Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Who is human?

Back from two weeks in China, with some things to catch up on. I have a feature article on graphene in the latest issue of the BBC's science magazine Focus - not available online, sadly. And an article on pattern and shape in the glossy lifestyle & sports magazine POC - also not (yet) available on the web, but I'll put the piece on my website shortly. And here is a book review I did for the Observer on 7 October.

What It Means to be Human:
Reflections from 1791 to the Present

Joanna Bourke
Virago, 2011
ISBN 978-1-84408-644-3

“Are women animals?”, asked a correspondent to the Times in 1872 who described herself only as “An Earnest Englishwoman.” Her point was not that women should be regarded as less than fully human, but that they already were – to such a degree that they would have more rights if they could at least be granted the same status as cats, dogs and horses. The law could be more punitive to a man who ill-treated his horse than to one who murdered his wife.

Inmates at Guantánamo Bay made precisely the same case. Noticing a dog in an air-conditioned kennel next to Camp X-Ray, a British detainee said to the guards “I want his rights” – only to be told “That dog is a member of the US army.” Clive Stafford Smith, representing the inmates, declared that “it would be a huge step for mankind of the judges gave our clients the same rights as the animals.”

As these cases illustrate, historian Joanna Bourke’s survey is not so much about the boundaries of humankind as about the way in which some humans have systematically denied full personhood to others, particularly women, children and other (generally non-European) races and cultures. She would have helped her argument by keeping that distinction more clear. When for example she remarks apropos of slavery that it questions “who is truly human and who is merely ‘property’”, only to follow with the suggestion that “the claim that some humans are property rather than true ‘persons’ is still rampant”, the confusion muddies the point.

Although the forms of denigration that Bourke considers are certainly ‘dehumanizing’, they don’t usually challenge biological or species identity. Rather, they erect hierarchies of human worth, development, and supposed intellectual and spiritual capacity. All the same, her well-made thesis is that this tendency has commonly pushed the oppressed group towards the realm of beasts, whether via the bird-like ‘twittering’ of women or the ‘simian’ countenance of African slaves.

It is an ugly spectacle to see with what insufferable smugness and pseudoscientific justification these judgements have been repeatedly made by white Western males. And of course it would be nonsense to pretend that we all know better now. Yet there is something a little paralysing about this detailed exposé of the obviously pernicious. It is not to belittle the evils of slavery, racism, female oppression and the Holocaust to say that they are, in themselves, scarcely news.

There is also a strong risk of presentism in all this: judging the past as if it were the present. While it is no response to protest that no one knew any better in those days (not least because plenty of women and slaves certainly did), one is left wondering how to contextualize Darwin’s references to “savages… on [a] par with Monkeys” and his chauvinistic hierarchy of races relative to, say, Thackeray’s or Carlyle’s hysterical aversion to African-Americans. It is surely an oversight that nothing is made of Darwin’s anti-slavery motivation in showing that humankind is truly one species, given how thoroughly this was recently documented by Adrian Desmond and James Moore.

The kind of exclusivity that Bourke explores is at least as old as slavery itself, which occasionally means that one feels the absence of the long view. The nastiness and bigotry on display here would be found in spades in the Middle Ages or ancient Greece, albeit differently nuanced. Bourke shows how fears of animalization in the use of animal tissue in medicine have remained more or less unchanged from Jenner’s cowpox vaccinations in 1796 to xenografts of animal organs today. But it seems a shame not to consider the same themes in Thomas Shadwell’s play The Virtuoso (1676), where he satirized the animal-to-human transfusion experiments of the Royal Society. And when one critic of vaccination worried that it might induce ladies to “receive the embraces of the bull”, there are significant echoes of the legendary coupling of Pasiphae and Minos’s beautiful bull to produce the monstrous Minotaur.

But within the scope that Bourke has set herself, she has found some extraordinary material, such as the rejuvenation experiments of Serge Voronoff in the 1920s. These involved placing slices of simian testicle inside a man’s scrotum under local anaesthetic. An analogous anti-aging procedure for women was harder to arrange, but in any event deemed less important (not everything stays the same, then). Women did, however, worry about receiving the advances of septuagenarians whose renewed sexual vigour was said to be “abnormal both in degree and character”.

No wonder it is an embarrassment to endocrinologists that this is how their field began, although I didn’t need to be told that twice in the same chapter. Such repetition is not the only evidence of some loose editing. Lapses into the gnomic wink-wink traits of literary theory are mercifully rare, but to define molecular biologist James Watson as a “leading Darwin scholar” is eccentric at best. Perhaps that’s part and parcel with the neglect of modern genomics, the most egregious omission in the book.

Yet if the narrative is patchy, it is more than a collection of historical curiosities. Bourke’s critique of the concept of human rights opens an important debate on a complacent ideal, while her cross-examination of animal welfare should give all parties pause for thought. And she is quite right to say that modern biomedical science genuinely does now complicate the definition of humanity in ways that we are ill equipped, ethically and philosophically, to confront.

1 comment:

JimmyGiro said...

I hope they paid you well, for having to wade through the mind of a Marxist-Feminist sociopath.

Obviously nobody else wanted to, or they wouldn't have opted for a Chemist to be the 'cultural food taster'.