Advice to Scientists: Contract the Human Enterprise

If you’re looking for “cutting-edge research, incisive scientific commentary, and insights on what’s important to the scientific world”, the journal Science is where you’ll find them; at least so says the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes it. The AAAS also publishes five specialist journals, but this one covers all areas of science. Because the research in Science is indeed “cutting-edge”, it must often be opaque to readers not working in the particular area of study being reported on, and some articles make almost no sense at all to a layperson, from the title downwards. But these reports of specialist research are always accompanied by separate ‘research article summaries’ which present the findings and their implications in a less technical way. And since Science also contains news articles, book reviews, editorials, and other staples of intelligent journalism, the journal provides a valuable running commentary on practices and attitudes, for scientists and for outsiders. In fact the AAAS may really be justified in calling it “the premier global science weekly”.

Sometimes an issue of Science will have a special theme connecting science coverat least some of the contents: the nature of Saturn, perhaps, or immunotherapy. Last month there was an issue which took the human brain for its theme: the cover title was ‘Illuminating the Brain’. Among the seven or so titles on the subject (by way of illustrating what I said in the first paragraph) were ‘Transcriptome and epigenome landscape of human cortical development modelled in organoids’ and ‘Neuron-specific signatures in the chromosomal connectome associated with schizophrenia risk’. Mainly this research seems to have been looking for genetic origins to mental disorders hitherto understood and treated, if at all, only in their chemical or behavioural phenomena. Such research must or at least may be very valuable. Only a select readership would be in a strong position to decide about that, but then Science, as a peer-reviewed journal, will already have consulted such readers. (Apparently only about 7% of the research submitted is accepted for publication.)

As to what are called the research ‘materials’ for these particular studies, most of the work seems to have exclusively used post-mortem human brains. One project very obviously did not, the title of its report being ‘Spatiotemporal transcriptomic divergence across human and macaque brain development’. But then, as one of the other articles pointed out, “The brain is responsible for cognition, behaviour, and much of what makes us uniquely human”, and how can we appreciate that uniqueness if not by comparing it with examples from the great mass of undistinguished non-human brains? In this case, twenty-six brains from Rhesus macaque monkeys were used for study, at stages of development ranging from 60 days to maturity. No details are provided as to how these brains became available, but the sinister phrase “collected post-mortem” clearly implies that the macaques were killed for the purpose.

Now, Science does take a serious interest from time to time in the ethics of animal research. Last November, for instance, there was a news piece under the heading ‘animal welfare’, which reported as a serious matter “an all-time high” in the number of non-human primates being used in U.S. laboratories: “The uptick – to nearly 76,000 non-human primates in 2017 – appears to reflect growing demand from scientists who believe non-human primates are more useful than other animals, such as mice or dogs, for testing drugs and studying diseases that also strike humans.” The author, a science journalist, indicates the part which the National Institutes of Health takes in funding this research, and he quotes practitioners apparently excited by the trend (“non-human primate facilities . . . are simply struggling to meet demand”) or defending it (“The public wants more cures but fewer animals . . . They can’t have it both ways.”). But he shows that a large part of the public believes that we can have it both ways: a 2018 survey has 52% of the American public opposing animal research altogether. And he also cites opposition both within science (monkey research is just “repeating the mistakes of the past”), and among politicians (“Federal agencies are still not doing enough to curb this appalling practice”.)

I would say that despite the intentional ‘balance’ of this report, the opponents of animal research get the better share of the writer’s sympathy, but the limitations of even this more or less sympathetic foray into ethics are clearly enough indicated by that heading ‘animal welfare’ (no talk of ‘rights’ here). And meanwhile the biomedical research published in Science routinely and without apology makes prodigal use of animals.

Perhaps one can’t expect, or even want, a generalist journal like Science to co-ordinate attitudes and ethics across all its contents. Still, there’s something perverse about a journal which publishes important zoological and conservation research but also accepts elsewhere a view of animals which simply subordinates that same knowledge about them to human advantage. It shows up, for instance, in another recent news report headed ‘U.S. labs clamor for marmosets’. Here we’re told that this species of monkey was apparently unfamiliar to medical researchers until recently (someone says, “They were like, ‘Is it those chipmunks that were in the Rocky Mountains?’“). But now that its zoology is better known, the wretched marmoset’s “small size, fast growth, and sophisticated social life” turn out to be of importance to others than itself: they exactly fit it to “catch the eye of neuroscientists”.

If there is something perverse about this, it’s a very orthodox perversity, one that’s summarized, I suppose, in the absurdly unscientific emphasis of that phrase quoted above: “what makes us uniquely human”. All species are, presumably by definition, in some respects unique: it ought therefore to be enough to say ‘what makes us human’. The marmosets, for instance, are just as unique, but they don’t get to be called unique. No, the word is there to reassure us of our privileged place in nature, monarch of all we survey and study – an object of study ourselves also, of course, but flattered by our own attention. It won’t have been by chance that the phrase was placed in the first sentence of the research article summary.

