Several weeks ago, in a victory for the Obama administration and progressive advocates of a more liberal stem cell policy, a panel of judges found that a lower court was in error when it concluded that a legal objection to federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research was likely to succeed. Then, in mid-May, that same cause suffered a setback when a team of scientists reported that the hoped-for substitute for embryonic stem cells caused an unexpected immune response in lab animals. These warring events served to underline that, while politics is hard, biology is harder. In my forthcoming book, The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America (Bellevue Literary Press), I set out the background and terms of the new biopolitics, arguing that, once one surveys the options, what I call bioprogressivism fits best with the American narrative.
Since the nation’s founding, progress in the Enlightenment sense has been key to the idea of America. A corollary belief has been an exceptional level of investment in creating a political, legal, and financial environment that encouraged scientific innovation. Jefferson’s patent statute, for example, gives particular latitude to inventors, as the founders (who were themselves remarkably keen on natural philosophy and numbered several world-class thinkers), sought to make the new nation a welcoming home for the brightest and most creative minds. That desideratum stumbled a bit in the first half of the nineteenth century, as southern members of Congress resisted an extensive role for the central government in financing “internal improvements” like canals and bridges; in one telling example, President Lincoln had to wait until secession to create a National Academy of Sciences, itself created partly to advise him on the most promising new armaments.
After the Civil War, public investment in science gradually intensified, as did the promise of scientific knowledge itself. A firm grounding in science, understood mainly in terms of physics, chemistry, and engineering, was thought to be a key feature of the cultivation of civic virtue, including a healthy Christian outlook. Darwinism was mostly influential as a justification for racial improvement (where “race” had a rather different denotation than it came to have in the early twentieth century, as Americanism itself was often thought to be a racial category). Some poorly defined notion of eugenics was famously embraced by just about everyone interested in social improvement, including of course major Progressive Era figures such as Teddy Roosevelt and Margaret Sanger.
The largely benign view of biology began to change after World War II. Eugenics, in particular, had begun to have a bad odor even before the war, but decisively after the revelations of the Nazi crimes. Then during the Cold War-era the stunning and rapid achievements of laboratory biology produced the bioethics movement, itself a measure of an incipient background concern about the direction of science and the power available to scientists. But this was largely an elite and gentile debate for about 40 years. As ideological lines hardened along the wedge of the 1990s culture wars, so the academic issues of bioethics emerged full-blown into the wider political arena.
The timing of Dolly, the first mammalian clone, in 1996 and the isolation of human embryonic stem cells in 1998 could not have been better—or, perhaps, worse—as these esoteric developments coincided with dismay at President Clinton’s dalliance with a White House intern. For social conservatives, the scandal crystallized larger concerns about the moral direction of American society. The new “liberal eugenics” of abortion, in vitro fertilization, and the increasing ease with which basic bioparts like bits of DNA could be manipulated meshed, for conservatives, with a narrative of a polity adrift from its moral moorings.
Still more intriguing, these worries cut across standard ideological lines. For reasons that focus more on social justice than human dignity, many progressives share cultural conservatives’ reservations about the implications of the powerful new biology. Yet in a century in which national power and prosperity will be determined partly by leadership in the life sciences, some reconciliation with the scientific prospects ahead will be required. That reconciliation will of necessity be a political process.
That political process can be undergirded by an alliance of bioprogessives on the left and the right. Their platform should be a shared commitment to the continued growth of knowledge as a basic humanistic value, the desire to use knowledge as a force for innovation, and an appreciation of innovation as a source of new wealth. Progressives have a unique opportunity to lead this process, but they need to be guided by a vision that integrates science as a cornerstone of human flourishing along with respect for the power of the science being unleashed.
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