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Getting a feeling for the organism
An interview with Deboleena Roy, author of Molecular Feminisms: Biology, Becomings, and Life in the Lab.
^ A Feeling for the Organism, in print, with gorgeous illustrations by Debora Cheyenne.
Last week, Grow magazine, where I write a sporadic column about computation and biology, launched its third print issue, on Equity. For the occasion, I wrote a long essay challenging how biology can and should encounter nonhuman organisms in the lab. I named the piece “A Feeling For the Organism,” a nod to the cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock, whose landmark work in the mid-20th century proved the chromosomal basis of genetics. McClintock spent decades in sustained, monastic observation of maize chromosomes, which gave her a sense of the irreversible entanglement between a scientist and her subject, and ultimately between all living things.
I was turned onto McClintock’s work by a book called Molecular Feminisms, by the interdisciplinary feminist scholar Deboleena Roy. Roy is a professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory College of Arts and Sciences in Atlanta, Georgia, with a dual appointment in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology. Her work challenges the traditional hierarchies of dominance and control in science, exploring the very idea of scientific taxonomy, and the practice, however useful, of drawing hard lines between organisms. There is no great chain of being, she explains; everything alive is interdependent.
I was lucky to get to sit with Roy—via Zoom, of course—to unpack these questions back in May. I found her to be a gentle, radical, iconoclastic thinker, perfectly happy to sit with the rich ambiguities of a life lived between two worlds. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Claire Evans: What influenced your thinking about the nonhuman?
Deboleena Roy: You know when you read something and you're like, "oh, I can anticipate the next sentence because I've been thinking this way all the time?" I had one of those moments when I was reading about Barbara McClintock's research on corn cytogenetics. For decades, she did this work: she would collect the samples from the fields at Cornell, she would bring them back, she'd mash up the kernels. For years and years, she did this to the point where, when she was looking in the microscope, she was among the chromosomes. She was with the chromosomes, and that's how she was able to see jumping genes and transpositions happen. That sense of closeness and belonging and connection has always been the most appealing part of science for me. And molecular biology allows you to make the smallest, most intimate connections. Feminist science studies scholars refer to it as kinship, they refer to it as entanglements. There's also Donna Haraway's idea of modest witnessing, and just kind of being there. That push and pull that comes with having a relation. I think I've been very aware, since my childhood, that I am touched by and influenced by the things around me.
CE: The way Barbara McClintock imagined herself in the microscopic world, she wasn’t just relating with the non-human on a parallel level, she was actually going in and seeing herself on their plane. It’s a step further than coming face-to-face with the nonhuman. It’s actually plunging inside of it.
DR: So much of the project of thinking about the non-human is also related to de-centering, moving the human from that space of authority and hierarchy. But to see yourself in that immanent plane, as one of many things, is a life project. It's not just an ethical orientation, it's an ontological position.
^ Barbara McClintock in the field with her friends, the maize.
CE: I have this pet theory that the Turing Test doesn't test the sentience of Artificial Intelligence, but rather the human interlocutor's capacity to extend personhood to an AI. There were a lot of moments, reading your book, where I felt the same way—you talk about developing an ethics of matter, and I had this feeling that if we're capable of perceiving matter, as, if not alive, then capable of the kinds of becomings that constitute life, then that must say something about us as well. Or it must change us.
DR: I guess my goal is to just take us down a couple of notches. And I think that if we reorient ourselves, if we wake up and realize that we're not the only things that are driving, becoming, and changing, that might change how we ask scientific questions, which questions we ask, what we think we can use as raw material and extract labor from, or who. My work really is kind of a philosophical provocation, right? And it could, for some people, make them pause and think, "what am I doing, killing all these animals every day?" I know we need to do this research. Or in the case of synthetic biology, I know we've created organisms that are supposed to be for some kind of good. And I'm not saying that we don't need to get to that good. But if we do take into those calculations into our building of our scientific experimentation, some of these philosophical, ethical questions, it might get us to think differently, or use a different resource, or include questions that we're not thinking about right now.
CE: A key moment in your book is when you talk about a “moment of pause” you had in the lab when you were a younger scientist, when you realized you felt guilty about killing mouse neuronal cells. How can science even be done if you're feeling empathy for cells?
DR: I think, for a lot of feminists, there has been an orientation to science that has been, rightly, grounded in mistrust. You know: whose bodies, which bodies, which scientific knowledge gets produced? And who is it used against—against women, against people of color? There are all kinds of reasons to not partner with science. When you've been told that anatomy is destiny, and then you're told that your sex or gender makes it so that your destiny is never being able to get into certain places, or be paid equal amounts of money, then anatomy or biology or any science that produces that knowledge is not going to be seen as an ally. It's not going to be inviting for those people who have been kept out of the walls of science. So being able to have the conversations around, "well, I'm not comfortable around killing animals, or I'm not comfortable around killing these cells" has to be part of the scientific endeavor. It doesn't get pushed away to some other realm. “You get to be a scientist only if you can ignore things”—I don't think that's going to invite diversity into science.
