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The Century of Biology

By Nikolas Rose - posted Tuesday, 15 November 2011

What kinds of creatures do we contemporary human beings think we are? People working in the social and human sciences have long held their own views about the nature of human beings, but now, once more, we have to negotiate these with biology.

For a long time, it seemed that to think of the human as animal was associated with the view that ‘biology is destiny’ and a ‘naturalisation’ of human delinquencies such as sexism and warfare.  The history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seemed to show that when biology entered politics, it was associated with prejudice and discrimination against those deemed biologically less worthy.   

But contemporary biology focuses not on death but on life, and the political implications of the life sciences concern dilemmas about human vitality – about the very way in which we should live and the choices we must make about life. We are required to think anew about humans as living organisms.


Many things have led to this reframing of the human in terms of vitality, corporeality and animality. The remarkable flowering of the life sciences has inaugurated a ‘Century of Biology’.  Our knowledge is rapidly expanding in the area of genomics, in our understanding of the mechanisms and processes of cells, in neuroscience and our understanding of the human brain, and in synthetic biology – our ability to ‘create the organisms that evolution forgot’.

This research reveals multiple affinities between humans and animals. It raises questions about our similarities and differences with other animals, not least through the increasing use of animal models to explore human capacities and pathologies, and by reposing evolutionary processes in molecular terms.

We have seen the rise of a molecular and neuromolecular style of thought that analyses all living processes in body and brain in terms of the material properties of cellular components – DNA bases, ion channels and membrane potentials. This molecular vision of life has been made even more powerful by its convergence with digital technology, with its capacity for processing vast amounts of information to be distributed to a dispersed transnational research community via the Internet.

Today, to deem something biological is not to assert fatalism, but opportunity. The corporeal can be construed not as mystery but as molecular mechanism. Organisms, including human organisms, now seem amenable to optimization by reverse engineering and reconfiguration at a molecular level.

Developments such as Ian Wilmut’s cloning of Dolly and Craig Venter’s creation of Synthia – a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesised genome ‐have led some to suggest that nothing is biologically impossible. They believe that it is only our own imagination – and our own ethical and social constraints – that set the limits to what we can do to our vital existence and that of other animals. At the same time, biological knowledge has become highly capitalised, and paths to the creation of biological truths have been shaped by promises and predictions of the biovalue to be harvested. These include enhanced crop yields, bioenergy, bioremediation, and, of course, advanced biomedical and health technologies.

These developments are leading to a radical overhaul of traditional thought regarding the self.


Over the twentieth century, and at least in Europe, North America and their colonies since the nineteenth century, our sense of self was profoundly shaped by the rise of the psy-sciences. It is not surprising, then, that such psychological conceptions of personhood became the unspoken premise of the social and human sciences.

But as the twentieth century came to an end, another ethic came to the fore. This linked to the belief that in some crucial ways our individuality grew out of, and was mapped onto, our fleshly existence. Bookshelves now groan under the weight of popular science discussing this new knowledge of our bodies and minds, speculating about its implications for our capacity to understand and control everything, ranging from our cognitive capacities to aging and death.

Yet the more we know, the more we realise how little we know. There is no simple progression from our ability to tackle simple problems to the expertise needed to tackle complex ones, no golden path to ever expanding powers. Instead, we are confronted with many distinct and substantial biological barriers that are hardly understood, let alone overcome. Each dream of control over body or mind is soon met with downsides, side effects and disappointments, nowhere more so than in my own area of special interest of psychiatry and mental health.

When it comes to human vitality, there is much that cannot be controlled or reengineered according to our own desires, much that does remain ‘biologically impossible’. Nonetheless, the idea that humans, like all other living organisms, must be understood as biological poses a radical challenge to our politics, to our ethics, and to all the disciplines that try to understand human societies and cultures.

It is a challenge that cannot be ignored, and must be grasped in new critical collaborations across ‘the two cultures’. 

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This is an excerpt from Professor Rose's November 9 keynote address at the  Knowledge/Culture/Social Change International Conference at the University of Western Sydney.

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About the Author

Nikolas Rose is Professor of Sociology and Director of the BIOS Centre at the London School of Economics, and the author of The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power and Subjectivity in the Twenty First Century.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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