Bioethics Event Reports

The project was able to support the attendance of a number of early career researchers at each workshop. These event reports were submitted by these attendees, as part of the conditions of their bursaries.

Megen de Bruin-Molé

In UK academia, opportunities for discussion with people working outside your discipline have become increasingly rare. Even rarer is the chance to speak about your research with people from other industries. This is why I was especially eager to attend the ‘Bioethics and the Posthumanities’ workshop on 28th March 2019, which included presentations from researchers in the sciences and humanities, but also British policymakers. The workshop was funded by the British Academy, hosted by Royal Holloway, University of London, and organised by Dr Danielle Sands and Zosia Edwards.

Through our discussions, we attempted to bring together two related strands of thought: posthumanism (a set of perspectives and methodologies that are especially prominent in the humanities and critical theory) and bioethics (an ethics primarily addressed in medical and biological research). Some of the questions we were invited to consider were:

  • What new questions are posed by recent advances in biomedical technologies?
  • In what ways might the posthumanities help us to address the implications of these?
  • How useful is the idea of human nature in helping us to develop a response to technological advancement?
  • Can we distinguish between therapy and enhancement?
  • How should we understand the relationship between human and animal health?
  • In what ways might a conversation between posthumanists, bioethicists and philosophers of biology inform the development of bioethical policy?

Each of these questions was addressed at some point in the day, and several common threads also emerged between panels. For instance, Ruth Chadwick’s talk raised some questions about the parallels between how humans and non-human creations (media, artworks, policy, etc.) are theorised and discussed, underlining the similar worldviews behind the ‘open science’ movement and the ‘open access’ or remix movement. Likewise, Julian Sheather talked about how contemporary medical ethics is structured by ideas of autonomy and individualism. This is complicated by an increasing awareness the individual’s embeddedness in social systems, which can sometimes make it difficult for policy to dictate when a person has a right to refuse consent (in the case of vaccinations and herd immunity, for example), or to decide whether consent is individually possible (under neoliberalism, or in cases that effect a whole family or community). Sarah Bezan contrasted this with her talk on narratives of stewardship and animal de-extinction projects, questioning whether ‘posthuman stewardship’ is even possible in an ecological discourse so dominated by ideas of human responsibility. Stefan Herbrechter further complicated the discussion with a critical posthumanist call for a ‘microbial bioethics’, that takes into account just how entangled humans are with their environments down to the bacterial level.

It was exciting to watch these shared discussions emerge, and also to be introduced to new angles and perspectives on the topic. Even more rewarding was the opportunity to sit and discuss these issues with each other in such a friendly and intimate setting. The workshops were relocated from the Senate House to Bedford Square in solidarity with an outsourced workers’ boycott, which meant that the audience was much smaller than initially planned or expected, but also that sessions were able to be very intensive and collaborative. I expect that the discussions we had will continue and develop as we keep in touch informally over the next few years. I also hope that this will not be the last Posthumanities workshop, and that I will have many more opportunities to engage in interdisciplinary, inter-industry dialogue on posthumanism and bioethics!

Sarah Bezan – Multispecies Posthumanism in an Age of Mass Extinction

What does it mean to be (post)human in an age of mass extinction? This question has remained at the forefront of my own research on species revivalism (alternatively known as de-extinction), but it is one that I think also comes to bear upon our understanding of posthumanist thought. In our meeting on ‘Bioethics and Posthumanism’ organised by Danielle Sands, and attended by both established and emerging scholars from across the arts, humanities, and social sciences, we explored how the concerns of bioethics challenge the categories of species, individuality, and identity. What I discovered, in part, is that the unbounded potential of posthumanism, while often associated with (bio)technological interventions and their potentials, needs to be tempered with a critique of what it means to be human (if we ever were) at a time when anthropogenic species losses are accelerating at an unprecedented rate. Without this critique, posthumanism is a fantasy of human self-fulfilment, at the peril of the planet we inhabit.

Stefan Herbrechter suggested during our discussions that ‘To be (post)human is to be multispecies.’ In response, we might explore how this claim shapes our understanding of bioethical paradigms. While for Sarah Chan posthumanism is defined in relation to socially-constructed programmes of enhancement, the values of biotechnologies like de-extinction initiate an alternative set of questions about the role of enhancement for extinct species, which not only extends the (after)lives of these species but also bolsters the human in its mastery over the origin and end of species lines. The existence of the Woolly Mammoth Revival Project (Harvard University) and the Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback (Revive and Restore Network) indicates that the bioethics of ‘enhancement’ through technologies and techniques like cloning, back-breeding, and gene editing are in fact entangled in centuries-long histories of human exploitation.

The moral imperative to restore extinct species that humans have killed leads us to interrogate how and why de-extinction has taken centre stage in recent decades. Given that the woolly mammoth went extinct more than 4,000 years ago (due in part to a combination of habitat loss and overhunting by prehistoric humans), we might consider how a posthumanist approach to extinction and species revivalism might complicate our understanding of the chronologies of human ‘development.’ For instance, to bring back a mammoth is also to reactivate a relationship between the human and the mammoth that predates recorded human history (an era of the ‘prehuman’). If we are becoming posthuman (developing the tools to exceed the quandaries of modernity, as lived and conceived of by humans), then the age of de-extinction is assembling an all-encompassing and wider-set timeline of human development that challenges the bounds of both the prehuman (the past) and posthuman (the future). What this does, at least in my view, is reveal the complexity of multispecies relationships over deep time, and the extent to which they are embedded within (or set apart from) the human. In turn, the nature of a ‘multispecies posthumanism,’ particularly in light of the prospect of reviving extinct DNA in a laboratory, can serve as a challenge to the constructed narratives of human exceptionalism (which most perniciously thrive within humanism, and which posthumanism seeks to critique). A posthumanist analysis of de-extinction, then, can begin not only to unravel humanist values of domination and exploitation of nonhuman life, but it can also dismantle the specious theses we have developed over time to assert the value of human over nonhuman animals, a value that ultimately lies at the very crux of bioethical critique.