Life as Surplus

All three of the readings this week deal with extending life beyond its natural limits. The two popular articles, one from MIT Technology Review and the other from The New Yorker, talk about the wealthy elite’s quest for a livable life beyond the normal human lifespan. Melinda Cooper’s Life as Surplus looks at the “relationship between politics, economics, science, and cultural values in the United States” (Cooper, back cover)[1], with special attention to neoliberalism and biotechnology.

The first half of the book goes through history of biotechnology from 1970s to present. Cooper’s first chapter discusses how humans are pushing beyond the biospheric limits of the Earth. The second chapter discusses the militarization of public health, paying special attention to the militarization of AIDS. The third chapter argues that “the growing interest in biological weapons is more than merely tactical and goes hand in hand with a strategic redefinition of the tenets of US Defense, one in which the doctrine of mutual deterrence is replaced by full-spectrum dominance, counterproliferation, and preemption” (Cooper, 75). The second half of book changes pace and looks to new technologies, regenerative medicine in particular. Chapter 4 focuses on tissue engineering, a form of regenerative medicine; Cooper says the aim of TE is to rebuild living tissues and organs up from the cellular level for the purpose of transplantation. Chapter 5 discusses possible futures for a global reproductive economy. Chapter 6 discusses the links between faith and economics, with particular focus on Evangelical Protestantism and capitalism.

In “Hacking the Biological Clock,” Antonio Regalado[2] discusses the hype surrounding and mystery shrouding the efforts of Calico, a Research & Development company hell-bent on uncovering the secrets of aging and ultimately getting rid of aging or death of old age altogether. Something interesting in this article is echoed in the next popular article; Calico is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, and Jeff Bezos (who owns Amazon) owns a competing anti-aging R&D firm called Unity. It wouldn’t be surprising if Elon Musk were to get his hands on some anti-aging R&D firm next[3]. Tad Friend’s article in The New Yorker takes a look at the abundance of wealthy elite who want to prolong a livable life or even eliminate death.

In the New Yorker article, Friend references Aubrey De Grey, who “likes to compare the body to a car: a mechanic can fix an engine without necessarily understanding the physics of combustion, and assiduously restored antique cars run just fine.” As a nitpicky mechanic, this analogy really grinds my gears. No reputable automotive repair shop will hire a mechanic that doesn’t have ASE certification, and to get ASE certification mechanics must pass both written and practical tests that involve knowledge of everything from computer diagnostics, circuitry diagnostics, brake jobs, suspension jobs, sensor replacements, and tons more (in what feels like ad infinitum). Mechanics not only have to know which part to put where, we also have to know why we’re putting it there. It wouldn’t make sense for us to do a brake job and put a star-wheel adjuster on a disc brake, now would it? It also wouldn’t make sense for us to try to replace the spark plugs in something with a carburetor! One of the first things a mechanic ever learns is how a combustion engine works and how a diesel engine works – because we have to know the difference. De Grey is the chief science officer at SENS, but doesn’t seem to acknowledge the applied knowledge of mechanics as a valid form of knowledge as compared to esoteric scientific knowledge even though a mechanic’s knowledge combines many disciplines of science and engineering and then applies them in the real world.

At multiple points throughout Life as Surplus, Cooper discusses cell lines, stem cell lines, and mentions violence in biotechnology. However, at no point does she discuss the violence of biomedical research in the form of ethical breaches. The most pertinent example would be HeLa cells, a cell line derived from cancer patient Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge or consent – the researchers who got these cells, developed a cell line, and profited enormously without putting any effort into treating Henrietta Lacks or compensating her family. Much of reproductive biomedical research has come at a cost of harm to both men and women; the vasectomy was developed by Dr. Sharp on prison populations, a known vulnerable population where the patients did not consent. Contraceptives for women often involve adverse health effects. Copper IUDs were first used in the 1970s; copper poisoning can lead to stomach problems, and IUD insertion can lead to infertility.

However, it is possible that developments in tissue engineering could limit some very real harm that comes to third-world populations[4]. When wealthy American or European people can’t get organs in their home countries, they can go abroad and participate in the international organ trafficking trade (this is called transplant tourism). In the Philippines, kidneys are traded on an open market; living donors are not taken care of after the organ donation, and are often left with pain and disabilities. In India, the illegal sale of body parts is growing, with a significant number of organs coming from poor people trying to pay off debt or buy food. Pakistan has been called as a “kidney bazaar,” with donors usually getting less than $2,500 from selling their organs, do not receive follow-up care, and don’t get enough money to pay off original debts. When people travel to another country to get organs from living donors, those organs are often coming from a poor or otherwise disadvantaged person that cannot afford health care and is not given adequate remuneration for their body parts, and this causes real and tangible harm to actual living people. By creating tissues and organs from scratch, TE could eliminate this market as it would take the organ market away from organ trafficking and transplant tourism. A problem with many of the newly developed biotechnologies such as tissue engineering is that they will most likely only be available to the wealthy elite and not garden-variety cancer or organ failure patients that are at their wits’ end trying to find ways to stay alive.

The final topic that I found really interesting was the connection between evangelical Protestantism and pro-life rhetoric. I am not Protestant, so I can’t speak for this group. However, my understanding from Life as Surplus is that it looks like Genesis 1:28[5] is a primary motivator for pro-life rhetoric across multiple religions. This verse has been taken by both Halakha (Talmudic law) and evangelical Protestantism to mean that humans should perpetuate the human species by marriage. Evangelical Protestantism has affected both US foreign policy and US domestic sex education, contributing to the sizeable rates of teenage pregnancy. Evangelical Protestantism campaigns against abortion rights and contraception, and this is reflected in the sex education that students receive. States that have high populations of Evangelical Protestantism tend to avoid covering contraception in sex education, mandate that sex ed teaches that sex should only happen in marriage, or stress abstinence in sex education (data is from Guttmacher Institute, maps are available in the midterm essay of Bioethics). These states also have a somewhat high teenage pregnancy rate. Evangelical Protestantism is far from the only factor that contributes to sex ed and teenage pregnancy, but there is certainly a correlation between sex ed quality and teenage pregnancy. In this way, evangelical Protestantism has influenced US domestic policy in such a way as to partially contribute to the high rates of teenage pregnancy in southern states.

[1] Cooper, Melinda. Life as surplus: biotechnology and capitalism in the neoliberal era. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008.

[2] Regalado, Antonio. “Hacking the Biological Clock.” MIT Technology Review

[3] Maybe he’ll call it Faraday or Westinghouse.

[4] Smith, J. (2008). “Dirty Pretty Things” and the Law: Curing the Organ Shortage & Health Care Crises in America. Scholarly Commons @ FAMU Law, 361-387. Retrieved April 4, 2017.

[5] “G-d blessed them and G-d said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”; translation from JPS Tanakh: the Holy Scriptures. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1985.