Diversity and Human Nature: How the capability approach can learn from postgenomic biology
Griffiths, Jack Owen (2016). 'Diversity and Human Nature: How the capability approach can learn from postgenomic biology' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.
Key words: capability approach, diversity, individuality, essentialism, postgenomic biology
This paper addresses philosophical issues related to the theoretical foundations of the capability approach (CA). It attempts to do so, in the inter-disciplinary spirit of the HDCA, by bringing the approach into dialogue with some recent developments in biological theory.
The development ethics of the CA has an explicit emphasis on the individual human being as an embodied, needful, and active living creature, as opposed to, say, simply a passive utility-accumulator, or bearer of abstract rights. This richer picture of the human subject brings with it a reference to the biological that has both advantages and dangers (Wolf 1995).
One particular danger, especially when this emphasis is combined with ethical appeal to an idea of what is ‘essentially’ or ‘truly’ human (e.g. Nussbaum 1992; 1995a; 2000), is that the CA be seen to involve an authoritarian perfectionism about the human good – as something prescribed by a transcendent Nature – which threatens to undermine respect for diversity, plurality, and individuality (for related arguments see Sugden 2006; Wolf 1995).
Such an interpretation of the philosophical significance of ‘biology’ does not sit well alongside the CA’s commitment to individual self-determination, democratic autonomy, and the “basic goal [of addressing] the need for a rich plurality of life activities” (Nussbaum 2006: 346); it suggests a potentially serious conflict within the theory.
But the philosophical import of ‘biology’ is not a given. It is my conjecture that there is a particular way of interpreting its significance which leads to this (undesirable, and largely misguided) assessment of the CA, and that this view is encouraged by certain popular ideas about modern biological science. However, there is much controversy over the legitimacy of these ideas, and alternative perspectives present a different view of biology, one which can help us deal with this apparent tension in the CA. An interdisciplinary dialogue with biology can therefore help prevent misunderstandings, and suggest more appropriate formulations of theoretical ideas in development ethics.
The area of biological theory on which I shall focus in this paper has to do with the interpretation of genetics. The dominant conceptualisation of DNA, until recently largely unchallenged in mainstream scientific theory, and still almost ubiquitous in popular understanding, is that of a ‘code’ or ‘programme’ for the construction of the organism. In relation to human beings, the idea of The Human Genome has encapsulated this notion through the image of a blueprint for the ‘normal’ human individual, an essence given to each of us in common by Nature (or, indeed, by God: in the words of U.S. President Bill Clinton, genetic science enables us to “[learn] the language in which God created life”) (see Rehmann-Sutter 2010; Kay 2000; Keller 1992).
This programme interpretation of genetics encourages us to see ‘biology’ as a realm of prescriptive properness of being, a properness which the actual concrete development of the individual organism can succeed in fulfilling to greater or lesser extents (Oyama 2010; 2009).
From this view the autonomy and creativity of the living individual is trivialised with respect to the direction of his or her own life, and the authorship of significance and meaning within that life. Diversity, plurality, and individuality in human life become in some sense anomalies; either insignificant phenomena existing outside of the realm of the essential, or even positive aberrations of Nature. Seen in this context, the CA’s appeal to the embodied biological subject risks misguided conceptual alignment with authoritarian perfectionism. At best the approach can be made to ‘allow’ for diversity, to accommodate it within the theory as legitimate personal or cultural variation within the limits of the essential; at worst it might be seen as promoting an all-encompassing ideal of the perfect human life.
However, this interpretation of genetics is only one way of providing a conceptual framing of the scientific evidence; it is not made necessary by the evidence itself (Rehmann-Sutter 2006; 2010). Moreover, this view of biology has become less able to cope with biological reality as we have learnt more about the complexity of organic development, in particular to do with the multi-functionality and context-sensitivity of genetic processes (Moss 2003; Dupré 2012), the deep importance of environmental interactivity, even the creative construction of environmental conditions (Lewontin 2000; Laland et al 2001), and the active role of developmental plasticity (West-Eberhard 2003; Moczek 2015). For reasons such as these there is growing support in the biological world for rejection of the programme view. There are a number of ‘postgenomic’ approaches (Stotz & Griffiths 2008) that attempt to go beyond this interpretation of genetics. On a ‘developmental systems’ view, for example, DNA loses its special metaphysical ‘mystique’ (Nelkin & Lindee 1995) by being seen not as a coded representation of particular organic products but as a material developmental resource, one (albeit important) resource among many, in dynamic interaction with which the living organism emerges (Oyama et al 2001; Oyama 2006).
This postgenomic turn provides a view of the biological which does not exclude the active involvement of the organic individual in the creation of its life. Rather, all life is seen as engaged in the shaping of its own unique presence in the world, and as involved in the determination of its realm of significance (Rehmann-Sutter 2006).
From this perspective ‘biology’ is no longer bound to the image of a transcendentally-prescribed proper way of being. By incorporating this insight into their theoretical foundations, development ethics such as the CA can embrace diversity, plurality, and individuality as phenomena that reflect life and its self-creative character, rather than seeing them as anomalies or aberrations that need to be somehow allowed for by the theory.
 Please note that the Griffiths cited here is neither myself nor a relation of mine.