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Book Review: Contested Categories - Life Sciences in Society

28 May 2010

By Harriet Vickers

Appeared in BioNews 560

Contested Categories: Life Sciences in Society

Edited by Dr Susanne Bauer and Dr Ayo Wahlberg

Published by Ashgate

ISBN-10: 0754676188 , ISBN-13: 978-0754676188

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Contested Categories: Life Sciences in Society' edited by Dr Susanne Bauer and Dr Ayo Wahlberg


Bioscience and biotechnology are impacting on our lives, and forecasted technologies from these fields could feature ever more powerfully and prominently in society. Our knowledge of biology has enabled us to move away from understanding to being able to manipulate and influence. As the authors of 'Contested Categories' write, we could be on the cusp of 'a bio-age, a posthuman future or an era of genetic programming'.

But how does scientific work in the life sciences translate across into society? This is broadly the book's focus: editors Ayo Wahlberg and Susanne Bayer write that much philosophical and empirical research has already been done into the subject, but they feel the need for a different tact.

Currently, philosophers critically argue that 'new technological possibilities for cognitive enhancement, reproductive selection and genetic manipulation are putting our very human nature, dignity and authenticity on the line while also reinforcing social inequities'. Though, philosophers have also talked about bringing patients, scientists, clinicians, venture capitalists, and families together in a common quest to save and improve lives, and of promoting personal growth beyond our biological limitations. Current empirical studies, on the other hand, have emphasised the taxing toll of the global trade in organs, eggs and tissue, and the impact of clinical trials on vulnerable subjects. Empiricists also speak of the bio-social communities and biological/genetic/pharmaceutical citizens.

But this book takes a different approach than that of these hazard-promise investigations, and all the essays within the book are centred around this approach. The essays are all empirical - with data from, for example, labs, museums or clinics. But rather than popular focuses such as communities, economies or governance, they examine biological categories and the boundaries they create. Some of the categories delved into by the authors - from Scandinavian, Canadian and UK Universities and varying from PhD students to professors - are 'genes', 'at risk pregnancies', 'laboratory', 'fetus' and 'human biological material'. How these circulate, are contested and negotiated, and shift and stabilise in meaning, are all examined.

Whilst the book's approach, and how it differs from other work, is made clear in the introduction, I was left at a slight loss as to why it was important. They are proposing a new way of looking at these prominent issues, but other than stating that these categories do shift and change as they move from labs into broader society, they gave no suggestions as to how this new perspective could help or change our views. I was still puzzled as to the implications after reading the essays.

But the main issue I had with this book, as you might have guessed from its premise, is that it is very academic. Most of the writers seem to be writing for other sociologists, dropping in ideas from semiotics, actor-network theory and constructivism as though they expect the reader to be familiar with these. Whilst it's not imperative to have a handle on these theories to understand the essence of the essays, it does make some of the book very heavy going.

Chapters eight: On laboratories and four: On prenatal risk assessment are particularly difficult to understand, rendering them fairly impenetrable.

The only two chapters I did enjoy reading, and the only two that I would recommend, were Ayo Wahlberg's 'Serious disease as kinds of living' and Murray Goulden and Andrew S Balmer's 'portrayals of missing links in the media'. Wahlberg looks at deciding what it is to be 'seriously handicapped' in terms of selective abortions in the UK. This is a highly contentious boundary: Erik Juengst has written about the variable perspectives on this and genetic enhancement (1), and George Will has written that the flexibility of the 'severely handicapped' boundary means some selective abortions are unethical (2). Examining patient literature such as pamphlets, patient guides and websites, Wahlberg argues that it is not biological test results that guide parents here, but rather 'norms of living' - benchmarks such as lifespan and quality of life created by those with the handicap and their families, as well as doctors. In contrast to other essays in the book, his scene-setting and explanations draw you into his argument.

Goulden and Balmer's essay is also engaging. They look at 'missing links' of the Piltdown Man and Homo floresiensis (or 'the hobbit') and show how the categorisation of these changed with their move from science into the public realm. Rather than retaining the scientifically flexible 'Homo', they became anchored in the media as 'human' or 'not human'.

Whilst the remaining chapters vary, most of them do suffer in some degree from being too dry and inaccessible, so whilst some of the chapters cover some interesting, timely topics, anyone other than a social scientist will probably find them too academic and too much of a chore to digest.



Buy Contested Categories: Life Sciences in Society from Amazon UK.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
1) Juengst, Eric T (1998) What does enhancement mean? In (Parens, Erik, ed) Enhancing human traits: Ethical and social implications. (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press) pages 29-38.
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