The playhouse is packed, the audience are full of tea and cake, and Hilary and Steven Rose enter to enthusiastic applause.
Hilary Rose, feminist sociologist of science and social policy, and her husband Steven, neuroscientist, are here to discuss their most recent book collaboration, Genes, Cells and Brains: The Promethean Promises of the New Biology.
This rather unique couple are deeply concerned with the ethics of science and its uses, and are outspoken challengers of the rhetoric we are fed by the establishment.
In particular, they are concerned with the disaggregation of biology and commodification of people. We are being reduced to constituent parts, they tell us, and being treated like a collection of ingredients, rather than as a cake.
It started, Hilary says, in the 90s, with genetics and the Human Genome Project, made possible by technological advancements in computing. It continues in the present with the “Emperor’s New Clothes”, brain science.
With gene science, we were promised a better world. We would have magic bullets to halt cancers, personalised medicines and the eradication of genetic diseases. Our data was collected, stored, then leaked, sold and mishandled. The promises were never fulfilled.
Now we are being encouraged to provide information again, so that they can map our brains. Vast sums of money are being invested. Promises are once more being made.
Yet, Steven says, these large-scale projects ignore the social aspect of disease and health. The new biology is treating brains as if they are computers, in the same way it treats people like a collection of genes, and embryos as a collection of stem cells. The brain is the mind, they say, and ignore the person and their experiences.
The Roses argue that not only is this over-simplified and reductionist, but it is also dangerous. Once you start to look at people as parts, at their brains as computers, they become less human. Already there are areas of work where ethical policy such as informed consent and right-to-refuse are being ignored.
The Roses talk together in a comfortable way. They remind each other of time limits and keep each other on track. It is an easy collaboration. But they have a serious message. They have brought up many interesting and even scary notions, and have highlighted the need for us to take responsibility for our own information. The talk is over too soon, and there is a long queue at the book stall.
October 8th 2014
Also published on Ilkley Literature Festival Review Site