Giuseppe Testa

European lives: new vistas across the social sciences and the biomedical humanities

Giuseppe Testa

Laboratory of Stem Cell Epigenetics
Research Unit on Biomedical Humanities
PhD Program in Foundations and Ethics of the Life Sciences
European Institute of Oncology and European School of Molecular Medicine Milan

The Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) cover a wide range of disciplines and cultural traditions that have structured Western thought. In a nutshell, if we were to identify the overarching pursuit shared by the diverse streams of scholarship that make up the SSH, we could summarize it in the goal of telling the human condition as a quintessentially social phenomenon. In turn, the act of telling reminds us of the narrative element, that is not only foundational to the humanities but also alerts us to the importance that the framing of issues (ie. the way in which things end up being told in the public space) plays for the workings of any society.

Here I propose to reflect on these two features of the SSH (the act of telling and the social phenomenon it applies to), focusing on two turns that should hopefully invite also a more productive integration of the SSH with the life sciences. I will refer to them as the interdisciplinary and the normative turn.

But why the life sciences, one may ask to start with? Indeed, for a conference reflecting on the new vistas for the SSH, it is the entire horizon of human inquiry that should stand ahead as the landscape onto which to articulate the challenges and opportunities for SSH scholarship. And there is no doubt that, precisely through the diversity of approaches I have alluded to above, the SSH as a whole can find productive terrains of engagement across the entire spectrum of scientific questions.

I maintain however that the life sciences constitute the field of science vis à vis which it makes particular sense to probe the future directions of SSH and their interdisciplinary import. The reason is that the life sciences are the area of knowledge that is most radically impacting what I would like to refer to as the ‘sources of the self’, echoing Charles Taylor’s appraisal of the foundational elements of the modern identity[1]. Needless to say, a list of these sources could be compiled in several different manners, but the following one captures at any rate some of the most fundamental dichotomies that have come to structure our modern condition: the normal versus pathological self; the present versus future self; the free and/or responsible versus predetermined self; the transparent (and hence public) versus private self; the individual versus collective self; the voting versus consuming self; the lay versus expert self. Even a cursory glimpse at the ambitions of the molecular life sciences suffices to see how each of these more or less entrenched dichotomies is being challenged, reinforced and at any rate affected by their momentous development. Unsurprisingly, what unfolds is thus also a competition, for the apparently same object of inquiry, among not just different disciplines but indeed different systems of thought. Areas of inquiry that have traditionally belonged to the SSH remit are now being increasingly invested with the molecular life sciences’ own epistemology, with results that are at times unsettling, at times reaffirming time honored categories, and at other times truly transgressive and productive in the launch of new interdisciplinary discourses.

In order to illustrate the deep-seated tensions fueling this competition, I find a fairly recent example from a UK Parliamentary debate particularly compelling. In 2008, during a heated debate on the permissibility of creating chimeric embryos for research purposes, one member of the British Parliament declared ‘I don’t believe in my soul that I’m 30 % mouse and 80 % daffodil’[2]. It would be all too easy to dismiss this quote as the sole result of plunging scientific literacy, and hence as something that could be easily remedied through greater scientific literacy, since this would likely miss some of the deeper lines of friction that have been emerging around the life sciences. I would instead like to take what I consider a more productive line of reasoning, since that quote reminded me almost immediately of one of the most famous poems of British literature, and as such one of the towering achievements in that art of telling that defines the humanistic gaze, ‘Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth. In this poem the author recounts his wanderings in an idyllic countryside, and as the poem proceeds the fascination for the flowers progressively grows, ushering eventually into an anthropomorphizing move whereby the poet and the daffodils end up dancing together in an aesthetic conflation that obliterates distinctions. Two hundred years later, instead, when our gaze has become so successfully molecular that we can even measure the percentage of ‘daffodilian genome’ that we have ended up sharing through evolution, the proximity to nature evoked in Wordsworth’s masterpiece seems to have paradoxically vanished, and the distinctions seem to have become all the more visible but apparently also more unsettling. The reasons are manifold, and as we have argued with Helga Nowotny[3], they mostly have to do with the nakedness enabled by the molecular gaze of our age, whereby elements of life (from genomes to cells etc.), once stripped of their context, become increasingly invested not only with agency but with an expanding palimpsest of options for manipulation and trading that turns them almost seamlessly from ‘matters of fact’ into ‘matters of concern’[4]. And yet, precisely insofar as they are increasingly matters of concern, the slices of the human condition that are now illuminated also by the molecular gaze become productive terrains for an interdisciplinary engagement by the SSH. Indeed, it appears from the British MP’s words, that precisely at the time of the genomic and increasingly digital daffodil, the told daffodil is as ever needed in order to align molecular insights with the symbolic and political resources that are foundational for the collectively binding commitments of our polities. This clash of daffodils invites thus a direct confrontation with the scope of interdisciplinarity, which I argue should take the form of an actual turn in the engagement of the SSH with the life sciences, a turn that should hopefully find in Horizon2020 an important opportunity in terms of its creative implementation.

