Over a telephone conversation, Dr. Sarkar talks to Barnamala Roy about the importance of interdisciplinarity, the ethics of reaching a public consensus regarding the future of gene editing and the need of globalising the philosophy curriculum in Indian institutions.
What is it to be human? While it is different from the question of what it is to be humane, it’s scopes are broader having occupied a wide spectrum of intellectuals- from the medicine practitioners, the biologists, the psychoanalysts and structuralists. The structuralist, Levi Strauss has elaborated on the nature/nurture debate which is akin to the debate on the effects of gene versus environmental factors when it comes to genetic inheritance. Dr. Sahotra Sarkar, who is arguing against genetic inheritance as the only basis to determine human nature and life ( his book, The Genetics of Reductionism delves into it) recently worried about how the biological worldview thinks about the question of life in his lecture titled- “Post-Genome: Philosophy and Biology for the 21st century”, at the Global Education Summit (hosted as part of the Bicentennial celebrations) in Presidency University, Kolkata.
A Professor of the philosophy of sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Sarkar talked about the failure of the Human Genome Project to deliver all of its promises and introduced the concept of targeted genome editing through CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) and CRISPR-associated (Cas) genes which aid organisms in responding to and eliminating invading genetic material. For more information, visit https://www.neb.com/tools-and-resources/feature-articles/crispr-cas9-and-targeted-genome-editing-a-new-era-in-molecular-biology
As a student of English literature conscious only of the analytic versus continental philosophy debate that dominates the Humanities, Dr. Sarkar’s background as a Philosophy undergrad with specializations and field-work in Marxism, aesthetics, conservation biology and environmental planning- who has later gone on to set up biological lab to research on neglected tropical diseases, irked my attention towards his scholarly interests.
Over a phone conversation with him, post his talk at the Education Summit, I tried to settle my queries.
You did your BA in Philosophy from Columbia University and your MA and PhD from the University of Chicago. So, how and when did the crossing over from primarily being a scholar of the Humanities to specializing in the philosophy of sciences (and taking up scientific experiments) occur?
I also majored in Mathematics and Physics as an Undergraduate so it was never purely in Philosophy. So science and philosophy were always integrated in my course of studies but starting a biology laboratory came about after I became a Professor. The kind of thing I wanted to do was not being done in the Biology departments in the mid 1990-s.
So, what was your PhD thesis about? Was it related to Biology?
It was about the relationship between Physics and Biology- on the issue of reductionism.
Every science carries with it certain assumptions about what constitutes the good experiment, what is really the most relevant thing to look at and these are the kinds of questions that the philosophical sciences have to analyse and answer. So, what I strongly feel is that when you get certain types of philosophies that try to pretend that the sciences do not exist, that the scientific knowledge does not privilege us- that is where the mistake comes in.
In your talk, “Post-Genome: Philosophy and Biology for the 21st century”, you spoke of how we are offered a privileged view of the world by the sciences- like we come to trust the world through medicines and the functioning of elevators. You also said that from a philosopher’s perspective you are worried about how the biological worldview thinks of the question of “life” (human and otherwise). But you are into Biology yourself now- so how do you separate the philosopher’s concern from the scientific world view in your mind? Are the two essentially different?No, not really. I think philosophy has to be in conjunction with the sciences. The question might be broader and there are questions of ethics that come in. But even when you are doing science, you are sometimes worried about what you should be doing- for example, how to use statistics, when the statistical significance is good enough-which are basically epistemological questions. So, the idea that the sciences don’t carry norms with them is a complete myth. Every science carries with it certain assumptions about what constitutes the good experiment, what is really the most relevant thing to look at and these are the kinds of questions that the philosophical sciences have to analyse and answer. So, what I strongly feel is that when you get certain types of philosophies that try to pretend that the sciences do not exist, that the scientific knowledge does not privilege us- that is where the mistake comes in. Philosophers sometimes like to say that. In day to day lives they acknowledge the privilege of scientific knowledge all the time otherwise they would not use technology, medicine etc. Any view of philosophy that ignores science altogether is like living in the years of European Middle Ages.
In your lecture and in your work in general, you have looked back at the line of evolutionary biology, mentioning the dominance of Mendellian and Darwinian theories with the relative negligence of Weismann and Kelvin. What led you to emphasize on the works of less noted biologists in the theory of evolution?
