In Can Science Make Sense of Life?Sheila Jasanoff questions whether the scientific capacity to manipulate life at the molecular level should also give science the authority to define what life is for. Exploring various cases to show how (techno)scientific knowledge embeds and is embedded in our social practices, identities, norms, institutions and ways of speaking, this book is a salient introduction to those new to Jasanoff’s ‘third-wave’ of Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholarship, recommends Anna Nguyen

Can Science Make Sense of Life? Sheila Jasanoff. Polity. 2019.

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On 31 March 2019, at a workshop for the Canadian Network for Science and Democracy in Ottawa, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies (STS) Sheila Jasanoff gave a keynote presentation in which she reflected on co-production as a method and her own expectations when introducing it nearly twenty years ago. Reminding the audience that co-production is not quite a method but is instead an ‘idiom’, she cautioned against using it as an explanation or fully developed theory. Rather, it is a way of thinking and talking about the ways in which the natural and social orders are produced together.

Jasanoff’s newest book, Can Science Make Sense of Life?, is an extension of her scholarship in STS, an interdisciplinary field that came into being through the seminal works of sociologists, philosophers, historians and political theorists, among others. To some, it may seem that STS is a very niche academic field, one that highlights the material instantiations of science and technology in society. Indeed, this is a core concern in the canon, but the emphasis is where materialist STS scholars and Jasanoff and her more humanist peers differ. In elaborating co-production and sociotechnical imaginaries, Jasanoff explicates that (techno)scientific knowledge embeds and is embedded in our social practices, identities, norms, institutions and ways of speaking. Because the technical and the material are already woven in social formations of life, STS scholars need not focus on just the technics, the ontological or the material but the complete sociotechnical picture of how we wish to live in society.

In the prologue, Jasanoff introduces her main objectives by rhetorically gesturing at the title of her new book. ‘What is life?’ and ‘what is life for?’ (9) are the broad moral questions she targets by examining science as a metaphorical tool in ongoing discussions of expertise and legitimation. Specifically, Jasanoff looks at biology and its impact on how we understand life. The foundational biological metaphor represents the human gene as the book of life. The case study of biology and biotechnology reveals how each has deeply impacted constitutional understandings of human subjects and the ways in which we choose to be governed, themes that she explores in the next seven chapters.

The image of Paul Gauguin’s 1897 painting D’où Venons Nous/Que Sommes Nous/Où Allons Nous (Where Do We Come From/What Are We/Where Are We Going) serves to illustrate the recurring questions that Jasanoff introduces in the prologue. Gauguin’s turn-of-the-century masterpiece, as Jasanoff describes, coincided with the revolutionary years of modern biology during the nineteenth century (14). Advances in science, specifically biology, afforded another type of material language that shaped our understanding of life and what it means. Like any kind of specialised language, the language of science gradually became both a descriptive and prescriptive force (15). Jasanoff points out that science does not explicitly claim to completely answer all of the questions she poses; yet, biology and biotechnology are regarded as important forces to make sense of life. Referencing American physicist’s Evelyn Fox Keller’s note on ‘the biological gaze’, Jasanoff empirically discusses how the rhetorical uses of science in society are linked with the privatisation of scientific progress. Metaphors of the coded alphabet of DNA (adenine, thymine, guanine, cytosine) and Vannevar Bush’s’ ‘endless frontier’ become driving forces in the institutionalisation of science (22-24).

