The Body Politic

A Kirkus Reviews Best Book

A Scientific American Book Club Selection

About the book

We have now entered what has been called the “biological century” and with it, a new biopolitics has emerged to address the implications for America’s collective value system, our wellbeing, and ultimately, our future. The Body Politic is the first book to recognize and assess this new force in our political landscape—one that fuels today’s culture wars and one that politicians of all stripes have begun to see as a new way to organize their platforms. As Moreno clearly explains the most contentious issues, he also offers an engaging history of the intersection between science and democracy in American life, a reasoned analysis of how different political ideologies view scientific controversies, and a vision for how the new biopolitics can help shape the future quality of our lives.


“Jonathan Moreno contiues to be the quietly most interesting bioethicist of our time….[t]he most penetrating characterization and analysis of the shrill political battles fought over the use of our new biotechnologies (and the battles to come).”  American Journal of Bioethics

“Regardless of who ends up occupying the White House in January 2013, one hopes that a few hours will have been set aside on the campaign trail to engage with this important book.” –Times Higher Education Supplement

“Moreno pulls apart the debates on eugenics, abortion, end-of-life decisions, embryonic stem-cell research, reproductive cloning, chimeras and synthetic biology, among others, carefully reassembling what’s at stake for each side. In graceful, sparkling prose, he illuminates intricate threads of history and complex philosophical arguments. . . . Highly recommended for anyone interested in the[se] vital issues.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Moreno shows how biological discoveries aggravate cultural tensions, challenge our political system and values, and stimulate debate about the place of science and scientists in America. . . . Sophisticated, useful, and well-written.” —Library Journal

“The United States itself provides a model for how allowing scientists to explore and test new ideas can result in benefits for all, says Moreno. The country is an enormous social experiment that evolves by learning from the evidence of what works, and operates through fundamental values such as openness to new ideas. The challenge is to maintain this human side of science when the research, to many people, seems to be a threat to what is essentially human.” — Nature

“An impassioned defense of scientific study . . . an essential dose of logic.” —Salon

“An engaging history of the intersection between science and democracy in everyday life.”—Book of the Month Club 2 editorial review

“Historians will agree that “progress” is as American as apple pie. What constitutes progress, of course, is always a point of contention. In The Body Politic, Jonathan D. Moreno examines the attitudes Americans hold about modern science’s treatment of the human body. . . . Throughout the discussion, it’s clear he has his thumb on the cultural and historical contexts in which these issues have arisen [and] Moreno explains that people on both sides of the aisle are expressing concern for unrestricted use of bioscience for different reasons . . . an excellent addition to any syllabus.” —ForeWord Reviews

The Body Politic is for grownups. If only more of our contemporary political battles were as careful, as cogent and as well grounded as The Body Politic, I’d be more confident that the unprecedented decisions being forced upon society by revolutionary advances in biology would most wisely and effectively be made.” —Washington Independent Review of Books

Praise for the book

“A must read for anyone who wants to understand science policy today.”
—John Podesta, former White House Chief of Staff and President and CEO of the Center for American Progress

“Since the beginning of our quest to win the Indianapolis 500 our family has believed in the power of technology. The only limits to that technology have been human ones. The Body Politic reminds us that in biology as well as engineering, America will always need that pioneer spirit.”
—Al Unser, Sr., Al Unser, Jr., Bobby Unser, Sr., Indianapolis 500 Champions

“Provides a fascinating, timely exploration of one our era’s most momentous issues, the applications—and misapplications—of biomedical research.”
—John Horgan, author of Rational Mysticism and Director, Center for Science Writings, Stevens Institute of Technology

“Moreno clarifies major points of science-society tension over the last half century and brings a sharp eye to the societal context confronting future advances and their applications.”
—Alan I. Leshner, Ph.D., Executive Publisher, Science

“The Body Politic reminds us that science occurs within a complex context that exerts powerful forces upon scientists, public officials, advocacy groups, and patients. Moreno has written the kind of book that needed to be written, combining detailed research, enlightened analysis, and an important message, all wrapped in accessible text.”
—Eric M. Meslin, Ph.D., Director, Indiana University Center for Bioethics

“A beautiful book.”
—Jay Schulkin, Ph.D., Research Professor, Department of Neuroscience, Georgetown University

“The Body Politic is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of American political thought about science, the dynamics of current controversies such as the stem cell debate, and the battle between those who see science as the route to a better future and those who see within the science the potential for a loss of our sense of human distinctiveness and dignity.”
—Paul Wolpe, Ph.D., Director, Center for Ethics, Emory University

Press and Interviews

Interview with

“The Republican War on Science is Un-American,”, October 15, 2011.

Interview with

“A Conversation with Jonathan D. Moreno,”, October 7, 2011.

Introduction and Interview with The Journal of Theoretical and Applied Ethics

Introduction to The Body Politic,” and Interview, Journal of Theoretical and Applied Ethics 1:13-22, 2011.

A conversation with Jonathan D. Moreno from Bellevue Literary Press

Q: What is “biopolitics?”

A: Biopolitics is the way that the new biology like genetics and stem cells has become part of our political life. The old biology was mainly observational, but the new biology actually reveals and can change basic life processes. So there’s a lot of power associated with that, both actual and symbolic.