My trust in the ripeness for, and the productivity of an interdisciplinary turn stems from my own experience as a practicing molecular biologist who integrated into his career a parallel training in science and technology studies (STS) and bioethics. This was enabled initially thanks to the pioneering opportunities afforded by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, and the Branco Weiss initiative “Society-in-Science”, and later through the vision of several institutions (from the Berlin Institute of Advanced Studies to the Program on Science, Technology and Society of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government to the European Institute of Oncology) that fostered and nurtured the potential for dual scholarship. Among these the European Institute of Oncology enabled me to co-found, now several years ago, a unique interdisciplinary curriculum that took the form of a PhD Program in Foundations and Ethics of the Life Sciences and of a research unit in Biomedical Humanities. This has been the first example of a thoroughly interdisciplinary PhD, aimed at scholars from both the humanities and the life sciences, that is fully integrated within the research premises of a life sciences institute, and that aims at fostering a new generation of professionals equipped with the cross-disciplinary skills that the prominence of biology in the public sphere calls for. From history and philosophy of biology to bioethics, from STS to health care policy, our students merge advanced training in these SSH disciplines with equally advanced training in molecular biomedicine. And while the degree of hybridity naturally varies as a function of the individual projects and the diverse range of backgrounds (from the minimum of an authentic cross disciplinary fluency to the maximum of actually mastering the tricks of ‘both trades’), it has been truly rewarding to see how productive this explicit strive for hybridity can be, with several students ending up authoring both life sciences and SSH papers. I thus offer my take on the SSH future directions on the basis of this pedagogical innovation and the dual composition of my current research activities, in which the investigation on the forms of life (my laboratory) meets the inquiry into the forms of living (my STS unit). More specifically, in my laboratory we study the interplay between genetics and epigenetics in biological traits, both in the physiological setting (with a focus on the normal acquisition of neural fate) and in its pathological aberrations (focusing on cancer and neurodevelopmental disorders). My STS unit takes a largely co-productive approach to probe the mutual constitution of scientific and social order around three areas of innovation: i) the integration of ‘omic’ technologies into health care policy; ii) the new participatory trends in biomedical knowledge production; and iii) the standardization of biomedical models from bench to bedside.

On the basis of this very successful experiment, I would thus like to suggest that the nurturing of a new generation of truly hybrid scholars, across the life sciences and the SSH, represents one of the most productive ways forward in SSH. Needless to say, this does not amount to dispel the disciplinary autonomies of SSH, quite the opposite. It means taking SSH so seriously, that their methodologies and gazes, including their telling skills, become part and parcel of the background and training of an initially restricted but potentially very influential group of novel scholars endowed with a truly dual competence. Needless to say, in order to accomplish this goal on a larger scale, it is important that the perception of the need for a radical innovation in cross-disciplinary scholarship is met by adequately radical changes in the structure of academic rewards and research evaluation. Horizon 2020 could become the catalyst for such innovations, and in this respect it appears surely like an occasion not to be missed, on either side of the so called ‘two cultures’.

But if the current stage of development in the molecular life sciences offers a ripe terrain of confrontation for the SSH, so does the current phase of political experimentation that is taking shape in the European continent. In fact, while hybridity across the life sciences and SSH is ripe for innovation across the globe – and indeed the SSH comparative toolkit is ideally equipped to probe the irreducibly local and contingent practices through which the sources of the self are being reconfigured – Europe is unique in the scale and depth of the political experimentation it is undergoing. Specifically, Europe appears like a fascinating political experiment precisely because it is redefining citizenship along with a thorough reconfiguration of power between government and governance. In turn this underpins the coexistence and mutual evolution between nation states, local and continental levels of political authority. But Europe, needless to say, is also a key player in the global positioning for leadership in scientific ingenuity and technoscientific innovation. It is thus the unique intertwining of these two features – a space of political and social experimentation that is also a key actor in technoscientifc innovation – that makes Europe a remarkable test case to explore the mutual reconfigurations of knowledge and power in contemporary societies. Indeed, I suggest that we could probe this intertwining systematically through an intellectual program that looked explicitly, and in parallel, at the reconfigurations in the scales of power and the reconfigurations in the scales of life that the molecular gaze brings into relief in the public sphere. On the one hand the rearrangement of power and public accountability between the central levels of EU government, the various intermediate governance layers and the nation states along with the myriad local configurations that they harbor. On the other the rearrangement in scales of life, from neuroimaging scans to the various –omic profiles, from the proliferation of archived specimens to engineered body parts and functions, from human animal chimeras to embryos, from ‘natural’ cells to ‘synthetic’ genomes etc.. It is here, at these junctures of technoscientific and political ingenuity, that we can productively appreciate the emergence, collision and maintenance of both epistemic and normative orders that the idiom of co-production has so eloquently illuminated[5].

