Thursday, August 16, 2007

Stuff your genes

While we're on the topic of genes (capitalist or otherwise), here for your reading pleasure is a contribution from The Wife on related issues.


In 1987, the French feminist Luce Irigaray had the following modest proposal for a potential exit route from the “patriarchal phallocratic order”:

In all homes and all public places, attractive images (not involving advertising) of the mother-daughter couple should be displayed. It's very damaging for girls always to be faced with representations of mother and son, especially in the religious dimension. I'd suggest to all Christian women, for example, that they place an image depicting Mary and her mother Anne in their living room, in their daughters' rooms, and in their own room. There are sculptures and easily reproducible paintings of them available.

Even though when I first read this statement, in the early 1990s (in the initial experimental stages of a doctoral degree), when I was still mildly sympathetic towards even the more abstruse forms of feminist thought, I felt somewhat ... disappointed by Irigaray's idea.

So this is all the Godmother of “feminism of difference” and then Director of Research at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique in Paris could come up with as a death blow against patriarchy? A new billboard campaign? Christian devotionalia? Admittedly, Irigaray had other “practical suggestions” – her words – to make, but they were no less esoteric and, actually, far from practical. (E.g., “Between mother and daughter, interpose small handmade objects to make up for the losses of spatial identity, for intrusions into personal space.”)

Then as now my atheistic self shudders at the thought of being surrounded by big sisterish images of Mary and Anne. Granted, Irigaray suggests them as an option for Christian women who've seen a crucifix too many; nevertheless, one wonders whether a good starting point for a war against patriarchy wouldn't be a campaign against Christianity itself. And why, one might ask, would a feminist working within a staunchly secular system, where religion is an entirely private thing (unlike in Germany, where generations of schoolchildren grow up in the shadow of the cross), want to reinforce Christianity rather than undermine it?

I also was (and continue to be) more than vaguely disturbed by Irigaray's view of the human mind. Apparently, all it takes to create a feminist awareness are a few cunningly displayed mother-daughter images (which, in any case, seem to exist in abundance). But this idea – apart from revealing Irigaray's dismissive attitude towards women – smacks of brainwashing and invokes illustrations in biology textbooks, of Skinner's pigeons merrily picking away at their seeds, as well as passages from Brave New World. For a brief moment, we see the beast of behaviourism peep out from under the cosy blanket of constructionism, where it otherwise lurks unnoticed.

The end of the phallocratic patriarchal order?

In his erudite and witty attack on the “blank slate” psychology underpinning contemporary constructionism, Steven Pinker acknowledges the fascination of such an idea ... but then he tears it limb from limb. The jury is still out, of course, as to whether Pinkerian eloquence (and a whole bunch of science) can outgun the sheer utopian delights of constructionist thought.

How can you top the following quote, taken from the cover of Richard Lewontin's Biology as Ideology (though possibly not written by him): “our genetic endowments confer a plasticity of psychic and physical development, so that in the course of our lives, from conception to death, each of us, irrespective of race, class, or sex, can develop virtually any identity that lies within the human ambit.”

“Any identity, daddy? Could I be Pol Pot then?”

Of course, even radical constructionists wouldn't go that far. After all, they tend to be right-thinking people confident that their Weltanschauung is the royal route to the best of all possible worlds – one free of psychopathic mass-murderers, megalomaniac dictators, or mean little capitalist bastards for that matter. Such is the dream of many a professional educator hell-bent on combatting social injustice through dubious measures, such as banning Legos from the grade-school classroom.

Little wonder, then, that even some of the milder claims of sociobiology or evolutionary psychology are deemed anything from unsexy to dangerous by self-proclaimed “radical” constructionists. For them, the belief that the human organism is meaningfully shaped by its evolutionary past is to adhere to a reductionist determinism that sees us all as Hobbesian robots. Selfish genes make for selfish people, they say. In a parallel universe, they might have a point. In this one, however, no serious sociobiologist or evolutionary biologist/psychologist would say such a thing. Nevertheless, the criticism arises again and again, like some horrible zombie meme that just will not die.

