technologically-equipped Western medicine. From traditional Chinese medicine to today’s laboratories through Hippocrates, medical vocabulary has always been confused with political vocabulary: we talk about the channels of Qi in the same way as we talk about imperial irrigation canals and we evaluate the risk of a disease as one assesses the risk of an attack against the Republic. In other words, the social aspect of medical techno-sciences is not particularly new. On the other hand, we cannot be satisfied with an abstract criticism of this character, which would lead to defending any “natural” medicine from previous or utopian societies. If the social aspect of today’s medicine is open to criticism, it is because it derives directly from state and economic domination. This is not specific to the latest developments in medical techno-sciences – these only intensify what the medical sciences have been for a long time.[see note 2 at bottom of page]
As it happens, neuroscience and medical genetics comes within the sphere of what is called predictive medicine, or personalized medicine. According to the definition given by Jacques Ruffié, geneticist precursor of DNA sampling (just by chance!), predictive medicine
consists in predicting, from birth, or even before, the risk situations that a subject may experience during his existence (that is to say during the entire course of his genetic program) according to two sets of factors:
The constitution of their hereditary heritage, which may be more or less able to meet certain environmental conditions.
The types of demands or aggression that they will bear from this environment and the possibility that they will have to face them according to their innate abilities. […]
Predictive medicine always contains an aspect which is random because it is conditioned by two sets of factors: genetic and environmental, which can meet up or not. It assesses a risk, indicates the conditions under which the disease may appear. It avoids pathogenic situations. It does not detect a health problem but defines a possibility or probability of occurrence.iii
Since 1993, the definition has undergone some transformation, induced by the emergence of neuroscience among other factors. In order to avoid being limited to hereditary predispositions, the new predictive medicine also includes identifiable diagnoses from birth. Thus, gene medicine joins a broader set of prenatal, postnatal diagnostic techniques and performed throughout an individual’s life.
It is important to point out the purely populational approach of predictive medicine: the probability of being affected by this or that disease corresponds to the proportional ratio between the rate of this disease in a given population and the genetic profiles of the guinea pigs. It’s like measuring the overlap between those who have blue eyes and those who do not like beer, without knowing whether there is a link between the two. Insofar as genetistic foresight is purely probabilistic, it would not be wrong to say, according to the precepts of predictive medicine, that a number of soldiers are predisposed to die in a hostile environment. In this sense, the fundamental pretension of predictive medicine means that its approach is closer to sociology than the so-called natural sciences.
The information provided by screening tests and brain imaging is of little value in terms of health, while being of enormous economic value to the state and capital. It avoids two forms of “waste”: that of care applied en masse; and that of the discordance between people’s medical profiles and their productive role in society. It is for this reason that in the official documents concerning the technosciences of life related to public health, there is hardly any mention of the physical and mental well-being of individuals. “Indeed,” reads a neuroscience report to the Senate, “the social and economic impact of neuropsychiatric diseases is significant because they affect the physical integrity and often the mental integrity of patients, also affecting the way of life of those close to them, which concerns the whole of society.” ivLater in the same report, the authors’ concern becomes more precise: “According to the statistics of the World Health Organization, brain diseases are responsible for 35% of the expenses related to the disease in general. But some costs are not assessable, such as those related to the indirect impact on the family of the patient, or the decline in productivity caused by diseases that do not result in permanent disability.” What is proposed by the promoters of medical neuroscience (and firmly accepted by the state), is the mobilization of a monstrous techno-scientific device of therapeutic capacity close to zero, in order to optimize the costs of treatment and the productivity of the population.
In another report on personalized medicine, the same two authors underline that the contribution of exclusively diagnostic and predictive value tests is considerable, because they allow “the proposal of preventive treatments and a hygiene of life limiting the risk. Thus, as soon as a test is entered in the nomenclature, this results in a tenfold increase in the number of prescriptions.”v In other words, the doctor becomes the advisory authority on the “hygiene of life”, while holding the threat of disease, or even death, if the patient refuses to follow his instructions. It is needless to say that the one who holds the institutional authority, uses it – either personally or as a stooge of dominant values. And that the so-called autonomy of choice that separates “consultative” from “coercive” collapses in the blink of an eye under the grip of fear. As for the few patients who dare to exercise their autonomy vis-à-vis a doctor, they quickly learn who knows better.
