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Genes, Cells and Brains: The Promethean Promises of the New Biology

"On my must-read list!" – Margaret Atwood
Our fates lie in our genes and not in the stars, said James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. But Watson could not have predicted the scale of the industry now dedicated to this new frontier. Since the launch of the multibillion-dollar Human Genome Project, the biosciences have promised miraculous cures and radical new ways of understanding who we are. But where is the new world we were promised?

Now updated with a new afterword, Genes, Cells and Brains asks why the promised cornucopia of health benefits has failed to emerge and reveals the questionable enterprise that has grown out of bioethics. The authors, feminist sociologist Hilary Rose and neuroscientist Steven Rose, examine the establishment of biobanks, the rivalries between public and private gene sequencers, and the rise of stem cell research. The human body is becoming a commodity, and the unfulfilled promises of the science behind this revolution suggest profound failings in genomics itself.


  • “This fascinating, lucid and angry book by the sociologist Hilary Rose and the neurobiologist Steven Rose (they are married) boasts abundant targets and a lethally impressive hit ratio.”
  • “On my must-read list!”
  • Genes, Cells and Brains is an angry book. It is also an important one...contains wonderful descriptions of the science behind the new biology.”
  • “Clear and engaging... a testament to the power of the Roses' writing and their perceptive understanding of the relation between science and society.”
  • “A scathing account of the failure of recent projects in biology to provide significant new knowledge...the Roses provide thought-provoking and interesting contrasts to the secular, neoliberal view that predominates at present.”
  • “While I generally turn down requests for an endorsement of a book, I must make an exception for the superb analysis of a very important topic by Hilary Rose and Steve Rose. Genes, Cells and Brains refutes with authority the extravagant claims that everything that ails us will be cured by modern molecular and cellular biology. They show that despite the self-serving hype produced by both academic and entrepreneurial science, we still do not understand how the brain works nor can we avoid the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to.”
  • “Rose and Rose provide incisive analyses of the successes of the new biology at improving corporate profits while failing to do much to improve human health. This is a valuable therapy for all of us suffering from the inflated promises and huge costs of the new biology, and a splendid resource for reinvigorating the Radical Science Movement in today’s global political economy.”
  • Genes, Cells and Brains offers a complex, compelling picture of the social and political challenges emerging around biotechnological investment, promise and hype.”
  • “I have just started Genes, Cells and Brains and I can hardly put it down. What clarity and insights, what history and up to the minute perceptiveness. And what brilliant and unpretentious writing. I think this is an important book.”
  • “What brilliant and energetic warriors Hilary Rose and Steven Rose have been! Reading this book is to visit the innumerable battlefields on which they have fought over half a century. The battle cries have now softened into gentler irony, but the pace of the writing is superb. Anybody who wants an incisive and radical perspective on the excessive claims made for human genome project, sociobiology, neurosciences, or human discrimination against other humans, should read this book.”
  • “[Hilary Rose and Stephen Rose] unwind the myriad assumptions about technology as the engine of improvement in our lives and offers a powerful argument against the sociopolitical machinery behind these dream disciplines.”
  • “The authors (professors emeriti of sociology and neuroscience at, respectively, Bradford U. and the Open U., England) place contemporary developments in the biotechnosciences of genomics, regenerative medicine, and the neurosciences (the "genes, cells, and brains" of their title) within the context of the global neoliberal economy and culture of the 21st century.”
  • “[Genes, Cells and Brains is] a detailed and acerbic history of 20th-century genetics: its uneasy dance in and out of the arms of eugenics, its stumbles on the envisioned road to decoding and commodifying human nature, and its upstaging—after the Human Genome Project disappointed hopes for disease cures—by neuroscience, which, in turn, has fallen short of its promises to find and fix the psyche in the brain.”


  • Primate Colonies and the Extraction of Value

    A controversial landmark in science studies, Donna Haraway's Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science was first published by Routledge in 1989 and reissued by Verso in 1992. 

    "How," Haraway asks at the book's opening, "are love, power, and science intertwined in the constructions of nature in the late twentieth century?" 

    What may count as nature for late industrial people? What forms does love of nature take in particular historical contexts? For whom and at what cost? In what specific places, out which social and intellectual histories, and with what tools is nature constructed as an object of intellectual and erotic desire? How do the terrible marks of gender and race enable and constrain love and knowledge in particular cultural traditions, including the modern natural sciences? Who may contest for what the body of nature will be? These questions guide my history of the modern sciences and popular cultures emerging from accounts of the bodies and lives of monkeys and apes.

    Taking primatology as a "storytelling craft," Haraway reconstructs the history of studies of primate behavior in the United States through a series of interlinking essays in cultural studies, the history of science, and feminist analysis. In the essay below, from the book's first section — "Monkeys and Monopoly Capitalism: Primatalogy Before World War II" — Haraway locates the discipline's foundation in a larger process of colonial extraction. 

    Detail from Fig 2.2 in Primate Visions: "A Monkey-College to Make Chimpanzees Human," from International Feature Service Inc., 1924. Robert M. Yerkes Papers. Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library. 

    Before the Second World War, non-human primates were already the subject of international western interest, with research stations and conservation areas fostered by France, Belgium, Russia, Germany, and the United States. Literally and figuratively, primate studies were a colonial affair, in which knowledge of the living and dead bodies of monkeys and apes was part of the system of unequal exchange of extractive colonialism. Primate bodies grounded the discourses that rested on a flow of value from the lands where monkeys and apes lived to the lands where they were exhibited and textualized. Nonhuman primates were a fundamental part of the apparatus of colonial medicine. Part of the ideological framework justifying this directed flow of knowledge was the great chain of being structuring western imperial imaginations; apes especially were located in a potent place on that chain.

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  • Why We Are Who We Are - a video debate on epigenetics with Steven Rose for The Institute of Art and Ideas

    Steven Rose, co-author of Genes, Cells and Brains: The Promethean Promises of the New Biology, is joined by philosopher Julian Baggini and leading geneticists Caroline Relton and Adrian Bird to debate whether we are on the edge of a radical new account of life and evolution. 

    The debate centers on the potential of the new science of epigenetics to provide such an alternative account. Are we moving away from the notion that DNA provides the definitive blueprint for life?

    View the full video now:

    The discussion is part of the Philosophy for our Times series, hosted by The Institute of Arts and Ideas, a collection of cutting edge debates and talks from prominent thinkers. You can see all of video content from the Institute here

  • “A strong exposé of the hype surrounding genetics” – Genes, Cells and Brains reviewed in the Guardian, Nature and the New Scientist

    We admittedly live in times plagued by an obsession with genetic manipulation of both ourselves and our species’ evolutionary path. Hilary and Steven Rose’s latest book, Genes, Cells and Brains, has stirred up a debate around the scientific validity and the moral implications of these efforts. Here is what reviewers Steven Poole, from the Guardian, Ian Wilmut, from Nature, and Debora MacKenzie, from the New Scientist had to say:

    Putting aside certain epistemological doubts (as in, how can we be skeptical of neuroscanning experiments for making assertions that we can neither prove nor disprove using any other sort of reference; or, alluding to underlying behavioural characteristics of which we know neither their provenance nor how and where they manifest themselves), Steven Poole generally endorses the book’s motives and claims, which are that the science behind using the human genome and brain scans to understand and interpret humans and their behaviours is much more vague and imprecise than its proponents would like us to think. Additionally, he points out that the ‘medicalization’ which comes as a result is not only vague and imprecise; it is, in fact, dangerous as it provides the pharma-industry and the healthcare business with much more responsibilities and powers than they should be afforded.

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