Welcome to the first episode of The Human Factor, a podcast that puts the social in science.
I’m Cheryl Croucher and over the last two decades, I’ve interviewed scientists and innovators from all over Alberta, and across Canada.
That adds up to around two thousand people, all with an incredible amount of knowledge and expertise. These researchers have been Involved in everything from artificial intelligence to oil sands reclamation, from glycomics to metabolomics. That’s a big focus on the technologies.
But what about the humanities and the social sciences? The Human Factorwill explore the impact scientific inquiry has on our daily lives and our decision making.
This seems especially poignant at a time when some people are rejecting science, yet this is when a global pandemic and environmental disasters threaten our way of life, if not our very existence.
Curiosity, the thirst for knowledge, and the willingness to adapt define us as human beings. Our future depends on…The Human Factor.
Freezing Blood Raises Ethical Questions for Scientists
Dr. Joanna Radin
I first met Dr. Joanna Radin on a very hot day in Connecticut. Rather ironic considering Joanna is an expert in the freezing of body parts, in fact, freezing life itself, and what that means for society.
Joanna is an associate professor of History of Medicine at Yale University. She also has affiliations with several other groups there, including a program in History of Science and Medicine, the departments of History, Anthropology, and American Studies, another program called Ethnicity, Race and Migration, and also Religion and Modernity.
She’s a busy academic, mother, and author.
And why was I there in Connecticut? My daughter Zoe was just starting a year long fellowship at Yale, and Joanna was her mentor.
We visited Joanna at her home in Branford. The house overlooks the Thimble Islands and beyond that, Long Island Sound.
Outside, there’s a fabulous secret garden with old stone paths. And a train right-of-way. You’ll hear the Amtrak commuter trains whizzing by in the background during the interview.
Dr Joanna Radin calls herself an historian of biomedical futures. I mentioned she’s also an author.
Her first book “Life on Ice: A History of New Uses for Cold Blood,” was published in 2017. This was followed by a second book titled “Cryopolitics: Frozen Life in a Melting World”.
Cheryl Croucher (CC) interviews Dr. Joanna Radin (JR)
CC: LETS TALK FIRST OF ALL, JOANNA, ABOUT THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND MEDICINE. WHAT IS THAT?
JR: That’s a great question. So when people ask me that, I often answer that the history of science and medicine is for people that want to know how do we know what we know, and why did we want to know it.
So if you frame the history of science and medicine like that, it creates a lot of possibilities for thinking about what knowledge is, what counts as expertise, who gets to have authority over the truth, what does it mean to be a reliable knower?
So I tend to think about history of science and medicine broadly like that, as opposed to discipline specific, or thinking about telling stories about great discoveries or inventors. Because I think having a broader approach allows us to find out things that we wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
CC: SO WITHIN THAT, WOULD THAT ALSO INCLUDE A LOOK AT THE SOCIOLOGY OR THE ECONOMICS, THAT SORT OF THING?
JR: Yes. So, especially for me and the way that I was trained, I took my PhD from a program that was called History and Sociology of Science. I also spent time thinking about Anthropology of Science. And what the conceit there is, is that you can take science and look at is as a cultural system the same way you could look at it as any kind of community or social organization.
Which isn’t to say that science isn’t real, or that there isn’t truth there, but that in order to understand how those truths come into view and are able to be known, we have to understand something about the kinds of people that are asking the questions. What did they want to know? What kinds of instruments did they use? How did they build those instruments? Where did they decide to do their research and their field work? And absolutely, the economics as well.
I spent a lot of time thinking about especially in the realm of the life sciences, what happens when the body becomes something that can be turned into parts, that can be bought and sold, say like sperm or blood or other kinds of components?
So yes, that’s absolutely included in the history of science and medicine as I practice and teach it.
CC: WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO THIS AREA?
JR: Well, truth be told, I didn’t actually know that this was an area that existed until I finished my undergraduate degree. I studied science communication as an undergrad because I was always interested in how people with expertise shared that with people who didn’t have expertise.
In particular, how do say politicians make decisions about complicated issues about environment and medicine if they haven’t studied those things themselves?
And so I worked for awhile as a risk communications specialist, trying to help figure out how to share messages about science, medicine and technology. And I did that for both public health and medical clients. So things like the United States Centre for Disease Control but also for environmental clients like the Environmental Protection Agency.
And it was working as a practitioner, I started to realize I had so many questions that I didn’t know how to answer. I started to poke around and talk to some mentors that I had had, because I wanted to know more. I thought actually, being honest, maybe I could get an advanced degree and have my own company and do this work better.
And so, one of my mentors who had taken his degree in History of Science and Medicine said, you know, this might be a place to be able to ask those questions, not just about the content of the science, but why this big sort of systems came into being and how they work.
And so I went back to grad school and promptly fell in love with ideas and kind of shelved the idea of having my own company and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. And it wound up being much more interesting even than I could have expected when I started.
CC: IT WOULD BE INTERESTING SINCE YOU DO HAVE A BACKGROUND IN THE ENVIRONMENTAL ASPECT OF THINGS, ENVIRONMENTAL COMMUNICATION, TO LOOK BACK SAY 50 YEARS FROM NOW AND TAKE THIS WHOLE ISSUE OF CLIMATE CHANGE AND PUT IT THROUGH THE WHOLE SYSTEM THAT YOU USE, THE PROCESS OF TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF THIS PARTICULAR ISSUE?
JR: Yes. I think, you know, there are a lot of people in my profession who are doing just that. They are looking backwards, they are looking back to the 1950’s, say, to understand choices that were made, priorities, values that were made to make sense of how we even come know climate. And understand what climate means in order to make arguments about changes in the environment.
