University of Cambridge
The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities
Centre for Family Research, Room 606
Free School Lane
17 May 2011
12:30 – 14:00
Social Science Fiction of the Gene: Towards an Ethics of Non-autonomous Life
This paper begins with two stories about the popular (mis)perceptions of the gene. This first is the case of Margaret Somerville, who looms large in Canadian bioethics and who is a researcher at McGill University. The second is Bryan Sykes, the Oxford University geneticist whose international best-seller, The Seven Daughters of Eve (2001), also widely informs the popular reception of genetic discourse. At issue for me is the ways such popular research constitutes the widespread cultural understanding of “genetic subjectivity.” If it is true that genes enjoy a kind of “agency,” then we are faced with serious ethical challenges because traditional forms of bioethics no longer hold. That is, claims to autonomy, rationality, agency, and even personhood are undergoing a seismic shift, and can no longer serve as the foundation of bioethics in the tradition of liberal humanism. What is called for is a radically different understanding of ethical responsibility, what I am calling an ethics of non-autonomous life. The paper situates this challenge in the context of burgeoning biopolitical and neoliberal imperatives that hold sway in cultural and academic spheres.