What’s the Bio- in Biopolitics? (pt 3)



In the last post I ended with the problem that biopolitics has to acknowledge a constructive aspect of public health that is not merely control of a vital impulse nor a collapse of the science of biology and the control technologies of governments. One concept that is important in this tension is that of population. (I am setting aside the economic-demographic notion though not completely).

Population in biology has a complicated history but now tends to mean a spatial cluster of a particular species. This then begs the question of how does one define species as there is not an adequate definition though a group of individuals that can breed (which is Ernst Mayr’s definition) is quite common. Though as Godfrey-Smith and others have pointed out this is not uncomplicated.

Population is often seen then as an outgrowth of systematics – simply of classificational techniques and systems in the biological sciences. Taxonomy of course predates biology as a science of its own (as in the systems of Linneaus) but in the early to mid-nineteenth century the systems of classification became more and more detailed especially in the case of botany. The connection between systematics and botany makes a certain pragmatic sense given that classification, at least to the human eye, is a particularly difficult challenge when it comes to plant species and the difference between species and variety.

The difference between species and variety was central to Darwin (and in the Origin Darwin does not talk about populations much but only here and there about exponential growth following Malthus). It is also worth noting that many early thinkers in Mendelian genetics were inspired or connected to the mutationists and many mutationists were botanists. As Stotlzfuss et all have pointed out mutationists (such as de Vries) were not crude saltationists (claiming that nature was evolving through sudden jumps) as they were interested in the relationship between unobservable fluctuations and observable variations and how this dialectic worked out in terms of species (Lindley and de Candolle are notable here).

It is also quite misleading that in his What is Evolution? Mayr repeatedly refers to Darwin as a ‘population thinker’ though this gives retroactive genetic authority to Darwin that he did not have. Even a brief look at the second chapter of the Origin shows that the relation of variation and species was important for Darwin and that species was a unit of convenience on the one hand and something connected to links between morphological forms of animals on the other. Lewontin and Levins understanding of Darwin as linking the functionalist and morphological approach seems far more useful when thinking about Darwin’s notion of species and how this in turn gets connected (much later) to the notion of genetic population.

We can start to ask what is the difference between population control and public health?

Here the demographic or social notion of population becomes harder to distinguish from the genetic notion. Obviously quarantine is a form of control but one that is directed at maintaining the health of individuals and the population both in the demographic sense and the genetic sense in the idea of the continuation of the species. This is of course quite different from population control in the name of racial ‘purity’ or in ‘good’ breeding. Of course the demographic and the genetic are at play – quarantine is going to have economic and social costs for those who stay home and raised physical health costs for those that have to help maintaining the basic functioning of a community.

Population control (in the sense of eugenics) attempts to straddle somatic markers and behavioral traits by passing through racist science. Eugenics attempts to patch together good behavior with ‘good blood’ ignoring the environmental factors of behavior and bracketing out the genetics or biological factors ‘beneath’ or within the blood (such as the fluctuations of variation). This kind of attitude is apparent in the Nazi’s uptake but then abandonment of Darwinian evolution via Ernst Haeckle. The notion of population control has a similarly uneasy relation with technology since of course supposed ‘lacks of fitness’ can be easily remedied. Pointing back to the last post this is why Nazi ideology took up organicism such it had to claim some immanent capacity of the natural course of society in order to determine what traits were desirable and how capitalist niches had supposedly disrupted that homeostasis.

The early biometricians (who I’ve also mentioned in earlier posts) such as Galton and his followers Pearson and Weldon, gave birth to early statistic analyses in part by bracketing out causal factors. Galton et all took it as an assumption that natural selection was occurring and wanted to analyze what this mean for how traits were preserved or not over generations. Galton was interested in visualizing regression towards the mean and other statistical behaviors using a plinko-like sorting device of pegs and beans.

The disagreement between the biometricians and the Mendelians (who were mutationists and structuralists) was less about Darwin and more about how to measure and expression the central factors in the sorting out of traits across time.

Thus the disciplining of the body is very different in quarantine such the control of the body is about blunting its vectoral capacities (freedom of movement, commerce, travel, social interaction) in order not to spread a contagion. The political dangers then are not so much biopolitical but stem from the consequent possible restructuring of social norms relative to the complicity of state and capital. On the other side there is the psychological after effects of isolation and whether people will emerge eager to reconnect to others or remain distant and suspicious of others as potential disease vectors.

It may be the case that we have not yet seen biopolitics but only biopolitical theater.



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