This brings me to the second SSH turn I would like to briefly explore, namely the normative one. Among the greatest accomplishments of Sociology of Knowledge and Science and Technology Studies in fact, along with several contributions from the History of Science, is without doubt the deconstruction of knowledge claims and the recasting of epistemology within a socially mindful scrutiny of scientific practice and discourse. The most compelling contributions have extended this scrutiny to the social order as well, advancing a thoroughly symmetric research agenda in which, from an analytical viewpoint, the entrenched dichotomies of ‘natural’ versus ‘social’, or of ‘fact’ versus ‘value’ are treated as arrival points that deserve explanation rather than departure boundaries that constrain inquiry. Much of this intellectually fascinating work has often stopped short however of a normative engagement with the consequences of its deconstruction, as if the analytical task were best left sharply separate from its policy implications. It seems to me however that the time is ripe for a collective rethinking of this often self-imposed limit, and the reason lies precisely in the historical phase we are living in with the unique political experiment that we ought to be contributing to as European citizens and scholars. In other words, precisely because we are witnessing a reconfiguration in forms of life as well as in forms of communal living, and precisely because in Europe the two processes are unfolding on a uniquely synchronous scale, we need to ask how our scholarship, including the SSH scholarship that ‘tells’ the molecular reconfigurations of and within the life sciences, can impact the agenda setting for the construction of political alternatives, in the various instances and on the various topics in which these become salient. Scrutinizing what these instances are, and what political alternatives to develop, is clearly beyond the scope of this brief contribution, and I propose it in fact as one path of the interdisciplinary challenges I have sketched above. I would like however to introduce two theoretical frameworks that can help us reflect on what a normative turn for the SSH could look like, and on which footing it could stand vis a vis the intellectual mandate of its scholars. These are ‘civic epistemology’ and ‘bio-constitutionalism’.  The former was originally introduced to describe  “the institutionalized practices by which members of a given society test and deploy knowledge claims used as a basis for making collective choices”[6]. The latter[7], which I contributed to develop along with several other scholars and that I recently applied to an analysis of stem cell controversies[8], brings into relief the intimate interconnectedness of life and the law, admittedly one of the most squarely normative terrains for SSH scrutiny, as “a link that becomes deeper and also more explicit once life, increasingly probed as text (from genetic programs to cell fates, from epigenetic blueprints to digital profiles), encounters the textual power inherent to constitutions, that of inscribing moral norms into publicly binding words”[9]. By tying epistemology, civic engagement and collectively binding commitments within the same analytical project, I trust that such approaches, especially when applied to the synchronous study of sociopolitical and scientific innovation, will afford new and exciting opportunities for the SSH in the European research area.

[1] C. Taylor, Sources of the Self. The Making of the Modern Identity, 1989, Harvard University Press

[2] S. Hoggart, Daffodils and Red Herrings, The Guardian, 20 May 2008

[3] Nowotny, H., and Testa, G. (2011). Naked genes : reinventing the human in the molecular age (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press).

[4] B. Latour Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam ? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern  Critical Inquiry – Special issue on the Future of Critique. Vol 30 n° 2 pp.25-248

[5] Jasanoff, S. (2004). States of knowledge : the co-production of science and social order (London ; New York, Routledge).

[6] Jasanoff, S. (2005). Designs on nature : science and democracy in Europe and the United States (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press).

[7] Jasanoff, S. (2011). Reframing rights : bioconstitutionalism in the genetic age (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press)

[8] G. Testa  ´More Than Just a Nucleus: Cloning and the Alignment of Scientific and Political Rationalities´ in Sheila Jasanoff (Ed.) ´Reframing Rights: Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age´, 2011 MIT Press, pp. 86-104

[9] G. Testa ‘Democracies of Stemness. Stem Cell Technologies from Generation to Regeneration’ in F. Calegari and C. Waskow (Eds.) ‘Stem Cells. From Basic Research to Therapy’ CRC Press (Taylor and Francis Group), in press, 2014

About the author:

Giuseppe Testa


University of Perugia Medical School, M.D., 1996

Medical Licensing Examination, 1997

European Molecular Biology Laboratory and Open University, Heidelberg (Germany), PhD, 2002

University of Manchester, MA in Health Care Ethics and Law, 2007

Prior Work:

PhD student, European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidelberg

Postdoctoral fellow, Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology, Dresden

Visiting fellow, Program on Science Technology and Society at the Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University

Visiting fellow, Berlin Institute of Advanced Studies, Berlin (Germany)

Distinguished International Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn)

Current Employment:

Principal investigator
Director, Laboratory of Stem Cell Epigenetics

Deputy Group Leader, Research Unit on Biomedical Humanities

Co-founder of the PhD Program in Foundations and Ethics of the Life Sciences
European Institute of Oncology and European School of Molecular Medicine
Milan, Italy

Areas of Research Interest:

Stem cell epigenetics and reprogramming

Cancer biology

Neurodevelopmental disorders

Ethical legal and social aspects of the molecular life sciences

Participatory trends and governance of biomedicine