Review by Niclas Hundahl
If we are to develop a new theory of embodiment, we must think of the human as a biocultural entity. That is, a being always both affected by our habitat as well as our biological body. For anybody sceptical of this idea, just imagine going about without breathing the oxygen in the air all around you. A mundane activity, but nonetheless one that is central to our continued existence, we rely on our environment and changes in response to it. This is the idea at the core of Samantha Frost’s Biocultural Creatures: Toward a New Theory of the Human (Duke University Press, 2016), that even our atoms aren’t free from outside influences.
Samantha Frost is Associate Professor of Political Science and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois. Her doctoral dissertation considered the materialist dimensions of John Hobbes’s philosophy and theory of politics. In her dissertation Frost asked what would happen if we were to read Hobbes’s account of the human as wholly embodied, rather than split between body and soul, and what sort of political ontologies would appear. After finishing her dissertation, and later publishing it, Frost wished to “continue to think about how a materialist understanding of the self might reshape our understanding of politics – and […] to do such thinking in a contemporary vein…” (22). So she began taking courses in biology, chemistry and related subjects, to familiarise herself with the material building blocks that constructs the human. Biocultural Creatures is a result this thinking.
Biocultural Creatures is structured as a journey from the inside out, with each chapter concerning itself with a central biological aspect of human embodiment. Working her way through carbon, membranes, proteins, oxygen and time, Frost works through the basic terminology and concepts of molecular biology and shows how even at the atomic level, we respond to outside influences. That is not to say that we are completely at the mercy of our surroundings, but rather that we evolve in conversation with our environment, rather than being dictated by it.
Frost has two important goals in Biocultural Creatures. The first is showing that there is no part of the human, or any living organism for that matter, that: “persists of its own accord rather than through its interaction, interrelation and transformation with other substances, creatures and organisms” (148). By doing so, Frost can overturn the notion that the human can be considered as a self-containing being. The second goal, related to the first, is to dispel the idea that there are any genes in our body that can be considered überbiological — that is independent of outside influences, existing unchanged through generations. Despite general acceptance of the idea that human biology responds to outside influences, there have been certain genes considered above outside influences.
Frosts’ rejection of the idea of anything überbiological relates to what she calls “Biocultural Responses through Intergenerational Time” which can be explained as follows: “when a gestating creature responds to its environment, its responses shapes offspring development and is also registered in the germ cells developing in that offspring” (134, emphasis mine). Basically this means that when a body responds to its environment, this response is registered both in its own genetic material, but also that of its children and its grandchildren. But at the same time, when that same body responds to its environment, that response is also shaped by how experiences from its parents and grandparents. Our body is thus always in conversation, both with our environment as well as our genetic inheritance, and this conversation in turn affects our body as well as that of generations to come. Any notion of the body containing anything überbiological seem misguided in this relation for as Frost sums up: “An organism can be seen as a literal corporealization of a conjunction between its transgenerational carried history and the environment within which it currently lives.” (123)
Biocultural Creatures provides an excellent introduction to how the human can be understood in biological terms, without becoming inaccessible in its terminology. For anybody having an interest in posthumanism, medicinal humanities or materialism in general, Biocultural Creatures is a great supplement, because it provides a view from contemporary biology that will greatly improve our understanding of embodiment in general.
Niclas N. Hundahl is an independent researcher, trying to make sense of the human in a world of technology, nature and fiction.