However, in this same ‘Illuminating the Brain’ issue of Science (and here at last comes the real point of this post) there is one strikingly unorthodox article, with the promising title ‘Reimagining the human’. The premise of it is balefully familiar: “Earth is in the throes of a mass extinction event and climate change upheaval, risking a planetary shift into conditions that will be extremely challenging, if not catastrophic, for complex life.” This indeed is a theme which Science frequently and most valuably airs in its pages, in both research and news articles. But the author of ‘Reimagining the human’, Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, while accepting the usefulness of the sort of “technological and management solutions” usually proposed for these problems, puts the case for a much more ambitious response: she calls it “contracting the human enterprise”.

It’s a startling phrase to find in a journal which is essentially devoted to enlarging the human enterprise, in both its knowledge and its reach, and which to this end publishes research into everything from viability on Mars to genetic manipulation of life on earth (such as that of the marmosets, incidentally). But Dr Crist provides a savage critique of the irrationally arrogant worldview which backs this enterprise. It’s a worldview which, consciously or not, supposes the human “a distinguished entity that is superior to all other life forms and is entitled to use them and the places they live.” It’s a “belief system of superiority and entitlement” which invests humanity “with powers of life and death over all other beings and with the prerogative to control and manage all geographical space”. The whole eco-sphere becomes simply a “container of resources”. True, humans cannot now ignore the vandalous consequences of this outlook, but there’s such a rooted trust in the “special distinction of the human” that we suppose ourselves “resourceful, intelligent, and resilient enough to face any challenges that may come”. In short, it’s in our culture to take things on, intervene, manage, put things right, change the effects and not ourselves; anything less enterprising would be “unworthy of humanity’s stature”.

But changing ourselves, or at least our ways, is exactly what Dr Crist proposes: “The rational response to the present-day ecological emergency would be to pursue actions that will downscale the human factor and contract our presence in the realm of nature . . . withdrawing it from large portions of land and sea.” Some of what she specifies in this direction is already implicit in conservation projects, but she always has in mind the intrinsic rather than merely human-related (‘for the enjoyment of our children and grandchildren’) interest of the things saved. So when she mentions the disappearing phenomenon of migration, she has in mind not just a loss to the world but also “the suffering of the animals involved”. Essentially she invites humanity to re-make itself as just one member of “an all-species commonwealth”, and this demotion is reflected in a nexus of words and phrases spread across the text: “scaling down”, “pulling back”, “reducing”, “shrink”, “less busy” (you heard), “contracting humanity’s scale and scope”. And she concludes, “Learning to inhabit earth with care, grace, and proper measure promises material and spiritual abundance for all.”

Certainly these are large generalizations, and the article is not as persuasive in its few definite proposals as it is in its ethical critique, but then the article is only a summary of a much longer account: Eileen Crist’s recent book Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. And particular judgements and courses of action would anyway arise naturally from the sound premise, just as our present crisis has arisen from an unsound one. The important point is that ‘Reimagining the human’ is not as merely visionary a project as the title makes it sound; at least Dr Crist doesn’t think so. She argues that the supremacist model of the human is an accident of time and place, not an absolute:  it’s “neither culturally nor individually universal, nor is it derived in any straightforward way from human nature.” May this be true!

But whether the human is accordingly as alterable as Dr Crist claims or not, that it urgently needs altering, and in just the direction she proposes, is a certainty. And since science more than any other institution (in the rich countries at least, the ones which largely determine the forms which “the human enterprise” will take) is what now formulates the meaning of ‘human’, and therefore how humans are to behave and survive as a species, we should be very glad to hear this prophetic voice speaking to the scientific world from one of its chief pulpits.


Notes and references:

The issues of Science cited here are 14 December, pp.1242-44 (‘Reimagining the human’), 9 November, p.630 (non-human primate research), and 26 October, pp.383-4 (marmosets), all from 2018. The 52% figure comes from a survey published by the Pew Research Center in August 2018, accessible here:

The AAAS descriptions of Science come from its web-site,

Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization is published by University of Chicago Press (2018).



One thought on “Advice to Scientists: Contract the Human Enterprise

  1. Sharing a poem GATES OF EDEN written recently by English Poet and Philosopher Brian Taylor. An urgent message reflecting a similar premise “Earth is in the throes of a mass extinction event and climate change upheaval, risking a planetary shift into conditions that will be extremely challenging, if not catastrophic, for complex life.” and the need for “Learning to inhabit earth with care, grace, and proper measure promises material and spiritual abundance for all.” – before it is too late ?


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