The ones that are less noted now (that is just the worship of Darwinism) has largely risen from popular scientific writing of scientists in the 20th century- people like Dawkins and others. If you look at the early 19th century, people were talking of Darwin and Wallace at the same time and it wouldn’t all be just about Darwin. So, I’m reminding people of that history because, whereas we know that certain parts of Darwinian theory are outdated and has to be replaced, what we are really doing right now is seeing the extent to which Weismann’s views are being challenged by modern biology – which is one of the most interesting things going on in biology.
In your book, The Genetics of Reductionism, you deal with the obsession with heritability and how that is reductionist. You also stressed in your lecture last day that modern biology is tending more towards interpretation. So, what would be the key to understanding complex behaviourial patterns in humans and animals in the future if we get outside the constraints of defining traits genetically and undermine the importance of natural selection? (You mentioned that natural selection is not that viable for organisms of larger sizes that have smaller population)
Natural selection (too) is always important- it is just not the only important thing. The crucial point you have to worry about in understanding traits is the classes of development of the organism. From the fertilization of the sperm, all the way to the formation of the embryo and the birth of a new organism (I’m talking of mammals now) – you have to worry about the developmental psychology of the organism before you talk about things like complex tendencies for alchoholism, violence and on the other end you know, certain tendencies towards literary work. So, the entire complex of that historical relation is mostly contingent- it’s not necessary. What an individual is exposed to is very much dependent on history and that has to be taken into account if you want to understand complex traits.
Darwinism is certainly consistent with Marxism. You do not always go about emphasizing the importance of heredity and DNA, ignoring altogether what the environment does. Some Marxists had an extreme view about environmental factors which is not viable now, but the willingness to be open minded about reductionism, looking at levels of organization, paying attention to history and environment is very very consistent with Marxist theorizing.
So, your other specializations are aesthetics and Marxist theory. So, how do you link these seemingly diverse fields with teaching and researching? Do you essentially link them or keep them compartmentalized?To some extent, I do – Darwinism is certainly consistent with Marxism. You do not always go about emphasizing the importance of heredity and DNA, ignoring altogether what the environment does. Some Marxists had an extreme view about environmental factors which is not viable now, but the willingness to be open minded about reductionism, looking at levels of organization, paying attention to history and environment is very very consistent with Marxist theorizing. Also, when you are judging why some scientific theories or worldviews appear to be motivationally more important, aesthetic considerations do play a role in that and we should realize scientific theories as tools for understanding the world and not as a mere map of reality. What tools we use are governed by a lot of criteria like simplicity, elegance which are aesthetic criteria.
The only one right now that looks revolutionary but also dangerous is what I talk about-CRISPER/ Cas 9. Slowly, what genomics is doing is giving us better understanding of how many different parts or aspects of development interacts to create the situation in which you see the disease.
You say that the Human Genome Project has failed in its medical promises. So, do you have better hope from the CRISPER technique of gene editing that you talk of practicing?
Yea, a lot of stuff that is coming up from genomics is completely independent of the Human Genome Project and will probably have many medical benefits in the future. The only one right now that looks revolutionary but also dangerous is what I talk about-CRISPER/ Cas 9. Slowly, what genomics is doing is giving us better understanding of how many different parts or aspects of development interacts to create the situation in which you see the disease. The kind of diseases I work with (mosquito and tick borne diseases) – where you identify a definite portion of the genome and get rid of it is actually quite rare. But in high blood pressure, depression and others, there are no simple infectious agents to target.
The idea is quite straightforward- in the countries which are supposed to benefit very very much from this new technology by eliminating mosquitoes and things of that sort, what needs to happen is that people establish clear cut policies now of how far they are willing to let the technology go and where they will definitely not let it go.
While talking about how mosquito, cockroach or even the monkey population can be eliminated using the CRISPER technique, you said there is a need of immediate public discussion. Since these are questions which involve humans on the planet at large, how do you propose that these discussions actually become a reality to build up a consensus?
When people realize that a lot of stuff we talk about when we speak about conservation and things like that are essentially based in their deeply held cultural views-that helps communicate. For example, almost nobody in India thinks that tigers should be allowed to go extinct- no matter how much harm they cause, and that’s because tigers are woven very deeply into the cultural fabric of Indian life, all the way back to the Indus Valley civilization.
So, you also spoke of endocrinic disruptions, neurological and reproductive disabilities of the female offsprings due to environmental factors. You are also working on conservation planning within conservation biology. How can this environmental philosophy and the notions regarding genetic reductionism be made accessible to a wider public through newer narrative forms?
