Criticism of Genetic Revolution and Biocapitalist Approach

Criticism of Genetic Revolution and Biocapitalist Approach*

In its shortest definition, genetics is the branch of biology, which studies the laws of inheritance. In the first stage of genetics, the science of inheritance not of reproduction, the laws that statistically governed the hereditary transmission of the most dominant individual characteristics were researched (Mendel`s laws). In the second stage, material foundations of hereditary qualities were sought and found. In the third stage, the focus was on chromosome defects, or mutations, both for medical purposes (early diagnosis and treatment of chromosome defects in the newborn or embryo) and for providing a rational explanation to evolutionary change, without resorting to the idea of a superior creator.

In the last fifty years, the solving of the genetic code marked the zenith of all these developments and enabled man to reconstruct the world order. Announcement on June 26, 2000 that “Human Genome Project,” conducted in the USA under the leadership of Clinton and Blair, had been completed, was considered as an important step in the whole world and made the beginning of the age of biotechnology official. As it is understood, biotechnology has the power of rebuilding ourselves, our institutions, and our world. When we look at the history of art, we see that political, social, and technological changes have affected art and directed artists towards new interpretations. With a power of reconstructing the world we live in, developments in the science of genetics have led to new works as sensational as the works created by science.

Alternative materials, work environments, and exhibition opportunities provided by genetics to artists marked almost a new turning point in the history of art. What do these spectacular developments accomplished in 2000 promise or what do they threaten? This is the first question to be answered in order to substantiate the claim that these art works do mark a turning point. “Technically,” computers lie at the foundation of biotechnology; and as such, computers are called means of production by some.

Evidently, what has triggered the oft repeated phrase “genetic revolution” in genetics is the computer. Computers and certainly internet, the part and parcel of computers, are gradually put into more use in decoding, managing, and organizing the genetic code. This union between genetics and computers is defined as the dawn of a new age by Jeremy Rifkin , an eminent name in biotechnology. This is the age of Biotechnology, and capitalism, identified by Marx, has naturally adapted itself to this new age and undergone a transformation as biocapitalism. In biotechnology, microbes and cells refer to factories whereas enzymes correspond to workers. Out of these, food, fuel, medicine and all sorts of daily needs are produced, reaching a market value of millions of dollars. Right at this point, the term biocapitalism steps in. Whose surplus value is appropriated or whose fate is sealed: that of enzymes, or microbes? In fact, the answer is clear: human beings determine their own fate again. How does this happen? Biotechnological century offers mankind a land of plenty, made up of genetically designed plants and animals.

Energy and fiber resources, genetically derived for creating a “renewable” society and presenting to the market, promise wonder drugs and cures for healthier babies, elimination of human pains, elongation of human life. All these, point at the genetic trade, end of nature with the cloning of animals, birth of bioindustry. These developments reduce the world’s gene pool to a patented intellectual property controlled by biological institutions. What will be the consequences of these developments for the global economy and the society? It will mean living in a world where babies are genetically planned and ordered to the womb, and human beings gradually becoming identical in a world where one gets gradually more alienated from his inherited gene data.

Herbert Marcuse

What are the risks taken in designing the “perfect” human being? The greatest risk is certainly the emergence of a new caste system. Its historical roots extending far back in time, such a caste system has gained currency with these developments, and interestingly, the idea is approved by some intellectuals. With his notion of superman, Peter Sloterdijk is the most sensational name in this area. For Sloterdijk, problem could have been solved by “principle of selection” instead of “social domestication.” That is, it is more profitable to eliminate a physically or mentally disabled person in the first place and create the perfect man instead of rehabilitating them. American philosopher Francis Fukuyama’s argument that “it is not easy to reject the possibility of creating less aggressive people” supported Sloterdijk’s views in an oblique way and fuelled the debate. French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard, on the other hand, says the following on perfect creation, and superior race with reference to cloning:

“. . .it has long been questioned which body is to be resurrected, the body in its prime, a blossoming and beautiful body, or an old and sick body? Neither a drooling sheep nor an African with AIDS will ever be cloned. Thus the attempt will meet the other phantasm that underlies each genetic undertaking. That is the phantasm of finding the formula for reproducing the species. This ideal and perfection will cause a merciless selection, based on the espoused formulae of race, health, and intelligence.”