This, in a nutshell (or nucleus), is the tragedy of genes: their cuddle-factor is terribly low. They seem so hard, so edgy, so cold. It is difficult to integrate them into myths of benevolent symbiosis characteristic of some strands of evolutionary biology, especially those with an ecological slant. In an inspiring paper (PDF) on evolutionary biology and the pastoral imagination, Louise Westling of the University of Oregon has eloquently defended a Darwinian view of humans as part of nature rather than outside (and above it). Human beings not only exist in the world, sharing the environment with insects, birds and numerous smaller and larger mammals, they function themselves as host environments for countless forms of bacteria:

Six hundred species in our mouths neutralize the toxins all plants produce to ward off their enemies. Four hundred species colonize our intestines; without them we could not digest and absorb the food we eat .... Tiny creatures live all over our bodies, eating dead skin and performing many other kinds of housekeeping functions, as for example the microscopic lobster-like insects that infest our eyelashes and continually clean away the lubricants that would otherwise glue our eyes shut. As we move and breathe, we actively exchange nutrients and waste, energy and even atoms, with the air and things around us and the millions of creatures within us. Each person is a bipedal, mobile, and self-conscious community of living agents sharing an inner sea bound by the semipermeable extended surface organ of skin and given firm shape by bones. Armies of friendly microbes swim through our inner seas, scouting for and devouring invaders, cleaning the pipes, carrying freight. The “human” DNA that shapes and marks each of our unique selves is far less a proportion of the DNA in our body mass than that of our microbe friends. Even within our individual cells, the mitochondria that make our energy have their own, different DNA than that in our “human” chromosomes.
Oh brave new world that has such wonderful microbes in it!

Westling's facts are of course immaculate, yet what bothers me slightly is the style in which they are put. In her depiction, the bacteria living in and on every human body as restless busybodies enabling the upkeep of our complex organism. Housekeeping and cleaning, guarding and defending, they are fundamentally friendly, working for our benefit – a little like Cinderella's winged helpmeets in the Disney movie, holding up the clothes line so Cinderella can hang up the laundry, maybe whistling while working. Our friends, not our enemies, doing stuff us humans would do, bacteria even may be in the range of human communication.

From this perspective I could even envision feeling all warm and fuzzy about my mitochondria.

But note how the pastoral vision tips over into biocentrism towards the end, reinstating the distinction between humans and nature but reversing the hierarchy: nature good, humans bad – but not quite so bad as that nasty Mr Dawkins has been saying. Although for some ecocritics humankind comes pretty close to being the big bad wolf in an otherwise rather benign environment, they would never accept that suggestion if it came from the sociobiology faction.

Maybe it is impossible to think of the incessantly vibrant microdimension of the human organism in any other way than by anthropomorphising it. There is a deep level of existence scurrying about well beneath our conscious radar. And a good thing to, because were we to spend too much time thinking about it we would be too preoccupied with the fear and terror of it all: just getting through Westling's short paragraph above has its disconcerting moments. Mites and mitochondria represent human existence stripped of its sociocultural fictions, and this is a frightening fact.

The anthropomorphic fantasy also characterises the range of cuddly toys launched a few years back representing different more-or-less nasty microbes, from those that cause the common cold to the ones that bring us bubonic plague. The toys are advertised as "great learning tools for parents and educators." Educators? How ever would you use those in the classroom?

“If you see one of those one-eyed pink rabies viruses, run away as fast as you can.”

Or: "If you see a flesh eating virus, be nice to it – it can't help being lethal”?

But however useless these toys may be from an educational perspective, they do give me an idea for how to pimp the image of our old friend the gene. Here's my modest proposal in the spirit of Irigaray:

In all homes and all public places (and I mean all: really these things should be everywhere), attractive images (not involving advertising) of the gene should be displayed. It's very damaging for human being always to be denied representations of their friend, the double helix (especially in the religious dimension)....

And so on.

Sadly there are not all that many “sculptures and easily reproducible paintings” of the gene available (incidentally, images of Anne and Mary are not that easy to come by either: usually the two women come with baby Jesus attached -- art historians call this type of image "Anna selbdritt").

But this gap could be filled, ideally in the form of cuddly toys like the aforementioned microbes. We need genes in hot pink and peppermint green. Rather than cold hearted letter combinations let's give them comforting names, like Knut (“FOXP2” and “Hox” are good starts, and “D4DR” has a certain nostalgic Star Wars sort of ring to it, but we can do better!) I admit that there is a colourful stuffed double helix already (which can be accompanied by a bobble-headed Watson), but I have the sneaking feeling that children would not really want to snuggle up with that at night (certainly the child in the picture looks distraught).

Now that Mattel is going through a major crisis, the gene might in fact provide a nice opening for inventive and enterprising toy manufacturers. Any volunteers?

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