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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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Chapter One: Enhanced Life


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Enhanced Life

Redesigning Life

At the beginning of the 1970s, less than two decades after James Watson and Francis Crick had first described the basic structure of the DNA molecule and famously claimed to have unraveled “the secret of life,” microbiologists Kathleen Dana and Daniel Nathans made a lesser-known yet equally groundbreaking discovery. They showed that the restriction enzyme endonuclease R, found in Haemophilus influenzae bacteria, can be used to cut DNA at specifically targeted locations.1 This discovery, for which Nathans – together with Hamilton Smith and Werner Arber – received the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, was so remarkable that it would come to be regarded as the first major breakthrough on the path to the deliberate modification of the genome of a living being. A decisive step was taken approximately two years later by Dana and Nathans’ colleagues, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen,2 who became the first scientists to succeed in using Nathans’ cutting technique to isolate a DNA molecule and attach it to a plasmid, a piece of extrachromosomal DNA found in E. coli bacteria, using DNA ligases. Proceeding in this way, they were able to create what is known as a recombinant DNA molecule. The special characteristic of such an artificial DNA molecule is that it can be transferred to any other living organism, where – if all goes well – it will be transcribed, translated, and, ultimately, caused to produce a particular protein. Boyer later founded...

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