Q: Throughout the book, you use the terms “bioconservatives” and “bioprogressives” to describe the new—and sometimes surprising—alliances that have formed under these banners. You also make the point that people are increasingly organizing themselves around biopolitical issues—from quality of life concerns to “disease group” advocacy. Can you describe these new alliances and advocacy groups? Are we experiencing a seismic shift in the political landscape?

A: The stem cell debate was the signal that the power of the new biology had truly become part of our politics. And as you suggest, new kinds of alliances are forming around advocating for attention to specific diseases and even according to particular genetic mutations.

It’s sure made for some strange bedfellows. Some of my friends on the very progressive end of the spectrum seem to reach conclusions about science that sound very much like the neoconservatives. Then there are pro-business conservatives who sound like pro-science progressives. You have to dig around a bit to see that they come from different philosophical bases.

Even traditionally conservative and liberal voters are splitting from their party when it comes to these issues. Some important stem cell research advocates are otherwise very conservative leaders, and some thoughtful liberals are worried about threats to human dignity. Many who oppose abortion wouldn’t think of telling parents using fertility clinics not to use genetic screening for their embryos, but many who oppose anything like eugenics are also pro-choice!

It’s hard to say how big a shift it will be but consider that already people on the right and the left are very concerned about this new biological power and who will control it, who will or won’t benefit from it. We are heading into uncharted territory, but I try to provide a provisional map.

Q: Chimeras have moved from the realm of mythology to the realm of science, where “chimera” is used as a term to describe creatures containing cells from two or more genetically distinct sources. Is our very understanding of what it means to be human changing?

A: Not only our understanding of what it means to be human (since all creatures come from the same basic building blocks), but even where the boundaries of species lie. I don’t have to say much about that to give the sense that we are stepping up to another level of a set of ideas that have rocked society since Darwin.

Q: What else is at stake in this “biological century?”

A: For 40 years bioethics professors have talked about the way that the new biology gives us the opportunity to change ourselves. Given that we are pushing the boundaries of what it is to be human, how far can or should we go? And remember the elements of this discussion are not just biological but also, when we think of nanotechnology, they are mechanical and physical. From an historical standpoint, I think it’s also interesting that 19th-century German philosophers like Nietzsche anticipated these questions and shaped our modern conversation about them.

Q: In a recent editorial for the journal Nature, you describe the United States as “the only country that was founded by a group of scientists under the explicit inspiration of the eighteenth century’s valorization of reason and demonstration in the growth of knowledge. Their vision of a new nation that would be a magnet for inventors and invention was and remains embodied in the patent statute.” Do you think we’re moving away from that vision?

A: The United States has benefitted from what my high school history teacher called “luck and pluck.” Americans have worked hard but we’ve had incredible assets, like the continent itself and its natural resources and largely temperate climate. We’ve also had distance from major competitors and came out on the right side of what was essentially one long world war. Barring some major catastrophe we won’t have all those advantages in the 21st century. Take all that and the fact that the new biology bumps up against some traditional values and, yes, I think we’ve got some tough challenges ahead.

Q: How does the biopolitical landscape in the U.S. differ from other parts of our world?

A: We are much more oriented to self-determination and autonomy than most of the rest of the world. That means that we are more likely the push the technological envelope, especially in terms of personal choice, and deal with the consequences reactively.

Q: What do you think about the state of science education today? Is a stronger science curriculum necessary for an informed electorate?

A: Education is of course vital but I don’t think our biopolitical debates can be reduced to a lack of understanding of science. I’ve met many home-schooled, culturally conservative college students and they do just fine in science but they have traditional values.

Q: You’ve been involved in the bioethics field for over 30 years—and in this book you eloquently address how ethicists, instead of being above the political fray, are often exactly those whose views are most needed. How do you balance your advocacy work with the study and teaching of ethics?

A: That’s a constant challenge for me. My first rule is that I leave my personal views at the classroom door. My second is to maintain frequent and friendly contact with those with whom I have some disagreements. One of the reasons I wrote this book was to step back from the advocacy world and apply my academic lens to my experience, and to give full voice to those on various sides so I could see more clearly what had been happening around me in the past decade.

Q: Did anything you discovered in your research for this book surprise you or make you question any of your own assumptions?

A: The most important thing I’ve learned is that people like me who consider themselves science progressives must take seriously the point that conversations about the goals of science cannot be waved aside.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from this book?

A: The idea of progress in itself, which Americans especially love so much, makes no sense in the abstract. It must be part of a meaningful, inspiring narrative.

Q: In The Body Politic you reach back into history to describe society’s changing attitudes toward science and scientific innovation. You quote philosophers, playwrights, and poets, and make references to Greek mythology and Avatar. Clearly your interests range beyond science and politics, so I have to ask . . . what’s on your to-be-read pile?

A: Well, since I travel so much I gave in and bought an e-reader a few months ago. So on my e-reader I have just finished Gotham, an extremely engaging history of New York City. I’m also rereading Tom Paine’s Common Sense. And I’m working my way through the French socialist political philosopher Raymond Aron’s essays, which remind me how very smart and deeply informed people can be so wrong in their predictions! On my nightstand I have Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which is incredibly moving, and a brilliant history of American conservatism by Donald Critchlow. And I have to reveal my shortcomings as a reader: All the novels are on my wife’s side.

Book clubs

Scientific American

Book of the Month Club 2

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