The Human Particulars

Scott McLemee continues his roundup of upcoming titles from university presses, focusing this time on books that consider our origins and prospects as a species, as well as the bioethical dilemmas we're creating for ourselves.

July 20, 2018

Continuing with the roundup of fall offerings from university presses, I've decided to wait a few weeks before surveying the mass of books on American politics, global crisis and the higher punditry. There's more to life than the fierce urgency of now -- which after all, is only ever a click away.

Instead, the titles in the queue for this week might be called studies in the human condition. They consider our origins and prospects as a species, as well as the bioethical dilemmas we're creating for ourselves. As always, the quoted passages below come from the publishers, unless otherwise indicated; so do the publication dates, which may vary from what you find on retail websites.

Only one species has evolved to the point of understanding evolution itself. (Not all members of it, obviously.) The great apes can think, communicate and collaborate -- up to a point. Integrating his own research with the work of early Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, Michael Tomasello argues in Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny (Harvard University Press, January 2019) that "the maturation of humans’ evolved capacities for shared intentionality transform these abilities … into uniquely human cognition and sociality." If a 4-year-old child lives in a more complex universe than even the most accomplished of its primate cousins, that reflects "the emergence of collective intentionality involving both authoritative adults, who convey cultural knowledge, and coequal peers, who elicit collaboration and communication."

But that shouldn't go to our heads, warns "the last volume of Rémi Brague’s trilogy on the philosophical development of anthropology in the West," published in translation as The Kingdom of Man: Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project (University of Notre Dame Press, October). Scientific progress and secular rationality have "increasingly devalued the theophilosophical mystery of being in favor of omniscience over one’s own existence," with humanity all too confident it occupies the highest spot on the great chain of being. We find ourselves in "a universal chaos upon which only humanity can impose order." Evidently the author regards this the equivalent of putting out a fire with gasoline. "He ends with a sobering question: Does humankind still have the will to survive in an era of intellectual self-destruction?"

Well, maybe! In spite of everything, Martin Rees's On the Future: Prospects for Humanity (Princeton University Press, October) warns against "short-term thinking, polarizing debates, alarmist rhetoric and pessimism" and encourages us to keep on keeping on. "The future of humanity is bound to the future of science." Wise cultivation of our technology "could empower us to boost the developing and developed world and overcome the threats humanity faces on Earth, from climate change to nuclear war." The author admits that dystopia is a possibility. But he's convinced that digging ourselves out of the hole remains an option.

Unintended consequences aplenty follow from advances in medical care. "For the first time in recorded history," points out Thomas J. Bollyky's Plagues and the Paradox of Progress: Why the World Is Getting Healthier in Worrisome Ways (MIT Press, October), "infectious diseases are not the leading cause of death or disability in any region of the world." But that is not the whole story. Reduced mortality rates from disease do not translate directly into better economic conditions, "the same improvements in income, job opportunities and governance that occurred with these changes in wealthier countries decades ago." Indeed, if it's true that "low-cost health tools helped enable the phenomenon of poor world megacities," progress and impoverishment can advance together.

The claim that a medical advance can empower the patient goes under scrutiny in Kelly Pender's Being at Genetic Risk: Toward a Rhetoric of Care (Penn State University Press, November). For decades, what the author calls "rhetorics of choice" have conditioned the health-care discourse concerning BRCA testing, which identifies a genetic mutation that increases susceptibility to breast and ovarian cancer. Women so diagnosed are told "that they are free to choose how (and whether) to deal with their risk"; critics say they "are, in fact, not free to choose but rather are forced to make particular choices." The author "argues for a change in the conversation around genetic risk that focuses less on choice and more on care." That distinction is left undefined by the catalog entry, which is hardly a venue well suited to clarify it.

Combining bioethics and futurology, John K. Davis's New Methuselahs: The Ethics of Life Extension (MIT Press, July) considers some of the issues associated with a medical advance that hasn't happened. We cannot yet slow down the genetically programed aging process in humans. We can in other organisms, though, and the relevant parts of our own genome are known. Davis considers "the desirability of extended life; whether refusing extended life is a form of suicide; the Malthusian threat of overpopulation; equal access to life extension; and life extension and the right against harm."

Whether or not adding a century or two to the human life span ought to be a priority is an ethical problem -- not that it will be answered as one. The potential rewards of throwing money at the first really promising development makes superlongevity a tech bubble bound to happen.

Until then, mortality remains the fraught issue that Anna Durnová discusses in The Politics of Intimacy: Rethinking the End-of-Life Controversy (University of Michigan Press, August). The care of the terminally ill and the possibility of choosing one's own time of death are extremely personal matters for those involved; at the same time, they are also matters of public concern, framed by the rules of legal and medical institutions. "Through interviews with mourners, stakeholders and medical professionals, as well as examination of media debates in France and the Czech Republic," the author "shows that liberal institutions, in their attempts to accommodate the emotional experience at the end of life, ultimately fail."

No doubt, though the problem has little enough to do with any sociopolitical order we've come up with, or ever will. It is the human condition -- defined, in the poet's words, as "sick with desire, / And fastened to a dying animal."


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