Image Credit: (jesse orrico unsplash CCO)

Chapter Two continues this thread into the twentieth century. Jasanoff observes that science has tried to organise and direct life in two ways: how to manipulate it and how to profit from it (37-38). The ability to examine DNA and other small structures and processes became entangled with society’s concerns and desired futures, shifting from the lab to the market. And though we have seen tweets and papers concluding with the claim that ‘science is political’, few academics have attempted to grapple with the continual myth of science as pure and untouched from political and capitalistic forces (38). If ‘bad’ science is invoked, it is because money and politics are characterised as corrupting influences; most of the time, science is largely seen as autonomous and scientists as intelligent and curiously driven enough to self-regulate. Although Jasanoff rarely uses the academic term ‘technoscience’, she subtly gestures to the technological innovations of science as the tools that enable ‘the eureka moment’ (48). This is reminiscent of the fabled ethnography of the materialist scientist obsessed with paperwork and objects on their desk in Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar’s Laboratory Life. Like their constructivist parable, Jasanoff and others tell us that STS should grapple with the political, social and material forces of science studies. Otherwise, we have not yet moved on from the myth of science in modernity.

Chapters Three and Four remind us of Jasanoff’s own academic expertise in law. She describes how the Asilomar meeting in 1975 and the creation of the NIH Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) were instances when law, science and society intersected. The Asilomar meeting was one of the first deliberations on the topic of lab-created biological entities, which raised concerns about who is categorised as human or what counts as a human subject (68) and what the opinions of the public represented. These early regulatory activities did not go unchallenged. In Foundation on Economic Trends v. Heckler, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit concluded that the NIH had not considered environmental impacts before releasing engineered life forms (75-76). Though Jasanoff notes that all three judges on the panel shared similar concerns about the conduct of NIH, this constitutional move did not cause other scientists, or science-minded academics, to reflect upon concerns regarding accountability and the commonwealth. In an essay in a Yale law journal, co-organiser of the Asilomar meeting Maxine Singer made a technocratically-charged suggestion that only scientific judgment should be accounted for in deciding whether research should proceed or be stopped (76). In the same essay, Singer proposed that, to prevent similar lawsuits, lawyers should be required to demonstrate basic knowledge of scientific languages in court and even on LSAT exams (78).

Another case that Jasanoff explores is the story of Henrietta Lacks, most famous for its illustration of racial politics in biomedicine and of constitutional responsibility (86-88). The argument that ‘cells are us’ calls into question how far science can go in using biological materials and how to accept the scientific promises of societal and technological progress. Further, in Chapter Four, Jasanoff turns her attention to recent and ongoing concerns: genetically modified organisms (GMOs), abortion, Roe v. Wade, the 14-day rule and stem cell research. Reiterating a comparative analysis between the US, Britain and Germany, as we saw in Designs on Nature, she notes that the 14-day rule appealed to different national commitments to protecting lives and human values and norms of public reasoning. The most recent case of human genome editing in the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) is just one of the iterations of the ‘what is life’ question, a case that Jasanoff also cites in Chapter Five.

In Chapters Five through Seven, Jasanoff returns her attention to the broader aspects of the role of language in science. Citing Lugwig Wittgenstein’s ‘language games’ and Michel Foucault’s ‘biopower’, Jasanoff reminds us that science has become an origin story that has claimed control over the definition of life (121). The devices of language—models and metaphors—are some ways in which biologists have tried to understand life (173-74). Jasanoff herself only wants readers to ponder how science has come to be significant in questions of life and its meaning. For those who think science has been successful in making sense of life, the Jasanoffian follow-up question is ‘how has it made life meaningful?’ and how has this meaning been shared across many communities? Though rhetorical, there is no clear answer to this question, as Chapter Four’s title, ‘Life in the Gray Zone’, indicates.

For those who have long followed Jasanoff’s scholarship, this book echoes her previous works and her important contributions in STS literature. Building on her reliance on discourse, her final chapter, of course, ends with a humanist reflection. She emphasises that this book is very much about how science should be a communicable exercise not just to a technocratic-minded community or committee, but to all stakeholders. For those new to her ‘third-wave’ of STS scholarship, Jasanoff’s book can serve as a salient introduction to this approach, expressed through recurring aphorisms and parables.


Anna Nguyen is a PhD student at L’institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) in Montreal, Canada. Her research analyses discourses of innovation, novelty and expertise in the context of food literature and scientific food reporting.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

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