India is very far behind when it comes to environmental planning, partly because at one time it was ahead of the curve. Then, it got stuck in what it was thinking during the 1980-s. But most of the time when you do this sort of conservation planning, you have a stake holder among people in a region and the consequences get widely reported in the press and the TV. That is the best way of getting these ideas across and getting them implemented. When people realize that a lot of stuff we talk about when we speak about conservation and things like that are essentially based in their deeply held cultural views-that helps communicate. For example, almost nobody in India thinks that tigers should be allowed to go extinct – no matter how much harm they cause, and that’s because tigers are woven very deeply into the cultural fabric of Indian life, all the way back to the Indus Valley civilization. We need to exploit these to understand how we fair in terms of how conservation planning progresses. We ought to do it officially and explicitly and put these up for people to look at in question. Science in a democratic society has to be independent so that basically crazy religious people as we find sometimes in India do not try to hijack science. On the other hand science is rooted in society, so a society should regulate it.
Coming from that, you strongly discourage human germline editing. Could you elucidate more on that?We do not know what we are doing when we do that. Have we conducted an official discussion to know whether or not we plan to have a future where all human individuals are this type or that type? Do we know that? We might know that we do not want humans to have certain kinds of diseases. But do we really want all individuals to have black eyes? Do we really want all individuals to have the same colour of skin. I mean that is what genetic enhancement can do. Until we have that kind of public discussion, we should hesitate to allow anything like that. I think I will use an example here- the gene that people keep talking about (without any firm basis), the gene for violence actually attributes developed muscular activities. So, do we think that since we are worried about violence as such, we do not allow a gene to persist which may also generate a great male or female athelete. So, we also have advantage of exactly the same motif (which we are fearing).
And at one time India realized androgyny not a very rare phenomenon – I mean, in the last 200 years, India had forgotten it isn’t. One of the good things now is that the Indian passport authorities recognize there is more than two genders.
What do you have to say of androgyny? Just one of of my curiosities – even when a family does not carry androgynous traits, they do have offsprings who bear that trait so this cannot simply be related to a gene.
Yes, they certainly do. This is a kind of developmental accident or event (whatever you call it) which happens very early in the embryo. And at one time India realized androgyny is not a very rare phenomenon – I mean, in the last 200 years, India had forgotten it isn’t. One of the good things now is that the Indian passport authorities recognize there is more than two genders. If you really look at biology seriously, there are seven human genders and there are currently all these people who are ostracized going against science. Every effort should be made that they are given equal rights and opportunities as everyone else.
So, how do you propose science establishes and propagates this more strongly in society?
Science can just keep on pointing that out when it comes to relevant human functions of living good lives, creative lives, it makes absolutely no difference if you happen to be XX but morphologically male or you happen to be XY and morphologically female, or you have a varied sexual preference. Science can only work to this extent – but when it comes to fighting discrimination and all of that- it is really social policy. That is where social and political discussions must take over.
I’m going to say a very controversial thing here – the state of philosophy education is in India at present is an absolute disgrace.
But the thing is- you did your BA in Philosophy from Columbia so, you could take a scientific trajectory in your studies. But graduating in philosophy from India would have provided no such scope to integrate biology and philosophy even if your interests led you there….
I’m going to say a very controversial thing here – the state of philosophy education is in India at present is an absolute disgrace.
The only solution to this can be building a constituency where students demand that modern philosophy be taught at their institutions as it is taught worldwide.
So, are scientists/philosophers with your background- who had the privilege to study philosophy the way they wanted doing anything to propose changes in the instituitional curriculum here?We have been trying for many years, not with much success to implement changes. The problem is not so much from the science departments- we have been to all major science academies in the last ten years and conducted workshops there. Historians and philosophers of sciences with South Asian origin or those who have worked in South Asia have been trying to implement a change in the philosophy curriculum. But the resistance is chiefly coming from the philosophy departments and chiefly, older faculty within them. I’m saying something very controversial here and it might anger some people – but I think it needs to be said. The only solution to this can be building a constituency where students demand that modern philosophy be taught at their institutions as it is taught worldwide.
Your forthcoming book is a scientific biography of J.B.S. Haldane. Apart from the biographical elements, what are you exploring in the book? Could we get a few snippets?
Haldane was probably the most creative biologist of the last century; he published everything from classics to mathematics to astronomy to biology to philosophy and what I’m exploring in this book is how being interdisciplinary is very important when it comes to practicing hard science.
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