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Professor Dr. Dr. h.c. C.F. Gethmann

Institut für Philosophie
Stichwort: Kongress 2008
Universität Duisburg-Essen
Universitätsstr. 12
45117 Essen

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Dr. Christine Hauskeller (Exeter, UK) - Curriculum Vitae
Bioscience, Regulation and the Borders of Humanity


Bioscience, Regulation, and the Borders of Humanity

Many different definitions of what is human, what marks humanity in a person and when human life begins and ends have troubled moral philosophy and the philosophy of science. This paper will confine itself to debates since the 1970s, when molecular definitions of humanity started to become dominant and the co-evolution of the life sciences and bioethics gained increasing force. The argument I wish to develop is about the interactions between different societal realms and the course of biological science research. I will argue that the relevance of the biosciences in present societies is intrinsically influenced by materialist definitions (increasingly molecular) of what makes a human human. Often, however, this relationship is interpreted reversely, for example when particular DNA sequences are seen as indicating humanity or properties of a human life and experience. The envisaged biotechnology of the future emphasises the need to develop a reflexive understanding of what makes humans human and what counts as significant in this heterogeneous and infinite set of properties. Molecular approaches to and engineering techniques directed at human biology on the one hand and human bioethics on the other hand legitimise one other.

On the basis of these convictions many believe that the humanities and social sciences can go ahead with protecting and defending valuable life forms and the dignity of humanity.

The paper will use a recent development in stem cell science and its policing in Britain in order to illustrate this ongoing re-establishment and deconstruction of species boundaries in collaborative decision processes between representatives from science, bioethics, and Government. The shifting status and ontology of a certain artificially created source for embryonic stem cells has been encapsulated in the names it has been given. When scientists proposed using rabbit or cow eggs and human nuclear DNA for the development of therapeutic cloning, they spoke of human-rabbit chimeras. Quickly those objects became officially renamed cytoplasm hybrids, and in December 2007 the novel name ‘admixed embryos’ has appeared for the first time in this discussion. The connotations of these terms in relation to the distinction between humans and other animals and mixtures between both categories are revealing. The latest naming indicates the normalisation and inclusion of these artificial objects securely within the space of humanity, no longer at its margins or outside. This inclusion proceeded through a systematic geneticisation of humanity.

Genomic technologies have so far been used in society mainly for the purpose of reaffirmation, renegotiation and invention of new forms and aspects of the identity of humans as individuals, groups and/or as a species. The exchange, identity and marketability of embryos and parts of human bodies are the central issue in debates about stem cell research, transplantation medicine and tissue engineering. This molecular marking of what is human may make sense in laboratories to distinguish between various similar looking embryos, tissue cultures etc, according to what matters for the processes of understanding or production. Yet, it does not ensue that it makes any sense to use such markers for the identification of an object worthy of moral consideration, dignity and respect.

I propose that the collaborative interdependency between science and bioethics, in which the former is credited the status of resting on secure knowledge, explains why bio-ethicists often buy into discourses such as those on genetic definitions of humanity. Scientifically these are invalid when removed from the immediate environment of the laboratory with its particular research questions. Whether mitochondrial DNA matters, how we define what counts as a gene and in particular a human gene, whether non-cellular DNA in the body matters, are all unclear questions when moved outside a specific laboratory context and can be chosen interchangeably according to explanatory needs.

I argue that the way in which recent revivals of debates on human nature and anthropology refer positively to this kind of scientific concepts represents a serious failure. The accidentally assembled individual genome should not be taken as a last resort of equality amongst all humans because it cannot fulfil the function that a strong coalition in bioethics desires it to assume. Biology and genomics, stem cell science and tissue engineering, are sciences of humanity which take their aims and definitions out of the social space in which they evolve.

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Curriculum Vitae von Dr. Christine Hauskeller

Berufliche Stationen:
  • 1999 - 2002: Postdoctoral Researcher in Biomedical Ethics and Philosophy at the TU Darmstadt
  • 2002 - 2007: Research Fellow ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society, University of Exeter
Wichtigste Publikation(en):
  • Das paradoxe Subjekt. Unterwerfung und Widerstand bei Judith Butler und Michel Foucault, Tübingen: edition diskord, 2000.
  • 'Science in Touch. Functions of biomedical terminology', Biology and Philosophy, 20, 4, 2005, 815-835.
  • 'How traditions of ethical reasoning and institutional processes shape stem cell research in the UK', Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 29, 5, 2004, 509-532.
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