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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

History with a big P or a small p? Joanna Bourke & Roger Osborne, 16 August 2012

Genomics Forum blogging team at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012
Blog by Christine Knight 

Joanna Bourke and Roger Osborne’s Book Festival session explored the authors’ complementary histories of the human condition: Bourke’s history of how the boundaries of ‘human-ness’ have been defined since the eighteenth century (What it Means to be Human), and Osborne’s longer-term history of democracy (Of the People, By the People) – political history and Political history, respectively.

Professor Bourke opened proceedings with the tale of finding a letter during her archival research, written in 1872 by ‘An Earnest Englishwoman’ and entitled ‘Are women animals?’. As its author pointed out, women’s legal worth at the time was less than that of animals. In two court cases, men had received sentences of only a few months’ hard labour for murdering or severely assaulting a woman. Yet a man convicted of assault and theft against another man received a seven-year sentence and forty lashes. The letter argued that there was something wrong with a society that could produce such verdicts. Forget suffrage, the letter’s author suggested. Could women be deemed animals in law at the very least, to provide some guarantee of protection?

What it Means to be Human traces the history of who has been considered human historically, en route encountering issues such as animal rights and indeed human rights. In her talk, Bourke identified various bases on which human-ness has been judged over the last 300 years, including speech and language; sentience; the face; and eating practices. She also discussed (most interestingly for the Genomics Forum) recent scientific challenges to defining the human – for instance, xenotransplantation (the transplantation of organs across species boundaries). As Bourke pointed out, it is ‘not a given who is human and who is animal’ – both are socio-historically constructed.

There was a distinct feminist overtone to proceedings: chair Ruth Wishart opened the session saying that being human historically has largely been defined by the phrase ‘I have a penis, therefore I am’. One wouldn’t have to be a particularly radical feminist to agree, but I still felt a little sorry for Roger Osborne following this introduction! Osborne pointed out that our ‘age of democracy’ is a historical anomaly – historically, democracies are both rare and short-lived. More importantly I think, and aligning neatly with Bourke’s social constructivist approach, Osborne noted that our democracies reflect human qualities, both positive and negative – from greed to love.

Questions covered human rights, imperialism, and gene therapy (not all at once!), and also returned to animal-human hybrids. Bourke asked rhetorically whether it would be cannibalism for a person to eat an animal organ regenerated using human stem cells. The more important question, I think, is not whether this would be cannibalism but whether it would be right or wrong – bringing us back to issues of animal rights as well as human ones. But that’s another book festival session – Rethinking Food this Wednesday 22 August, with the Genomics Network’s Dr Neil Stephens.

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