It goes without saying that the customization of precision medical profiles corresponds to the redistribution of care management between the public and the private sector – a lot more than it relates to treating people. Those with “adverse” medical profiles will be able to choose between paying more and dying. We can also assume that those who follow instructions meticulously, who are wise and play their role well, will have some benefits. It is in the nature of any democratic society to reward submission. For those who don’t find this much of a dream, however, there is nothing as inspiring as the threat of misery. Nothing so crippling either – and all the more so because no one will want to believe that an “autonomous” patient dies because of a social system and not through his own fault.
Concerning the science of good birth applied to everyone, where we learn what this says about human nature, that information is not the bringer of freedom and how the choice to eliminate the “unfit” strengthens the world where for many being born is not good
“The healthy are sick people who ignore the fact.”
– Jules Romain, Knockvi
“In 1997, the film “Gattaca” described a society where life choices are oriented or even conditioned by the genetic risk factors determined at birth. Fifteen years later, even if reality has not become fictional, the considerable progress made in genome knowledge has made predictive medicine projects more credible.”
– Alain Claeys and Jean-Sébastien Vialattte
Predictive medicine involves generalising tests to “asymptomatic patients”, or the healthy ones who do not yet know that they are sick. “Predisposition tests may be prescribed to a person who is totally asymptomatic so as to determine a risk factor for developing a disease with a high probability.” (Idem) . This will not only lead to expert advice on their “lifestyle”, but also, in the case where “a genetic analysis reveals a risk of transmission to the offspring”, it would lead “to genetic counseling, if a parental project exists”.
“Genetic counseling” for people with a parental project has a great historical precedent: the eugenic laws decreed and applied a bit everywhere throughout the Western world from the beginning of the 20th century. The first laws allowing the sterilization of the “incapacitated”, but also other living people considered to bear real and imagined hereditary pathologies – such as schizophrenia, alcoholism, homosexuality and nomadism to mention only some of the “well established” pathologies of that epoch – were passed in the United States in 1907. This before spreading to most European countries, of which Nazi Germany still stands out, often hiding the forest of material concerning the medical elimination of the “unfit “. It is an open secret that almost all the scientific world of the time was in perfect agreement with eugenic measures – even when they were not applied through their own initiative. With few exceptions, everyone – including the vast majority of libertarians – agreed on the benefits of “improving humanity” through eugenics.
Today’s eugenicists, such as Luc Ferry, former minister of scholarly debilitationvii, invited to the 2016 congress of the French Society of Predictive and Personalized Medicine, advocate “liberal eugenics” that have nothing to do with Nazism. The difference is that the eugenics of yesteryear was imposed by the state, whereas today it’s a “free and voluntary” choice on the part of the parents.
We can agree with Ferry that “free and free will” eugenics does not equate to state eugenics as it was established in Nazi Germany and a good many other states. Yet we neither understand freedom nor free will in the same way as him. Because in the liberal conception of things, freedom is a freedom to choose. Aside from some overwhelmingly philosophical questions (what kind of choice is the choice of not choosing between what one finds in the shopping aisles?), the right to choose is one of the foundations of liberal freedom. Many phenomena are justified by referring to this dogma of choice, including when disgust towards them gives us a belly ache. This is true, for example, of fertility clinics around the world that offer genetic packages according to the desired profile – including gender, “race”, physical, cognitive and even affective “fitness” – as long as we can pay the price. This gateway to human dung opened up by genetics has already created a trillionaire market, fueled, freely and voluntarily, by racist, sexist and eugenicist fantasies.
