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Redesigning Life

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


Nathan Van Camp

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.
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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....

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