Baudrillard reaches at the concept of eugenics as the final destination of developments in genetics and illustrates the dangers in this with reference to examples about cloning. Doing away with the concept of singularity and underlining that what is not singular is inferior, Baudrillard argues that the possibilities like the creation of a superior race and cloning them would end in the destruction of the original, as in the movie Jurassic Park. Such stories are abundant in Hollywood and interestingly all of them have become true. “Dr. Moreau’s Island” by H.G. Wells (1896) and its film version in 1996, starring Marlon Brando and Val Kimmer, dealt with the potential problems of genetic experiments and caused public debates. In 1972, American writer Ira Lewin’s novel “Stepford Wives” told the tragic end of the genetic engineer who created the “perfect woman.” First shot in 1975, the film was re-made in 2004 in the midst of debates caused by developments in genetics and became popular again. The movie “Island,” appeared in 2005, was again on cloning. 19th century phantasms having become true in our day, unfortunately, the danger has not been grasped by the public yet.

There is even a chasm between technical and public opinions. In the United States, where there are 1300 biotechnology companies with annual profits of 13 billion dollars, the people are less concerned with the problem than Europeans, and they choose not to look a gift horse in the mouth! On the other hand, thinking of the potential damage to economy, Europeans show a more wary attitude by passing laws and regulations. Muslim countries watch the developments from further distance and discuss only the side points of the issue. In the Unites States, a group of artists, historians, bioethicists, and museum experts came together in 2000 and founded the group called Genesis in order to raise public awareness. The group soon spread to Europe.

A few years later than the United States and with the participation of some artists from Turkey as well, this art movement has become a worldwide activity. Although the movement has lost some of its early vigor and public appeal, artists have carried on individually. Triggering scientific and philosophical debates and becoming the center of attention, the art work entitled “GFB Bunny” has added a new way of seeing to the repertoire of art history readings. First designed as an artwork, genetic mammal “GFB Bunny,” or Alba, was created by Chicago artist Eduardo Kac in France in cooperation with biologists at National Institute of Agronomic Research (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique). Kac created a new species, by injecting a gene called GFB (Green Fluorescent Protein) into the fertilization channel of a pink-eyed albino bunny. The method in question has been used in labs since the 1970s. But, for the first time, a laboratory was used as an atelier and a live being was exhibited at the museum as an art work. Thus, the said “work of art” marks the beginning of debates raised by genetic art. With this incident, the chasm between art and science, and expression and biologic form has collapsed and therefore art has been updated. Working on multiplying genes, cells and other biological materials, like a sculptor working on bronze, Kac has taken the species to his home in Chicago and tried to adapt the fluorescent green bunny to life. On the other hand, French and German press and media found the case unethical, and some journalists seized Alba through artistic censor and presented Alba as a decadent art work.

In fact, this sort of reaction has been frequent in the history of art, and the despised work of art or the scorned artist has always been victorious in the end. Press explained to the public how the bunny was able to shine and came up against the incident by asking questions such as the following: what is the meaning of changing the course of millions of years of natural evolutionary process? What is the meaning of creating a green fluorescent bunny for the society? Actually, this was the stir that Kac aimed to cause and he was successful in raising it with the said press reaction. The idea that art was both life itself and reflected life like a mirror was replaced by the idea that art held a mirror to biological developments. Kac’s wish to introduce Alba into society was a sign of this change in understanding. For Kac, Alba as a work of art attests to the fact that genetic engineering is in fact a part of our daily lives. Alba ate, slept and interacted with people just like any other bunny.

Everything about it was normal. What was abnormal was the cloning of humans with no heads, genetic modification of the contents of the sixty percent of instant foods consumed by Americans for commercial concerns, and the tragic stories caused by DNA proprietorship, all for the sake of genetic research. Kac thinks that he raised the public awareness with the stir he caused, and planned to continue his work after his creation of Alba in 2000. And this is what he did. With his work called “The Eight Day” done after Alba, he continued the said cloning method by applying it on mice, jellyfish, and amoebae (an aquatic organism). Kac has steadily pursued the matter, and with this insistence, he remained on the agenda. American media and fluxus artist Larry Miller is another name who has become butt of criticism with his sensational works in genetic art. Since 1989, Miller has been working on science, art, DNA proprietorship through genetic design and its ethical dimension.

