Wednesday, October 8, 2008

In Just Seven Days I Can Make You A Man

A post today on the Situationist blog points to a recently-published paper by Donald Braman, Dan Kahan, and Gregory Mandel (of my sometime alma mater Temple U., what what!) that analyzes the differential attitudes of socially and metaphysically hierarchical versus egalitarian individuals toward the engineering of synthetic life, in contrast to their attitudes toward other potentially dangerous technological interventions into natural processes.

Their research indicates that, whereas egalitarians are generally more sensitive to potential man-made threats to the ecological order, and hierarchically-oriented individuals tend to be more skeptical of such dangers, these perceptions are basically reversed regarding the creation of artificial life.

The authors conclude by providing some insightful interpretation of their findings:

What explains this unusual alignment? A likely possibility relates to the distinctive social meaning of synthetic biology risks. Individuals tend to impute risk to activities that symbolically threaten their values; they resist believing that society might be harmed by activities that affirm their values (Douglas 1966). Historically, concerns about acid rain, nuclear power production, global warming, and the like have connoted challenges to societal and governmental elites. This is a resonance congenial to persons who hold egalitarian views, but noxious to persons who hold hierarchical ones (Douglas &Wildavsky 1986). Synthetic biology, however, seems to be attended by a different constellation of meanings that are themselves symbolically threatening to hierarchs. Like evolution, which conveys an uncompromisingly secular understanding of the origin of life, synthetic biology, because it presupposes human license over the career of it, seems to denigrate a set of cultural understandings that subordinate man to the authority of God. The denigration of those understandings is in turn subversive to the authority of certain institutions and norms traditionally integral to a hierarchical social ordering. Hierarchs, consistent with the logic of cultural cognition, thus impute danger to synthetic biology.

While this is no doubt a valid analysis, I wish to draw attention to an element of the cultural construction of these perceptions of danger that I feel the authors may have under-emphasized, namely the role of metaphysical, rather than purely social, values. The authors do touch upon this element in their hypothesis regarding hierarchicals' attitudes toward synthetic biology - people who see biogenesis as the purview of a higher power are likely to see attempts by man to replicate the process as the height of insolence - but then immediately subordinate it to concerns of social order. Likewise, their interpretation of attitudes toward other conflicts between technology and nature resolves ultimately upon attitudes toward "societal and governmental elites."

I think the authors unnecessarily circumvent the possibility of a metaphysical (e.g., religious) hierarchicalism independent of social hierarchicalism. Surely the interests of "societal and governmental elites" are not necessarily the same as those of theological fundamentalists. Couldn't it be the case that "concerns about acid rain, nuclear power production, global warming, and the like... [are] noxious to persons who hold hierarchical" views, not because they "connoted challenges to societal and governmental elites," but rather because they connoted challenges to the idea that the mechanisms of the physical world are solely the responsibility of an omnipotent intelligence, and thus immune to disruption by the efforts of mortals? This interpretation more closely parallels the argument against synthetic biology on the grounds of "cultural understandings that subordinate man to the authority of God," and need not attempt to rationalize itself with an appeal to secular concerns.

My suggestion here is that, while secular, rational values certainly factor into attitudes toward the morality, or even the possibility, of human alteration of the biosphere, so too - and, I argue, independently - may metaphysical values.

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