Redesigning Life

Eugenics, Biopolitics, and the Challenge of the Techno-Human Condition

by Nathan Van Camp (Author)
©2015 Monographs 166 Pages


The emerging development of genetic enhancement technologies has recently become the focus of a public and philosophical debate between proponents and opponents of a liberal eugenics – that is, the use of these technologies without any overall direction or governmental control. Inspired by Foucault’s, Agamben’s and Esposito’s writings about biopower and biopolitics, the author sees both positions as equally problematic, as both presuppose the existence of a stable, autonomous subject capable of making decisions concerning the future of human nature, while in the age of genetic technology the nature of this subjectivity shall be less an origin than an effect of such decisions. Bringing together a biopolitical critique of the way this controversial issue has been dealt with in liberal moral and political philosophy with a philosophical analysis of the nature of and the relation between life, politics, and technology, the author sets out to outline the contours of a more responsible engagement with genetic technologies based on the idea that technology is an intrinsic condition of humanity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Enhanced Life
  • Redesigning Life
  • The Return of Eugenics
  • The Liberal Eugenics
  • Life needs to be Protected
  • The New Eugenics and the End of Liberalism
  • Chapter Two: Bare Life
  • The Biopolitical Turn
  • From Life Politics to a Politics of Life
  • The Power to “Make Life” and “Let Die”
  • Existence Without Life
  • Sacred Life
  • Form-Of-Life
  • Chapter Three: Enframed Life
  • Heidegger and Biotechnology
  • The Grown and the Made
  • Dasein and Life
  • The Essence of Biotechnology
  • Chapter Four: Natal Life
  • Hannah Arendt and Biotechnology
  • The Techno-Human Condition
  • Natality Between Necessity and Freedom
  • The Symbolic Reduction of the Event of Parturition
  • The Prematurity of Natal Life
  • Chapter Five: Prosthetic Life
  • The Forgetting of Epimetheus
  • Deconstructing the Anthropological Difference
  • Epiphylogenetic Life
  • Technology and Communicative Reason
  • Inevitable Enhancement
  • References
  • Series index



← 8 | 9 → Acknowledgments

Some of the work presented in this book has already appeared in academic journals. For material that is presented in Chapters 1, 3, 4, and 5, the author acknowledges its original publication in a slightly different form in Humana Mente: Journal of Philosophical Studies, Journal of Philosophy of Life, Symposium: Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy, Between the Species, and Journal for Cultural Research. The author sincerely thanks the editors of these journals for their permission to publish this work.

I am grateful to Gabriel Fragnière and Hendrik Opdebeeck, the series editors for Philosophy & Politics at Peter Lang, for publishing this book. My thanks go out, as well, to the managing director at PIE Peter Lang, Emilie Menz, for her patience, thoroughness, and belief in the project.

This book is derived from my doctoral dissertation which was submitted to and successfully defended at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Antwerp (Belgium) in May 2013. A project like this one requires assistance from many quarters. I give special thanks to my parents, Marc Van Camp and Anita De Hoef, for their unconditional support throughout my extended stay at the University of Antwerp. I am profoundly grateful. I also thank my brothers, grandparents, and family-in-law. They were always there when I needed them, and I am truly grateful for that.

Others whom I want to acknowledge here are all good friends who I have known for many years and who have given me the courage and strength to pursue my dreams: Bert De Smedt, Lente Dewilde, Joris Godefroit, Ines Borgonjon, Pieter Thomaes, Stephanie Williams, Nicolas Dobbeleir, Stefan Engelen, Stien Smessaert, Davy Rombouts, Kathelijne Delmeire, Dennis Soete, Griet Debussche, Winnok De Vos, Katrien Van Den Broeck, Tim Dupuis, Laïcha De Cock, Steve Leung, Maria Salinas Sanchez, Carlos Rovzar, Pieter Vereycken, Sarah Shaham, Annelies Godefroit, Sophie Stas, Christophe Huybrighs, and many others who I have forgotten to mention here. I am honored to call them my friends. I also want to thank a couple of people who have come to me from the world of academia and who have each, in their own way, contributed to the coming into being of this book: Diane Enns, Jeffrey A. Barash, Bart Verschaffel, Walter Weyns, Kris Dierickx, Francis D. Raška, Cassie Striblen, Stephen Bloch-Schulman, Sophie Cloutier, Joshua Miller, Shane Wilkins, Eli Schonfeld, and Paula Schwebel.

← 9 | 10 → For the generous scholarship that allowed me to carry out the research that led to this book, I express my gratitude to the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO). I also thank the University Foundation of Belgium for its financial support in making this publication possible.

