Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 18, 2015

prosthetics, child-rearing, and social construction

There’s much to think and talk about in this report by Rose Eveleth on prosthetics, which makes me think about all the cool work my friend Sara Hendren is doing. But I’m going to set most of that fascinating material aside for now, and zero in on one small passage from Eveleth’s article:

More and more amputees, engineers, and prospective cyborgs are rejecting the idea that the “average” human body is a necessary blueprint for their devices. “We have this strong picture of us as human beings with two legs, two hands, and one head in the middle,” says Stefan Greiner, the founder of Cyborgs eV, a Berlin-based group of body hackers. “But there’s actually no reason that the human body has to look like as it has looked like for thousands of years.”

Well, that depends on what you mean by “reason,” I think. We should probably keep in mind that having “two legs, two hands [or arms], and one head in the middle” is not something unique to human beings, nor something that has been around for merely “thousands” of years. Bilateral symmetry — indeed, morphological symmetry in all its forms — is something pretty widely distributed throughout the evolutionary record. And there are very good adaptive “reasons” for that.

I’m not saying anything here about whether people should or should not pursue prosthetic reconstructions of their bodies. That’s not my subject. I just want to note the implication of Greiner’s statement — an implication that, if spelled out as a proposition, he might reject, but is there to be inferred: that bilateral symmetry in human bodies is a kind of cultural choice, something that we happen to have been doing “for thousands of years,” rather than something deeply ingrained in a vast evolutionary record.

You see a similar but more explicit logic in the way the philosopher Adam Swift talks about child-rearing practices: “It’s true that in the societies in which we live, biological origins do tend to form an important part of people’s identities, but that is largely a social and cultural construction. So you could imagine societies in which the parent-child relationship could go really well even without there being this biological link.” A person could say that the phenomenon of offspring being raised by their parents “is largely a social and cultural construction” only if he is grossly, astonishingly ignorant of biology — or, more likely, has somehow managed to forget everything he knows about biology because he has grown accustomed to thinking in the language of an exceptionally simplistic and naïve form of social constructionism.

N.B.: I am not arguing for or against changing child-rearing practices. I am exploring how and why people simply forget that human beings are animals, are biological organisms on a planet with a multitude of other biological organisms with which they share many structural and behavioral features because they also share a long common history. (I might also say that they share a creaturely status by virtue of a common Maker, but that’s not a necessary hypothesis at the moment.) In my judgment, such forgetting does not happen because people have been steeped in social constructionist arguments; those are, rather, just tools ready to hand. There is a deeper and more powerful and (I think) more pernicious ideology at work, which has two components.

Component one: that we are living in a administrative regime built on technocratic rationality whose Prime Directive is, unlike the one in the Star Trek universe, one of empowerment rather than restraint. I call it the Oppenheimer Principle, because when the physicist Robert Oppenheimer was having his security clearance re-examined during the McCarthy era, he commented, in response to a question about his motives, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you've had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.” Social constructionism does not generate this Prime Directive, but it can occasionally be used — in, as I have said, a naïve and simplistic form — to provide ex post facto justifications of following that principle. We change bodies and restructure child-rearing practices not because all such phenomena are socially constructed but because we can — because it’s “technically sweet.”

My use of the word “we” in that last sentence leads to component two of the ideology under scrutiny here: Those who look forward to a future of increasing technological manipulation of human beings, and of other biological organisms, always imagine themselves as the Controllers, not the controlled; they always identify with the position of power. And so they forget evolutionary history, they forget biology, they forget the disasters that can come from following the Oppenheimer Principle — they forget everything that might serve to remind them of constraints on the power they have ... or fondly imagine they have.


  • Thank you for saying this--I hope this post is read far and wide among the technoscenti. I am reminded of nothing so much as C. S.Lewis's wonderful opening to the Abolition of Man, where he discusses (and dismantles the idea of) "Man's conquest of Nature." Ironically, it is the technocratic rationality you pinpoint that is itself socially constructed, not our physiology.

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