December 15, 2018, by Brigitte Nerlich

Science, life and meaning

Sheila Jasanoff has published a new book entitled Can Science Make Sense of Life? This is a big question to which the answer, according to Betteridge’s law of headlines must be ‘no’. The title sets the tone for the book and opens up specific expectations for its readers. What expectations readers have depends on what they understand by ‘life’ – but after reading the title they probably won’t expect anything very positive to be said about ‘science’.

When reading this book, it soon becomes clear that a distinction is made between the question of what life ‘is’ and what life ‘is for’ (as an aside: it might be better to say what ‘living’ is for, as ‘life’ as such might not be for anything). Jasanoff suggests that answers to the ‘what is life for’ question can be found in Gauguin, the Upanishads and so on. She seems to object to science/biology proposing answers to that question in the course of trying to find out ‘what life is’.

The book seems to be based on two assumptions: firstly, that biology assumes for itself the right to provide the only acceptable answers to questions about the meaning of life (what life is/for), and secondly, that it imposes these answers on society. It challenges biology’s purported claim to have “a monopoly on defining life”, a definition that “flattens an indescribably layered and complex concept when it decontextualizes what life is from eons of reflection on what life is for” (p. 175), and it wants to rescue the meaning of life from “this tangled, instrumental, commercially driven technoscience” (p. 175). Therefore the overall aim of the book is to ensure “that biology takes its rightful place within and not above society” (p. 11).

I shall not dissect the whole book. Instead, I’ll provide the reader with some passages (interspersed with my reactions and comments) so as to start a discussion about it. These passages are of course quoted out of context, but I believe they accurately convey the gist and the tone of the book. For people interested more in its content, such as a detailed dissection of the achievements and failures of the Asilomar conference for example, I recommend reading this short book itself.

Of course, this is only my interpretation of the book and it might be full of misunderstandings.

Putting biology in its place

The book starts with the standard reference to Erwin Schrödinger’s famous 1943 talk entitled “What is Life?” (whose 75th anniversary has recently been celebrated; so, if you want to know more about the legacy of this talk for science and the meaning of life, see here).

Jasanoff then says on p. 3: “The twentieth century’s great breakthroughs in the life sciences have made it increasingly more acceptable for biologists to claim ownership of the meaning of life.” This does not quite tally with the Wikipedia article on the ‘meaning of life’, which shows that biology hasn’t quite taken over yet, nor with Terry Eagleton’s explorations of The Meaning of Life (A very short introduction).

She goes on to say: “The origins and implications of that growing primacy deserve our attention. It is a story of arrogance in the literal, etymological sense (from Latin ad + rogare), a process of asking or claiming a terrain for oneself.” There are arrogant biologists, I am sure, but no evidence is given for the claim that they want to adjudicate over the whole meaning of life.

“Understanding how that happened and why it matters are the twin objectives of this book. The first, largely historical strand of my argument retraces the tangled pathways by which a particular way of interpreting life – that of the modern life sciences – acquired superiority over other, long-established discourses and modes of reflection.” Is that really true? Biology may have gained increasingly detailed insights into various aspects of ‘life’, but that does not mean that the lives we live and the sense we make of that living are not also shaped by other long-established discourses and modes of reflection.

“The second, more normative strand makes the case for restoring those more thoughtful ways of knowing…” …More thoughtful! Who is claiming superiority now?

“….so that life does not devolve into just another object of conscious design, valued mainly for our ability to manipulate it, commodify it, and profit unequally from those acts of appropriation.” I don’t deny that some corporations make profits from findings achieved in biology and that this may lead to unequal access etc. I’d however also argue that people with painful, degenerative and disabling diseases might welcome scientists’ ability to manipulate life so that they can have periods of respite from their illnesses, periods that may open up spaces to explore meanings of life that would otherwise remain closed off to them. For some examples read this article about the 100,000 genomes project.

I am certainly against commodifying life, but preventing this from happening can only be achieved if both the ‘less thoughtful’ and the ‘more thoughtful’ strands of thought think together and are not set up as opposites or as antagonists.

Jasanoff then goes on to talk about eugenics and Lysenko and says on p. 7 that this “can be read as a normal chapter in the accommodation between the promises of science and the aspirations of government”, thereby implying that normal modern science still is Lysenkoish in parts. This might not be the best way to establish a dialogue between the two modes of thought.

She then comes back to a topic that runs through the whole book, namely a critique of the ‘book of life metaphor’, a metaphor that has fascinated me for two decades.

She says on p. 7: “The metaphor of the book performs in this connection its own imperial simplifications. Representing the human genome as the book of life, written in the plain four-letter code of DNA, implicitly claims for biologists a priestly role: as the sole authorized readers of the that book, the most qualified to interpret its mysteries and draw out its lessons for the human future.” I doubt biologists see the human, or any other, genome as a crystal ball from which to draw lessons for the human future. It might provide some insights into future diseases, but isn’t that a good thing? (There are some scientists who overstep the mark here but they are quickly put into place by their colleagues. ‘Imperial simplifications’ are generally not tolerated.)

As for biologists being ‘priests’ and the sole authorised readers of the book of life, I can imagine that these priests would gladly supply the author of this book with a genome sequence and let her make sense of it. One can also go and visit a print-out of ‘the book of life’ as displayed at the Wellcome Collection in London and read it if one wanted to.