I am profoundly grateful to my colleagues and former colleagues in the Institute of Jewish Studies as well as in the philosophy department at the University of Antwerp. In particular, I acknowledge Joachim Leilich, Katrien Vloeberghs, Karolien Vermeulen, Luc Acke, Christophe Collard, Jo Bogaerts, Dennis Baert, David Dessin, Liesbet Quaeghebeur, Sven Braspenning, Jeff Spiessens, Geoffrey Dierickxens, Rudmer Bijlsma, Martin Michels, and Torben Wolfs.

Finally, I thank two mentors, without whom this whole enterprise would have been unattainable. Arthur Cools, chair of the Center for European Philosophy at the University of Antwerp, first sparked my interest in the broad field of what is now often referred to as “continental philosophy.” For this, and for his support and critical guidance over the years, I owe him a debt of gratitude. Last, but not least, I am forever grateful to my Doktormutter, Vivian Liska, director of the Institute of Jewish Studies at the University of Antwerp, for her guidance and encouragement, not only during my doctoral studies, but ever since. Without her steadfast belief in my potential as a scholar, I would simply not be the person who I am today. There are not enough words in my mind to thank her properly.

I have dedicated this book to the love of my life, Leen. This book would simply not have been possible without her unwavering love, support, patience, and belief in me as a scholar and as a person. Our love journey started well before I embarked on the journey to wisdom, and my life as a philosopher would simply be meaningless without her love. I am truly grateful in ways that I may never be able to show.



← 10 | 11 → Introduction

In the late 1990s, a team of Princeton geneticists led by Joe Tsien succeeded in adding an extra copy of the NR2B gene to the genome of a mouse called Doogy.1 This choice of name was definitely not arbitrary, for just like the fictional television science prodigy Doogy Howser MD, the mouse was reported to acquire new knowledge at an unparalleled pace and retain it much longer than unmodified mice. Subsequent experiments with the NR2B gene yielded less convincing results, but the research team hopes that, once proved safe, this procedure could offer a revolutionary treatment for brain damage caused by Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Even more spectacularly, they also speculate about what might be achieved by inserting additional copies of the NR2B gene in humans with normally functioning brains. Because if the treatment could restore damaged brains to health, then it could perhaps also be used to boost the capacities of the brain beyond its normal functioning.

In a recent article, the German behavioral geneticist Klaus-Peter Lesch claims to have identified a sequence of DNA on chromosome 5-HTTLPR that, in his view, has an important influence on our state of wellbeing.2 His study shows that people who are born with a shorter version of this sequence are more susceptible to negative feelings and emotions such as depression, anxiety, and frustration. Those born with a longer version of the sequence, on the other hand, are reported to be more temperamentally upbeat and optimistic than the average person. Lesch still has no definitive explanation why this is the case, but there is good evidence that it has something to do with the fact that this sequence of DNA is responsible for regulating the reuptake of serotonin, the monoamine neurotransmitter also targeted by the antidepressant Prozac. But if his thesis proves to be correct, then it would be theoretically possible for parents to give their prospective children a guaranteed happy life by having only the longer version of this sequence engineered into their genome.

A number of recent announcements of progress and innovations in genetic science indicate that we are on the verge of entering a whole new era ← 11 | 12 → in human evolution. Rapid advancements in genomics, most notably the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2000, have opened up the way for the manipulation of the human genetic heritage by technological means. In Jürgen Habermas’s words, “what hitherto was ‘given’ as organic nature, and could at most be ‘bred,’ now shifts to the realm of artifacts and their production.”3 Although there are still a lot of practical barriers that have to be overcome before it will be possible to modify human DNA in the same way as DNA in plants and non-human animals can be modified, “the question is no longer whether we will manipulate embryos, but when, where, and how.”4 The most obvious application of human genetic technologies is in the prevention and healing of disease. It would, for example, become possible to insert healthy copies of a gene into cells that contain a defective gene so that the cells start to make the correct protein. However, as innovative as gene therapy may be, its sole aim is to restore diseased bodies to health, and as such it is still largely continuous with established medical practices. But this is far less clear, though, in the case of what is called “genetic enhancement,” for here genetic knowledge about the genetic underpinnings of the phenotype is not used for treating disease, but to design human beings according to human will. It remains to be seen how radical these developments will prove to be, but, as biophysicist Gregory Stock maintains, it is already certain that “the enormous collective project of conscious human evolution has begun.”5