Scientific-entrepreneurs respond by shrugging their shoulders. “Such is the demand, that’s all,” they say. But it is clear that the fantasies of the clients of these clinics are often confused with the delusions of laboratory technicians. The latter all, moreover, have something to say about the moral aspect of human nature. Starting with R. Edwards, creator of the first “test tube baby” and winner of the 2010 Nobel prize for Medicine: “We have the right to avoid the birth of embryos with serious abnormalities, as defined by geneticists. And I support the use of what could give better abilities to fertilized embryos grown in vitro.” D. Cohen, one of the founders of the Telethonviii, finds that “it is obvious that man, in the more or less near future, will have the power to modify his genetic inheritance … I am convinced that the future man, he who perfectly masters the laws of genetics, can be the architect of his own biological evolution and not of his degeneration.” F. Crick, a Nobel prize winner who discovered the “double helix” structure of DNA: “No newborn child should be recognized as human without having passed tests on its genetic endowment. If he does not succeed in passing them, he loses his right to life.” And his brilliant colleague JD Watson, the former director of the Human Genome Project, who resigned in 1992 after the revelation of his involvement in several biotechnology companies: “All of our aid policies are based on the fact that [the intelligence of Africans] is the same as ours, while all the tests say that it is not really the case”; and the icing on the cake – after being accused of suggesting that women abort fetuses carrying the “homosexuality gene,” Watson replied, “I was asked about homosexuality; I told the story of a woman whose life was ruined by the fact that her son was homosexual (…). I said, quite simply, that a woman in such a situation should have the choice to abort. “
In France, where the ultra-liberal conception is not in line with republican ideology and management, we limit choice by muzzling it with bioethics. In “civilized” countries, this is meant to protect us against the misuse of new technologies. In the final analysis, as one of the CRISPR-Cas9 discoverers, Emmanuelle Charpentier, so aptly put it, about the eugenic applications of her instrument in China: “This technology was really designed to treat diseases. Not for unwanted applications.” ix When a student used CRISPR-Cas9 to create a mutagenic virus that threatened the lungs of rats, the virus got very near to being effective on human beings. Jennifer Doudna, the second mother of CRISPR-Cas9, regretted simply not having the time, “within the [scientific] community , to discuss ethics and safety, nor to determine if there is a real clinical benefit to this method “. One must be a scientist to be entitled to such unlimited stupidity.
If the professionals in bioethics – such as the scientists who beat their guilty breasts a little late – try to limit the overflow of the scientific shit, it is to grant a fee pass to something else. Luc Ferry and his companions in predictive medicine do not speak to us – when they manage to hold themselves back x – of the choice of the “race” or the sex of the child; they talk to us about trisomies, cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs pathology, etc. – and the very hard choice to keep (or not) the child who could be affected. This in the name of a much deeper freedom of choice, much more difficult, than in the case of the odious profiles desired by parents.
Any medicine that does not cure anything is based on a dogma that is largely beyond the medical community. It’s a question of the assumption that information is in itself a certain freedom – at least in its extremely impoverished conception based on the freedom to choose. But, as pointed out by RC Lewontin, when “a woman is told that the foetus she is carrying has a 50% chance of contracting cystic fibrosis or that she will give birth to a girl even though her husband desperately wants a boy, she does not acquire any additional power thanks to this knowledge. She is only constrained by it, constrained to decide and act within the limits of her relations with the State and her family. Will her husband accept or ask for the abortion, will the state take care of it, will the doctor execute it? “
In other words, when we learn something about our bodies or the bodies of others, it does not automatically lead to any kind of freedom. This throws us against the multiple walls, real or virtual, operating in the social environment in which we live – in addition to disposing of the need to destroy some of these walls. If one decides to abort a child deemed “defective” out of the very palpable fear that it would suffer living in the world as it is, it is not by freedom of choice. Such a decision would be conditioned mainly by the constraint, real or imagined, psychological or material, of submitting to the facts: what do the people who surround this child do? would they have the time and the desire to live with it? do they have a vision of individual fulfillment compatible with their condition? Biologist ideology, which takes the medical profile as the main determinant of the life of individuals, erases all these questions en bloc, as well as our obligation to create a world where the development of individuals would not be dependent on rates of production, nor on school managers where eligibility for the rate of intelligence is measured by imbeciles.
Those who speak of a freedom of choice acquired by means of diagnosis hide all questions that relate to the social conditions in which this choice is made. The belief that a probability of giving birth to a seriously ill child provides us with some freedom as to its fate, actually “freezes” us from any consideration of the conditions under which such a child might be happy xi. Is a person who is dependent on others to travel isolated because of his or her biological limits, or is it perhaps because his or her relatives are not available because of work or other fundamentally social facts? What a lot of scientists are not able to conceive of is that the limits of our bodies are only very rarely fatal for individual fulfillment.