CE: That must be a very challenging concept for the traditional scientific establishment, right?
DR: I think that most scientists actually do ask these questions, but there are other motivating factors: "well, if I want to get that grant, or if I want to write this dissertation, I better put all that to the side and just pretend that this is not bugging me." Over the last 20 years, the type of people who reach out to me are exactly the ones who share these questions. And they're reaching out because they've found that there's a community of people who are asking these questions, who are also scientists, who are still doing work in the lab. They're still molecular biologists or they're still thinking about synthetic biology, but they want it to also include this. I don't think there’s a limited amount of creativity and space that goes into the scientific endeavor. We can open that up.
^ Another of Debora Cheyenne’s beautiful illustrations for my piece in Grow magazine.
CE: Probably a lot of scientists experience fleeting moments of self doubt, wondering what it is that they're doing. But probably most of them also swallow it and move on. Whereas you really followed that pause.
DR: And if they can't swallow it and move on, they leave. That's also part of the problem. We don't want some of those people to leave. We want them to be able to stay. And in fact, because they are holding this different view and difficult stance, working through that is going to make for a better science.
CE: I’m working on another piece right now about Sententism, a school of post-humanist thought that expands the moral circle to include any non-human beings that are capable of flourishing or suffering. This is was in the back of my head when I was reading your book. Your arguments outline a scenario that Sentientists might characterize as being a more moral relation to the world. But you don't frame it that way, in moral or ethical terms.
DR: I stay away from morality. I’m influenced by Isabelle Stengers—she's a philosopher. She talks about Morality with that capital M, and this sense of being able to hold the place of God or truth. Sometimes scientists think that they automatically hold that, that they somehow have closer access to that truth. That's not what draws me to science, or what I think is the role of it. Forging these connections or these closer encounters with the non-human is not to suggest that if we do that, everything is going to be all smiles. Those encounters can sometimes kill. I think it's the reckoning of what we deem as "killability," or what is killable. We need to confront that more. I brought this up during a poor undergraduate student's honors defense once: she was trying to say, "we need to attack the virus," using the war language of immunology. I gave her flying colors—it was a great, honest thesis—but I did ask her, "who's to say that humans are the only ones that need to thrive?" Viruses, they might need to thrive too. We have to hold a place for viruses in this world because they're not going to go away. They've been here longer than we have.
CE: That language crept into the ways we talked about COVID, anecdotally—you see a video of some jam-backed bar in Florida where everyone's masks off and it’s like, “oh, COVID loves it, that's COVID's favorite place." We're joking about what the virus wants, what the virus loves.
DR: Of course, I don't want people to die. But if COVID started in bats—well, what if we’d thought about what we’re doing to bats? Or what we’re doing to our forests that the bats now need to migrate? But we don't care about the bats, let alone the viruses that live in the bats.
CE: There are so many different perspectives. Are you looking at it from the point of view of the virus, the bats, or every individual affected? It's an overstimulating perspective, this multiplicity.
DR: We admit there's complexity all the time, but there are certain complexities that we're willing to invest in and know more about, and others that we ignore. That's where a pause could be productive, in the sense that it might give us some other questions. Some other questions might emerge. If we just keep on trying to pump out scientists who do the same thing over and over again, we're going to lose out on those opportunities.
CE: It seems like science is just going to get messier and messier in the coming years. And that's a good thing.
Thanks to a grant from Emory University, Molecular Feminisms is available in an open-access edition—it’s free to read and download here.
What I’m reading this week:
I cracked Dune to revisit the first few pages in anticipation of the movie and slipped into reading it again. I appreciated this description of ecology, from the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit: “A world being the sum of many things—the people, the dirt, the growing things, the moons, the tides, the suns—an unknown sum called nature, a vague summation without any sense of the now.”
The French philosopher Frédérique de Vignemont, a reedy, rare bird who informs her critical analysis with empirical findings from neuroscience research. Her 2018 book, Mind the Body, is an engrossing read about the nature of body ownership—what makes our bodies our own, on a phenomenological level, and what edge cases like somatoparaphrenia, a neurological impairment that causes people to experience their own limbs as strangers, teach us about the boundaries of embodiment. Her thinking has really informed a piece I’m working on about prosthetics and augmentative robotics (coming soon).