Review: Biocapital–The Constitution of Postgenomic Life

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Kaushik Sunder Rajan

5 of 5 stars.  Treasure Trove that Ends with USA-India Axis of Good

March 9, 2008

I’ve been struggling with this book, published in 2006, for months. Today I realized I could combine my notes with a handful of key index entries to create a more useful synthesis. I end with ten other books I have reviewed that augment this one.

My first impression of the book was soured by the absence of any mention of green chemistry, ecological economics, or ecology of commerce. I’ve known about citation analysis clusters since 1970, but I grow increasingly frustrated by the fragmentation of knowledge and the constantly growing barriers between schools of thought within political-legal, socio-economic, ideo-cultural, techno-demographic, and natural-geographic.

An important early distinction is between industrial-cost for profit capitalism and commercial speculative capitalism. Toward the end of the book I finally encountered the author’s emphasis on national priorities, and I for one condemn all seeds that do not reproduce naturally. In agriculture, economy, energy, health, my bottom line is that anything that retards the eradication of hunger, poverty, sustainment, or individual and social health gains, is inherent against the laws of God and man.

Early notes include:

+ Information science plays huge role in genomics. I am reminded of the convergence in the 1990′s among cognitive and information science, nano-technology, bio-technology, and earth science. I have a later note, “life sciences becoming information sciences.”

+ Although E. O. Wilson is not cited, the author is on a clear convergence in taking about how valuation is a vital aspect of getting it right. I think of India as IT rich and farm poor–they are allowing the aquifers to drop a meter a year because farmers can sell a tanker-full of water for $4, which is insane, and 2,000 farmers a year commit suicide in the face of drought and debt. Valuation is a critical national function.

+ This work falls within a new category of reading that I have been increasingly impressed by, “ethnographic,” or the study of localities and particularities to map global system that is not generic, homogenized, or blurred..

+ As the author does not cite Paul Hawken or Herman Daly, I draw the distinction between the author’s focus on “natural capitalism” as of the privatization of biocapital and the patenting of gnomes, and the purer definition, of natural capitalism as one that understands the true costs over the lifetime of the materials being used including water (4000 liters of water Bangladesh cannot afford to export in a designer cotton shirt), and that makes the case for going green to create gold.

+ The author views biocapital as a combination of circuits of land, labor, and value; and biopolitics.

+ Life sciences are being “overdetermined” by speculative capitalism. I agree, and apart from India’s symbiotic relationship with the US, I would like to see India develop a special relationship with Cuba and with the global academic community to take patents away from speculators and carpet bagging profiteers with no morality.

+ Technoscience changing laws (I am reminded that Google is now a suprnational entity that no government understands or regulates, something similar is happening in technoscience where Recombinant DNA technology is undermining the future of life.

+ Political economy is an epistemology.

+ Life, labor, & language–biology, political economy, philology central to the knowledge of and management of humanity.

+ VERY IMPORTANT: Game requires playing in FUTURE in order to stimulate and guide present. Visit Earth Intelligence Network to read about Medard Gabel’s EarthGame that for $2M a year can offer this up across the ten threats, twelve policies, and eight challengers, with embedded budgets of all organizations (governments, corporations, international and non-governmental, and charitable foundations).

+ Market valuation buries ethics, defines “allowable” ethics. Author touches, and I really respect this, on the moral value of information. Later on in the book the author cites Michael Fischer on “ethical plateaus.”

+ The author addresses the “social lives” of biological materials and biological information (note: I violently oppose Google’s biomedical information initiative–we may as well become their zombies). In this vein, “ownership” of any of the bio-information constrains seamless sharing, enhancement, and I would add privacy. [Easy answer: CISCO AON on individual recyclable server-routers so individuals control all the information--medical, financial, etc. at their point of creation.] If CISCO will not do this, then India needs to.

+ Useful detailed discussion of conflicts & costs of privatized information versus information as a public good. The author makes case for blurring of lines and avoidance of either/or binary approach. I’ve already solved this: information in the aggregate should be public, while individual instances are private. Simple example: average spare parts costs can be derived from the aggregate while protecting the individual prices paid by any one of the contributors. AON, not Google, is the key.

+ The author emphasizes that the genome data demands robust detailed medical history to be valued. He contrasts India bio-ethics versus US. Sidenote: computational ethics are just as crucial.

+ I like, very much, the India public sector laboratories. I firmly believe that all health and education should be free, a public good similar to public safety.

+ Biocapital is complicated by context, distance, culture, financial, and technical variances among the competing parties.

+ I credit the author with this but I may have drawn it out: if we now see the value of collective intelligence, why are we having so much trouble seeing the value of collective intellectual property (the Creative Commons not-with-standing)?

+ Biopolitics centers of life (citing Foucault), accounting for and taking care of the population at large are central.

+ Political ecologies at all levels, gifting versus indebtedness, unions as a factor. UNIONS as a major factor. Vision fundamental. Direct links among ideology, capital, and locality.

+ Excluded populations (e.g. HIV not eligible…) can cause them to be consumed populations.

This is a deep complicated book hard for the lay reader (which I am), so to do it justice, I am resorting for the first time to a short list of key terms from the index that more represent the content:

belief systems
bioethical issues
biopolitics
biotechnology industry
capitalism, biocapital as new phase
diseases and illnesses
drug development marketplace
economic issues, multiple forms of currency
ethnographic research
genomics bioethics and industry
global market terrains
hype, capitalism
information ownership
intellectual property
life sciences
market value and non-market value
patient-in-waiting
populations, classification of
production issues
promissory biocapitalist futures
public domain issues
research issues
social issues
speed issues
temporality issues
therapeutic development
value access to
vision, commercial value

This is a pretty spectacular book, and someone did a great job across the board in presenting it.

Other books I would recommend:
Ecological Economics: Principles And Applications
The Ecology of Commerce
The Future of Life
Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Third Edition
The leadership of civilization building: Administrative and civilization theory, symbolic dialogue, and citizen skills for the 21st century
How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, Updated Edition
The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
Society’s Breakthrough!: Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People
Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace

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Mar 9

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