It is perhaps in order to prevent such questions within too critical minds that they speak of “genetic counseling” in the event of a parental project (see above). Such advice will formalize the opinion of doctors and geneticists – including when to abort. Admittedly, of a formally non-coercive nature, they will exercise a consultative power on subjects as “neutral” as the value of the life of a child suffering with some probability of a certain pathology. Although it is not excluded that some will stand up to the know-alls, we can also affirm that here it’s a matter of moments of extreme weakness, where decisions made freely and voluntarily according to some will actually be due to the so-called experts, if not to the social categories at work.
Submitting to an agreementxii
Concerning scholarly communication, where we learn and are taught to ask the questions to which the scholar alone has the answer, and where it is explained why the best way to have a dialogue with such scholars is not to participate in the conversation
“Given the upheavals brought about by personalized medicine, it is necessary to organize public debates quickly to explain the progress, the risks and the stakes, and this over several years, in order to prepare public opinion and avoid significant ethical disappointment on the part of the population, and even disappointment in terms of public health. Public opinion is not ready today to see , in 25 years for example, a whole battery of tests on the risks of the most serious diseases being prescribed. It is important to know what is acceptable to the social body to avoid deleterious effects. “
– Alain Claeys and Jean-Sébastien Vialatte
Before the extermination of the “unfit”, in most Western countries at the beginning of the 20th century geneticists systematically proclaimed that “for the application of eugenic practical measures, the scientific bases have been sufficiently assured.” xiiiThe non-existence of these “bases” was not a simple mistake; it was flagrant according to the least criterion of “scientificity” of the time. This did not prevent eugenic measures. Although this may seem banal to some, it is essential to emphasize that state measures need the consent of the ruled rather than any real scientific basis.
Science has since been forced to change its strategy to defend itself. The Second World Butchery marks both the culmination of the results of research in the life sciences and basic sciences, and the full integration of these sciences into state institutions. Now this coincidence has made laboratory workers and States understand that it would take more than the upbeat positivism of progress to convince the spectators. On the ashes still hot from extermination on an industrial scale, universal progress was definitely confused with universal ruin – as Baudelaire did not fail to foresee a century earlier. To separate the two, the powerful were confronted with the unusual task of persuading people that technologies that had destroyed millions of people could also solve the millennial problems of the human race. However, the veracity of the scientific bases has not been put in doubt any more than it was in the past. The basic sciences continue to do damage with a solid foundation; the life sciences continue to do the same without any foundation at all.
Even today, certainly on another level, we still do not wait for the truth so we can naturalize social reality and take appropriate measures. As an example, one wonders what is natural about oxytocin, the so-called maternal hormone. In a press release of 15/02/2010, the CNRSxiv states that oxytocin is “a hormone known for its role in maternal attachment”. The absence of a single study providing the least “proof” does not prevent us from discussing human nature, provided we are sufficiently qualified. The shadow of doubt does not fall on the fact that what is conceived as “attachment” varies from one individual to another, nor that maternity is a fact more dependent on the social reality into which we are thrown than on the belly from which one leaves. Worse, the laboratory authorities establish and rectify the social categories they take up, finding them a place in the web of objective truths. Thus, by going through maternal attachment as a category that would make sense in biology, parental care, for example, which is sometimes shared among several people, is refocused on the one who gave birth. The relationship between the mother and the child is no longer linked to the time and space available to them, to their choices, to the mother’s willingness (or not) to give birth and/or to live with her child , to her relationship with others and with herself, etc. The relationship between mother and child becomes a matter of hormone levels, so a medical issue – and one has hardly noticed the authorization to administer oxytocin to treat emotional disorders, belated puberty, precocious puberty and a thousand other pathologies in a pathogenic world. The “scientific basis” is sufficiently ensured for hormonal therapy, you can circulate, and quickly.
