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boundary 2 28.1 (2001) 221-232
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Are We Not Genes?
Stanley Shostak’s Death of Life and The Evolution of Sameness and Difference
The modern evolutionary paradigm of neo-Darwinism is increasingly relied upon in popular and technical literature alike to cast light on issues in disciplines as wide and varied as consciousness, sociology, history, psychology, and many others. This in itself is nothing new—contemporary readers of Darwin (as well as Darwin himself) used the power of the theory of evolution by natural selection to explain issues outside of the realm of the strictly biological. What is new, however, is the ease with which metaphors and technical applications of the language of genetics has come to be accepted. This is more than a resurrection of the traditional “nature versus nurture” debate, for terms such as selfish genes, memes, and genetic determinism, and the Human Genome Project itself, have entered the domain of popular science with little theoretical interrogation. What attention they have received is couched more in terms of the ethics of appropriating such [End Page 221] language than in terms of the actual scientific roots of the positions themselves. An appraisal of the felicitousness of using the “language of DNA” in domains outside science proper needs not only an ethical dimension but also an examination of the sociological aspects of science, as well as an examination of the theoretical status of “genetic” concepts within science itself. Furthermore, an analysis of the role of technology in the practice of science would seem to be necessary in order to discern the implications of science for society. Stanley Shostak attempts all four of these tasks in his books Death of Life and The Evolution of Sameness and Difference.
The first, Death of Life, offers a stark evaluation of the area of biology that is the source of most of the language of genetics to which we have become accustomed: molecular biology. It attempts to lay bare the prejudices of molecular biology as a discipline, using history and modern example alike to illustrate the fundamental shortcomings of molecular biology in all its different subdisciplines. The second book, The Evolution of Sameness and Difference, uses these shortcomings to develop a new approach to life, and in this sense the two works form a complementary whole.
Shostak correctly perceives that science itself is not an autarchic discipline, neither in terms of its own standards for correctness nor in terms of our relationship to it as audience. We do not take its metaphors and mechanisms as given and apply them to situations outside science, nor does science have its own internal language divested of reference to political trends and events. Because of this interplay, science must be interrogated to give insight into the proper or improper use of its language, but it is precisely here that the “problem of demarcation” becomes an issue: Exactly who is the enemy when bad science is illegitimately transplanted into the political realm? And again, the role of technology must be addressed here: Can technology be treated as merely a tool? If not, then how is it incorporated into, or determined by, social and political practice? These intricate and complex questions are inevitably raised by any critical examination of science and its practices.
In Death of Life, Shostak addresses the question of why “biology failed in its primary mission of elucidating life” (xi). The charge that biology today not only does not, but fundamentally cannot, deal with life itself has of course been raised by others.1 Shostak, rather than place the blame for the [End Page 222] “death of life” on the pernicious influence of mathematics and physics in the biological sciences, as others have done, places it squarely on molecular biologists. But this charge itself has many premises behind it.
For Shostak not...