On p. 9 Jasanoff comes back to Schrödinger and writes about her own book: “This small book aims to correct, in a sense, the elegant but over-simplified (sic!) optics of Schrödinger’s physics-eye vision of life as a code-script. Instead of asking ‘What is life?’ tout court, my purpose is to show that this question cannot easily be disentangled from the linked and inseparable question, ‘What is life for?’” Nothing prevents people from doing that and I assume many scientists are interested in both questions. But in order to do empirical research, scientists first have to untangle things so as to get a better view.

So what questions are side-lined by not focusing on what life is for? She enumerates some questions that, in fact, scientists and science writers have often tackled over the last few years, such as “Where does life, as we care for it (?!), begin? Where does that life end?” Not when, it seems, but where. “How is one form of life, for example the human, related to other forms, including those of close biological similarity that do not show capacities such as language that we take to be definitive of human-ness?”

Good starting points for exploring these topics would be books such as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Carl Zimmer’s She Has Her Mother’s Laugh,  Matthew Cobb’s Life’s Greatest Secret: The race to crack the genetic code, Adam Rutherford’s The Book of HumansKevin Mitchell’s Innate: How the wiring of our brain shapes who we are, and this year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures given by Alice Roberts, entitled ‘Who am I’ (as well as her book The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being). But this is only a very small and subjective selection.

She then asks a question that again implies ‘no’ as an answer (p. 9): “Does science have any special voice in defining human progress, and if so why?” Again, no evidence is provided that any scientist whatsoever said anything like this, that is, claimed “monopoly over steering human progress” (p. 168). I’d argue though that the voice of scientists and the voice of experts in general should be heard and not dismissed just because they are experts.

Most scientists certainly don’t see it as their role to settle “(or claiming to settle) the ethical, legal, and social dilemmas that swirl around definitions of life”, as implied in this book (p. 10). But they can provide important inputs to dealing with (not settling) these questions.

However, Jasanoff claims (p. 11): “This science does by eliding the differences between natural and social life and hence between what life is and what it should be for.” No, science doesn’t do that, but the author of this book does this throughout the book. On p. 15 she says: “Powerful new techniques for designing and redesigning life came to be seen as answers to old, value-laden questions, such as what counts as a well-lived life and who should be responsible for safeguarding lives on this planet.” Really?

Language games

Instead of going through all chapters, I’ll now skip to a chapter that deals with language, a chapter entitled ‘Language Games’, as that’s something I am interested in.

What does Jasanoff say about ‘language’? For this we turn to p. 117: “Language shapes our thinking, makes things come to light or disappear from view, and participates in the channelling of power” – so far so good. Then she says “– possibly nowhere more so in the modern world than when language designates some things as scientific, and hence as part of what we take to be immutably natural.” I have to confess I don’t quite understand this.

The chapter deals with science’s use of special languages or jargons, which is not something she approves of (see p. 119): “Professional discourses, moreover will normalize some things, making them appear banal, whereas others are picked out as deviant and subjected to sanction or correction by society’s ordering forces.” (p. 120)

With relation to a struggle over the meaning of the term ‘biotechnology’, which took place in the early 1990s, she says: “This reassertion of expert authority, or scientific power grab, was proposed in the name of conveying meaning more clearly, countering lay confusion with technical exactitude, and deterring demands for oversight by an ill-informed public.” She uses very value-laden language here to chastise ‘science’.

Overall, it is claimed that scientists “ensure(s) that science gets to define which issues are ripe for debate and in what forums. The power of scientific knowledge seems then, in good part, to draw strength from self-abnegation on the part of other knowledge systems, whose retreat leaves science as the undisputed winner in the language games that attempt to make sense of life.” Has she looked at climate change? Vaccines? Or Brexit?

Can science make sense of life?

So, in the end then, what’s the answer to the book title’s question: Can science make sense of life? Jasanoff’s final answer is (p. 173): “there can be no single, simple answer to that question, because the thing called ‘life’ is capable of infinitely many meanings.” Of course it is! So what is this book about?

“No single discipline, even one with the presumed inventive power of the New Biology, can make sense of that word…”… Now we are talking about the meaning of the WORD ‘life‘!

“…without first reducing life’s complexity to a degree that deprives life of the beauty and meaning that make it miraculous.” Now we are talking about ‘life’ again and we are told that science is spoiling it all for us with its pesky reductionism. Has the author of this book looked at some recent popular science books? Many of them convey the beauty and meaning of life quite brilliantly and add to life’s meaning and to people’s lived experience.

The blurb for the book says: “Science may have editorial control over the material elements of life, but it does not supersede the languages of sense-making that have helped define human values across millennia: the meanings of autonomy, integrity, and privacy; the bonds of kinship, family, and society; and the place of humans in nature.” Firstly, science doesn’t have editorial control over the material elements of life (ask people involved in gene editing); secondly, it does not purport to replace all other languages of sense making. However, without science and its fascinating or infuriating insights into life, the universe and everything we’d have pretty little to talk and write about in life and life would be much impoverished.


I am sure geneticists, bioscientists and life scientists might not always have done science in the best possible way; some behave unethically, some oversell their science, some just want to sell, and so on, but many more don’t. Is this book the best way to engage them in making things better and to open up spaces for dialogue and joint sense making? I doubt it very much. As for science trying to make sense of life, I hope for all of our sakes that it continues to do so.

It might have been fun to say that the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42, but that unfortunately even science doesn’t really know what the question is. It’s trying hard to find out though, and on the way, we learn more about ourselves, our health and our illnesses and also about how to treat and even cure some of them, which is quite important for giving life meaning.

For people who want to learn more about life, there are fantastic podcasts organised by Carl Zimmer, called ‘What is Life?’ here!

Image: Photo taken in Ely in June 2018



Posted in Social sciencesociologysynthetic biology