While the technologies for genetic modification are quite recent, the attempt to enhance the biological characteristics of human beings is hardly unique to the “age of genomics,” for clear parallels could be drawn with the ideals of eugenics.6 Formulated in the late 19th century by Francis Galton, the term eugenics refers to both a branch of science and a popular movement that sought to improve human hereditary traits through a variety of social policies and practices. Although the content of the eugenic project varied considerably from country to country, it is best known for its support for policies of racial segregation and enforced sterilization in the United States and Nazi Germany. Although very little of the scientific basis on which these 20th century eugenic practices were premised withstands critical scrutiny, they do provide an important background to the contemporary politico-philosophical debate over the moral acceptability or otherwise of human genetic modification. The central ← 12 | 13 → assumption guiding much of the literature on the socio-ethical implications of new genetic technologies is that if they have eugenic effects, then they are also morally unacceptable. Recently, however, some commentators have taken a different approach to this issue, arguing that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the goals of eugenics as such, and that its moral acceptability depends on the values and principles of the political ideology that regulates its implementation in society.7 They reject as unjustified any comparison that might be drawn between the contemporary idea of human genetic modification and the Nazi eugenics program by indicating that the “new eugenics” will be firmly rooted in the liberal principles of individual autonomy and value plurality. Their central claim is that if the state remains neutral in this matter and does not intervene to enforce a particular conception of the good to be sought through genetic modification, then a “liberal eugenics” will greatly reinforce the freedoms associated with reproduction. Critics, on the other hand, claim that any attempt to integrate the eugenic ideal into a liberal framework is bound to fail and that it will corrupt the central tenets of liberalism to the point of turning it into its opposite.8 Although this argument takes many different forms, the basic assumption is that human genetic enhancement should be rejected because it poses a potential threat to human nature. Moreover, since the idea of an immutable human nature is intrinsic to the notion of human dignity, this threat extends to the whole meaning of what it is to be human.

Although it is not our intention to intervene directly into this contemporary debate over human genetic enhancement by taking position, it nonetheless constitutes the starting point and focus of the present book. ← 13 | 14 → The question of human genetic modification currently remains just that – a question. The ultimate threshold has still not yet been crossed. Should humanity go beyond this point of no return? Both advocates and opponents of human genetic modification seem to be narrowing the scope of the debate to this mode of questioning, without realizing that they thereby base their position on a similar set of assumptions about the nature of and relation between the concepts of “life” and “technology” that prevents them from reflecting on the question of human genetic modification in a sufficiently radical way. Regardless of whether the question is answered in the negative or in the positive, in both lines of reasoning the underlying assumption is that the question of human genetic modification essentially concerns the implications of an epochal confrontation between two radically heterogeneous forces: human life on the one side and technology on the other. In what follows, we will argue that this bespeaks a thoroughly inadequate conception of the human-technology relation, one that obfuscates more than it clarifies. Yet, the disturbing fact that many still uncritically rely on such an instrumental conception of technology – even at the very moment that its impotency stands exposed – indicates that it is very hard when not even impossible to extricate oneself completely from its hold. Be that as it may, we will take a completely different approach to this issue, and will seek to argue in what follows that the very fact that it is possible to modify the human genome retroactively reveals that there never was anything like a human nature in the first place. Is the human being’s proper dwelling place the realm of physis or the realm of tekhnē? Such a question might at first sight seem strange or even nonsensical, but it surely can no longer be left in abeyance if we want to stand up to the demands of our age.

The first chapter (Enhanced Life) will critically discuss the current politico-philosophical debate concerning the permissibility of a liberal eugenics and argue that none of the dominant positions on human genetic enhancement is entirely satisfactory due to the limited, monadic conception of the human that is adopted in these models. It will be argued that the positions of both advocates and opponents of a liberal eugenics are inconsistent on a conceptual level as, ultimately, both end up violating the very central liberal principle of individual autonomy that they each nonetheless pretend to defend. In particular, it will be shown that while the argument against a new eugenics necessarily entails a preemptive dehumanization of any potential enhanced form of life, the argument for it threatens to reduce any non-enhanced form of life to the status of “wrongful life” or a life not worth living.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (June)
Giorgio Agamben's and Roberto Esposito's Michel Foucault's biopolitics constitutive role of biotechnology Martin Heidegger's philosophy of technology Bernard Stiegler Hannah Arendt's concept
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 166 pp.

Biographical notes

Nathan Van Camp (Author)

Nathan Van Camp is postdoctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. He focuses on continental philosophy, political theory, biopolitics, and critical theory


Title: Redesigning Life