In order to get to the point where individuals believe that their well-being is more or less determined by their genetic profile and that, as a corollary, their problems can be solved by these individuals “correcting it” – an avalanche of scientific communication is needed. For this, a well-placed lie is worth a thousand laboratory truths. For the plebs are not eager to learn that human nature was established by means of probabilistic calculus or by relying on the conceptual scheme whose only advantage is that of giving results. The plebs need easy little lies to organize their jumbled worldview.
Although there is not a single geneticist who explains what a gene is, the elegant mapping of the good & evil of life – homologous to the genes and brain areas that are meant to be “responsible” – is a perfect answer to the questions that science has posed at the expense of all others (see the previous section). With few exceptions (because self-deprecation is unfettered), scientists know very well that their ultra-reductive vision of life is only a rough simplification. But they also know that the ease with which we shuffle around the interpretation of scientific facts makes them more digestible for the public. Thus, a small “genetic variation implying the possibility of a link with cirrhosis of the liver” (or some similar jargon) quickly becomes “the alcohol gene” in the newspapers; thus the high rate of oxytocin in girls’ piss just after calling up their mothers makes it quickly “the maternal hormone” [note: a reference to the author discovering just one sole study of the subject of the “maternal attachment” nature of oxytocin].
These kinds of predigested truths for general consumption are an integral part of techno-science. Public science writers are paid (or not) to establish the channels of communication between the experts and the public who do not speak their language. The many popular newspapers, countless sites, science fairs, “citizen debates” are supposed to ask the questions that only scientists are meant to have the answer to – and this is the fundamental point. No debate can take place between the experts and those who have no way of mastering their knowledge. For just as theologians are the only ones capable of deciphering the true meaning of religious canons, laboratory workers are the only ones who can explain the true meaning of the metaphors in which the sciences of life are drawn.
In this sense, the initiatives of scientific communication are simply ways to subject spectators to biologist representations: to separate the different aspects of our lives, including the psychological and the corporal, from our individual histories as social conditions, and turn them into “natural” phenomena. It is not a question of ignoring the carnal aspect of certain diseases, including “mental” ones. It is important to point out that weakness and acuteness – physical, psychological or otherwise – cannot be separated from what we live in relation to other individuals and everything around us: what we create and what is created for us. The term “biological predisposition” denies all of this in en bloc ; it denies the fact, however banal, that between the body of each person and the environment into which they are thrown, there are still a thousand things, including thoughts and actions, and their development in time. Regarding the world in its profoundly alien form, poisoned by industrial pollution, to talk about natural predispositions is an insult.
If these considerations make most “serious” scientists sneer, it is because the non-quantitative vision of life and death doesn’t enter their heads. Illness is part of everyone’s life abstractly, and the lives of millions of people concretely. The life of the sick is a problem to which science claims to have the only answer. When, as in the case of predictive medicine, everyone becomes sick with a certain probability, science holds the answer to the question of life (and death) for everyone, sick or not.
When the state acquiesces, this pretension becomes a direct power over our existence and the very vision we have of this existence.
From this point of view, the sneering attitudes of scientists towards the skeptics is the only possible answer on their part. As for us, we think we are capable of worse.
Appendix on Predictive Medicine and Hereditary Diseases
[Hereditary diseases] affect a very small number of people. The most frequent are cystic fibrosis (about 350 cases per year in France, of varying severity), Duchenne muscular dystrophy (a hundred cases), and haemophilia (about 70 cases). On the scale of a country such as France, there are never more than a few dozen cases a year, and often less. Their prenatal diagnosis, possibly followed by abortion, has absolutely no impact on public health. It is even less so on the genetic inheritance of humanity, since it concerns only a small fraction of the world population, the ones with the financial and technical means to implement them. Nor does it have a large impact on the number of abortions. There is absolutely no common measure between the social and medical significance of these genetic procedures and the media hype surrounding them.
[…] Charity shows, like the Telethon, display special cases which show sick children (the most presentable, damaged enough to arouse pity, but not so damaged as to arouse disgust – it’s not wise to shock prospective donors) rather than venturing to provide actual figures, and also discussing genetic therapy, while they know very well that once the ‘gene’ is discovered, what will follow are detection tests and therapeutic abortions.
