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Can Science Make Sense of Life?

Sheila Jasanoff

ISBN: 978-1-509-52274-3 March 2019 Polity 156 Pages

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Since the discovery of the structure of DNA and the birth of the genetic age, a powerful vocabulary has emerged to express science’s growing command over the matter of life. Armed with knowledge of the code that governs all living things, biology and biotechnology are poised to edit, even rewrite, the texts of life to correct nature’s mistakes.

Yet, how far should the capacity to manipulate what life is at the molecular level authorize science to define what life is for? This book looks at flash points in law, politics, ethics, and culture to argue that science’s promises of perfectibility have gone too far. 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.

  • Prologue
  • Chapter 1. A New Lens on Life
  • Chapter 2. Book of Revelations
  • Chapter 3. Life and Law: Constitutional Turns
  • Chapter 4. Life in the Gray Zone
  • Chapter 5. Language Games
  • Chapter 6. A New Biopower
  • Chapter 7. Life’s Purposes

Can Science Make Sense of Life? highlights critical perversions in our present governance of biotechnology: confusions between decoding genetic structures and engineering happiness; conflations of privately profitable patent interests and overall human betterment; and elisions between raw data and techno-optimism’s myth-making capacity. Founder of Harvard’s Science, Technology and Society program, Sheila Jasanoff makes an urgent and eloquent case for restoring broadly democratic humanistic complexity to the governing bodies that govern our bodies.”
Patricia Williams, Columbia Law School

“For those of us concerned with equitable distribution of technology, biodiversity, and the long-term health of the Earth, here is a thoughtful and up-to-date resource from an experienced scholar very close to the exponentially shifting events of risk and hope.”
George Church, Wyss Institute, Harvard University

“This timely and important work is a powerful reminder that we are still in the midst of a scientific revolution that demands shared decision-making regarding the boundary between natural and artificial life — what life is — as well as what life is for.”
Doron Weber, The Washington Post