For commercial concerns, many companies have patented over 100.000 genes and gene parts. In his book Genetic Code Copyright, Miller criticizes this act of patenting by arguing that “I’m the legal owner of a single genetic code until eternity, although it has been scientifically determined, defined or experimentally shown.” In a terrifying incident in the United States, two researchers at California University patented two patients’ cells and sold them without their knowledge and consent. In a lawsuit, the court ruled that the patient named John Moore had no corporeal rights on his body cells. The court’s decision along with the public opinion shows that the public is the decision maker about how technology and art should be. These incidents had a decisive impact of Larry Miller`s work. Building up on Genetic Code Copyright (1989), Miller produced an important document entitled “Genomic License No 7,” which ensures someone the right of copying his own genome. For Creative Time, Miller returned to the idea of DNA proprietorship and left big fingerprints on paper cups. These cups remind us the fact that we leave traces of our genetic signs everywhere and warn the public to be careful and claim the right to our genes by means of Miller’s genetic code copyright.

Such challenging works certainly cannot be limited with two names. Daniel Lee, Roz Chast, Maria Kalman, Carry Leibowitz, Larry Miller, Tom Tomorrow, Jill Reynolds, Bill Scanga, Susan Robb, Joan Fontcuberta, Inıgo Manglano-Ovalle, Margi Geerlinks, Paul Vanouse, Gregor Mobius, Orit Raff, Catherine Chalmer are other names associated with the group Genesis. Works by these names are as challenging and consciousness raising as others, and these works build upon the concepts of mutual action, togetherness, and relationality, all suggested by Nicolas Bourriaud`s relational aesthetics. Distributed at cafes in the US, paper cups with ironic expressions about genetic developments on them are the works that exemplify Althusser`s idea of artists catching up with the world in motion and the works that combine the daily and the universal. Felix Guattari`s comment that “ aesthetics, first of all, should accompany the social changes and transform them” attests to the fact that genetic art both as artistic expression and conceptual underwork exists with its problems, questions and new terminological contributions. In some sense, genetic art is like an upper model of the participatory art of the 1990s. That is to say, a further step is taken by incorporating science into the process, and “participation” is realized both during the creation (work of the biologists) and during the exhibition (viewer’s relation to the work). It can be said that artistically-intended genetic works enable such active participation because of the shocking effects on the public of the developments like creation and cloning of Dolly and then drawing of the genetic map of human body. Because the one who creates and changes something is the human being in this case, and what he changes is his own nature. What he does, he can do and will do, become clearer for the viewer.

This clarity actually leads to many problems, because the developments in question are considered as hopeful by some, but there are also resisting opponents. Particularly the Vatican`s negative reaction on the grounds that God’s order is challenged is important. It should also be noted that, in Turkey, the Presidency of Religious Affairs gave a fatwa in support of such researches. This shows that there are differences between societies in terms of their perception of the subject. For, what is changed here is not only nature, but also the natures of human beings, animals, and plants. This deconstructs the idea of God as the creator. Christian belief also suffers a blow along with the notion of holy family. In this case, the individual has the power to create a family for himself whenever or however he wishes. Furthermore, what is created is a species with no past, and this changes the concepts of time and history as well, a view also supported in Baudrillard`s works.

As it can be seen, human being deconstructs himself as well and creates a dual concept in itself. First, he destroys the superior unity obtained by the act of creation; secondly, he destroys the superior unity by changing his nature. Of course, the only damage is not to the said balances in life. The way of seeing that existed all the way from Leonardo to Duchamp has also changed. Object of art, artistic act, and artist have assumed a new identity and the habitual values have been replaced with the new ones.
In short, the biotechnological century will continue to shock the people, by pulling down the traditions just as science does.

• Sevil Dolmacı
Member of Faculty of Fine Arts, Design and Architecture
Baskent University

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