The pinnacle of the particular is reached with diseases that are so rare, and affect so few individuals, that they are known as ‘orphan diseases’ – a label that sounds straight out of a marketing agency. Such cases are so particular that they have scarcely been studied, not just because such diseases would not be profitable for the pharmaceutical industry but also because it is inherently difficult to study a disease of this kind, let alone envisage a therapy, when there are so few cases (medicine has never performed miracles, even with sufficient financial resources).
[…] It is in this area of “genetic predispositions”, rather than in that of truly hereditary diseases, that there could be a real eugenic danger. On the one hand, because these predispositions are far more vague than established hereditary conditions; on the other hand, because they concern many more people. For example, the predisposition to obesity: with more than 20% of American children considered obese, plus countless women trying to become slim, genetic control of weight gain is, on its own, far more interesting for the pharmaceutical industry than all the hereditary diseases combined (here we can understand what are the real results expected from basic research in genetics).
For these predispositions, as for genuinely hereditary diseases, given that the possibilities of treatment necessarily lag behind those of diagnosis, it cannot be ruled out (if the option proves commercially attractive) that some people will envisage the eugenic solution, this time without the limits mentioned above, and on a larger scale. It will doubtless be said that this scenario is unlikely, but in this field the improbable does not count for much; we need only cast a glance at the recent past to be convinced of that.
In what follows, neuroscience will be criticized alongside genetics for two reasons: first, neuroscience is conceptually dependent on genetics, using the same metaphors drawn from computer science; secondly, the two are integrated with the reason of State by relying on the same arguments, with the same institutions and, often, at the initiative of the same people. From this point of view, neuroscience and genetics constitute the same branch of techno-science.
Scientists know very well that the “responsibility” of genes and brain areas for this or that function is in fact a smokescreen hiding phenomena of great complexity. They know, for example, that a part of the brain, as well as a gene, can be “responsible” for several functions, or none at all. The interdependence of the factors as well as the probabilistic nature of the analyses do not allow us – and will never allow us – to know exactly what is involved in cutting a sequence of nucleotides, even when it is a tool ” precision “, such as CRISPR-Cas9.
J. Ruffié, Naissance de la médecine prédictive, Odile Jacob, Paris, 1993, p. 60.
MM. Alain Claeys et Jean-Sébastien Vialatte, L’impact et les enjeux des nouvelles technologies d’exploration et de thérapie du cerveau (report), ( The Impact and Challenges of New Brain Exploration and Therapy Technologies (report), 13th March, 2012.
MM. Alain Claeys et Jean-Sébastien Vialatte, Les progrès de la génétique, vers une médecine de précision ? Les enjeux scientifiques, technologiques, sociaux et éthiques de la médecine personnalisée (Rapport), The progress of genetics, towards a precise medicine? Scientific, Technological, Social and Ethical Issues of Personalized Medicine (Report), January 22nd, 2014.
Translators note (TN): this play, later made into a film, is about a village doctor who has no patients; so he convinces the healthy villagers that in fact, they are unwell. See this : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knock_(play)
TN : Minister for Youth, National Education and Research from May 2002 to March 2004.
TN: Roughly the French equivalent of the UK’s Children in Need.
Thought for Pierre Desproges: ”You think, my dear, that if I had
suspected that my work on the atom would be used for military purposes,
I would have done embroidery rather than research“, moaned Robert
Oppenheimer. What did he think – that nuclear energy was destined to
We cannot help but weave the link between Luc Ferry the liberal eugenicist and the same Ferry who says: “If we removed the 15% of popular neighborhoods, we would be ranked number 1 in Pisa [international ranking on education]”. (Le Canard Enchaîné of November 22, 2017).
TN: The original heading in French doesn’t translate well as it’s a play on words – combining « being in agreement » with « submitting to an agreement »
This is a quote from Otmar von Verschuer, a Nazi geneticist and collaborator of the dark Josef Mengele. However, as an example, one year before a German doctor who was not a Nazi, said: “Science could now establish with such certainty the hereditary prognosis in particular cases that the possibility would be given to the doctor to take measures to prevent the offspring of the unfit.” (The two quotes are taken from The Pure Society: From Darwin to Hitler by André Pichot)
TN: Centre national de la recherche scientifique – National Centre for Scientific Research.
Further reading about aspects of science on this site: