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Book Review: Designs on Nature - Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States

22 March 2010
By Dr Darryl Gunson
School of Science, University of the West of Scotland
Appeared in BioNews 551

Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States

By Professor Sheila Jasanoff

Published by Princeton University Press

ISBN-10: 0691130426, ISBN-13: 978-0691130422

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States' by Professor Sheila Jasanoff

In this fascinating and important book Professor Sheila Jasanoff addresses some big questions about the politics of bioscience and biotechnology: What are the consequences of the shift from industrial to knowledge-based societies? What are the effects of rapid changes in biotechnology on politics and culture? What criteria can be invoked to judge that some countries are handling the changes more effectively, more ethically, or more democratically than others?

To this end, she makes use of comparative analysis in which the reception of the new biotechnology in the US, Germany, UK and the rest of the EU is examined through the lenses of their respective political cultures. Three main arguments are developed. The first is that democratic theory cannot be fully understood without inquiry into the politics of science and technology. The general idea here, familiar from sociologists such as Daniel Bell (1), is that modern societies are becoming knowledge societies and new forms of knowledge have the potential to effect profound social changes. Such changes are particularly profound where biotechnology is concerned because they 'entail a fundamental rethinking of the self and its place in the larger natural, social and political orders' (2). Whether or not talk of 'rethinking the self' over-dramatises the matter, the idea that biotechnology raises questions about the basis for regulation and restricting access, which do arguably strike at the heart of democratic theory, is clearly plausible and important .

The second major argument of the book is that biotech-policy in the US, UK and Germany has become embroiled in projects of 're-imagining nationhood at a critical juncture in world history…' (3) The question of European values in bioethics is one that has been widely discussed (4), but Jasanoff argues convincingly that this issue was enmeshed in the larger question of European identity, prompted by the tension between the desire to enlarge EU borders and the question of how much diversity could be tolerated whilst still being a viable union. I found this argument both fascinating and convincing. An equally interesting picture is painted of the situation in the UK, with the ethics and governance of biotechnology set against the political ascent of New Labour and its 'third way' where individual freedom and the markets were considered the allies of social justice. The project of 're-imagining' is especially true of Germany, where the question of nationhood is still being worked out in the shadow of the Holocaust and German reunification.

The third argument advanced is that political culture is central to understanding democratic politics. Contemporary democratic politics admits of cultural variation. Thus, different countries with similar democratic traditions differ in their reception of biotechnology. A distinctive political culture explains why in the US a relatively robust debate on environmental issues - nuclear power and pollution - has given way to a 'relatively complacent acceptance of the risks and benefits of genetic engineering' (5). In Germany a sophisticated public debate failed to produce the necessary changes in policy, with the result that the production of embryonic stem cells (ES cells) was banned. In the UK the problem is almost the opposite of the US; a country that has a history of tolerance of pollution and resistance to institutional innovation is now 'the most active experimental station' for the new bio-politics.

In order to understand why, for example, GM (genetically modified) food is accepted in Germany and the US, but remains highly controversial in the UK, or why ES cell research is relatively uncontested in the UK, but in US opinion is divided and in Germany ES cell production is illegal, one has to challenge the idea of a globally shared 'common view of the world'. Jasanoff does this convincingly. The corollary of these arguments is that the fundamental question raised by coexistence under conditions of globalisation is not how to achieve a consensus on the basic principles for rational harmonisation of policy on biotechnology, but rather that of 'whose version of the world should be naturalised or made real' (6).

Jasanoff sees her project as aiding our understanding of the importance of the new biotechnology by situating it in its proper political and cultural context. In this regard I think the book is a resounding success and I recommend it to anyone interested in bioethics and the socio-political context to the reception of biotechnology. It serves as a welcome counter to the tendency to consider ethical arguments in isolation from their broader political and cultural context.

Buy Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States from Amazon UK.

1) Bell, D. The Coming Of Post-Industrial Society.
London: Heinemann |  1 January 1973
2) P.7.
|  20 January 2022
3) Ibid
|  20 January 2022
4) Häyry, M. European values in bioethics: Why, what, and how to be used
Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 24(3): 199 |  2003
5) P.19
|  20 January 2022
6) P.10
|  20 January 2022
1 August 2011 - by Dr Amy Strange 
'Biotechnology and Cloning' is part of a series of educational books for teenagers addressing 'contemporary social issues'. It is an unusual concept, being neither a textbook nor a revision guide. It does not directly explain the underlying science, but outlines and encourages the reader to think around the topics....
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