Bioethics and the Posthumanities

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 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!

You can find the full programme for the day here. Recordings of the talks will be available shortly.

Full disclosure: the BA’s generous travel and accommodation funding for Early Career Researchers made it possible for me to attend this workshop. I am writing this report as part of the terms of my bursary.

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