Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Survival of the least judged!?

Aeon carries a fascinating article on #epigenetics (“Plastic People”) by Julie Guthman and Becky Mansfield. It highlights the way in which our physical and social environment can shape human bodies and minds across generations. The authors also stress the futility of “seeking biographical solutions to systemic contradictions” (as Ulrich Beck once put it), and call for a shift of focus toward related public policies. In the conclusion, they also suggest researchers and popularizers may be drawing the wrong lesson from epigenetic studies: “at the least, they argue, we ought to be more alike and ever more vigilant about our lifestyles to maintain that normality. More: we ought to strive to be even better – with biomedicine promising to eradicate some of the differences that frighten us.” And the worst case scenario? “A biomedical future in which the perfect human is engineered: thin, smart, outgoing, heterosexual, gender-conforming, lacking physical disabilities, able to sit still and work hard, and (given widespread preference for light skin) white.

Such concerns about inclusiveness and toleration are, of course, legitimate and to be welcome. Still, a mischievous thought won’t go away. Isn’t there such a thing as neurosomatic fitness, even flexibly defined? A condition which would allow us not to score high on intelligence tests, win beauty contests, or triumph in athletic competitions – but rather to function well socially and avoid increasingly common, often debilitating ailments? And if some biological changes under environmental influences are obviously detrimental (like the well established drop in IQ as a result of exposure to lead, and Guthman and Mansfeld themselves point to other potentially troubling examples), can “we” be equally accepting of all neurosomatic modifications? If so, what is the point of advocating any public policies to tweak environmental influences (and thus limit biological diversity) in humans? If some modifications are ostensibly unhealthy, though, we are back in the Foucauldian thicket – related to the “contestable” normalization of some qualities, the stigmatization of those deemed deficient or abnormal, etc.

So there are no easy answers – unless, perhaps, some sort of neurophysiological aptitude allows “us” to make the right judgments. This is what the Indian yogi once hoped to achieve through sustained neurosomatuic self-cultivation. Or, as Juvenal once put it, “you should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body” – both contributing to “virtue.” Which raises another vexing question: how about for some – adequate – personal responsibility, self-cultivation, and care for the young, even if the exclusive focus on personal choices and self-management is misguided – perhaps reflecting an individualistic bias and providing a smoke screen for the creeping privatization and deregulation of the social commons?