We in the business of history are reluctant to make predictions about the future. But part of my own research agenda has been looking in the past about how people make claims about the future. So what do people think, so what have people thought is going to happen? And why?
And what I can say, too, is that in many ways the concerns that many people have today about the planet, about humans’ impact on the planet are not new. But they are ad-mixed with questions about politics, about economics, in ways that make them seem as though they have just arrived.
And I think that’s an area where history can be very powerful, not just to show us that things aren’t new, but to also show how people have made efforts in different cultures and different ways in the past to understand their relationship to the places that sustain them and where they live.
CC: YOU HAVE AN INTEREST IN CRYOGENICS. COULD YOU DEFINE CRYOGENICS FOR ME?
JR: Yes, so specifically, I have researched the history and practice of what’s called cryobiology, which has been defined as “the science of frosty life”.
So basically what I’m interested in is how ultra-low temperatures have been used to ask questions about the continuity of living processes. Can you stop and start life at will? And also, what kinds of practical implications does that have?
So, once you can freeze something that would otherwise decay, you can move it in space and time in radically different ways.
So this history of cryobiology, I’ll restrict it there, because cryogenics can also include like super low temperatures that are used to help cool bombs and things like that. But I’m going to bracket that and talk about how low temperatures affect “living systems”. Quote, unquote living systems.
So these kinds of abilities to use low temperatures actually start with the brewing industry in Germany.
So you have brewers who realize that if they can in the 19th century harness the new science of thermodynamics and actually apply these insights, then they can improve their brewing processes.
So you get these sort of scientist-engineers who are doing work there, and related you start to see these techniques applied to the meat trade, the global meat trade. So you don’t have to necessarily rely anymore on a lamb being born in the spring in order to have access to lamb.
One of my colleagues Rebecca Woods who teaches at Toronto has done some really fascinating work on the global market for meat and the role of low temperature there. And there’s wonderful quote where people who are advocating the system say, “now the seasons shall shake hands.”
So what I look at is more of the innovations that start to happen after the Second World War, when liquid nitrogen which allows freezing at ultra, ultra low temperatures, becomes widely available. And meat and breeding actually comes up again.
So some of the first people who are figuring out how to freeze forms of life for various uses are working in cattle breeding. And they realize it’s a lot easier to freeze a vial of sperm and move it around than it is to truck a big bull from herd to herd. So they are making incredible investments in trying to figure out how to freeze these materials.
And from there, other kinds of actors and organizations including people that are trying figure out how to store blood, how to store human sperm and eggs, how to store all kinds of tissues and bits of bodies are contacting the cattle breeders.
So the reason that I got interested in looking at the ability to freeze things, especially after the Second World War, is that I was working to try to understand research on human biological variation. I was interested in anthropologists and epidemiologists and human biologists who were concerned about changes that were happening on the planet, in particular about the impacts of urbanization, ionizing radiation, and decided that they needed to intensify the study of indigenous peoples who they believed were destined for extinction.
Now this wasn’t necessarily new. Since time immemorial or since the beginning of anthropology, anthropologists have seen indigenous people as perpetually disappearing. But what was new in this period after the Second World War was the ability to use new molecular techniques to study the blood.
So DNA, the structure of DNA, was discovered in 1954, although no one was necessarily talking about that, but looking at blood groups and different kinds of proteins and structures.
And these scientists said, huh, well, if we could collect blood samples from these people who we believe will no longer exist 10, 20 years hence, then we’ll have created this kind of archive that will help us. They weren’t necessarily interested in using this knowledge to help the people they that were studying because they had already decided that they were going to disappear.
And so when I went into the archives to look at how these scientists were justifying their activities and how they came to the idea that this was something that they wanted to know, right, thinking about what is history of science, I wanted to know how they went about knowing it, I was stunned to find in their field notes and their reports an obsession with this new technology of freezing. in particular liquid nitrogen, but also dry ice. And they said this is fantastic. We can use this technology to preserve this blood, even if we don’t know what we’re going to ask of it now, but eventually, through the progress of science, we will be able to thaw it in the future.
So they were very future oriented. And their view of the future was, as you might imagine, was profoundly different than Indigenous people’s view of the future, although they didn’t ask them what their view of the future was.
And so I said to myself, this is very interesting how much they are talking about this freezing technology as going to solve their problem. I’ll go to the library and I’ll get the best book on scientific freezing, you know, freezing life, and then I’ll footnote it and then I’ll have that history. But it didn’t exist. So I had to write it.
And it was there that I discovered that these anthropologists in order to use the technology of liquid nitrogen had to write to the people who were already expert, and that was cattle breeders. So they were writing to these cattle breeders in Wisconsin and saying, I understand that you have the equipment necessary to help us.
And so that led me to research the cattle breeders and how they came to be expert in using liquid nitrogen and other kinds of freezing technology. And that had to do with their desire to make it easier to standardize their herd so they could have a consistent product.
And I thought, wow, that’s kind of interesting. So you have one set of experts that are interested in using freezers to collect and preserve human variation. And then you’ve got another set of experts who are interested in using freezing to reduce variation. So that’s a really interesting property of a technology that can be used towards very different kinds of ends.
And so then when I went to the cattle breeders, I had to figure out how did they figure out how to do this. And then that led me to all places to a Catholic priest named Basile Luyet, who had come Switzerland to America and is widely considered to be I guess the literal and figurative father of cryobiology. And he wound up working for the cattle breeders but also had helped to develop an improved system of blood banking after the Second World War.
So here I had this whole fascinating tableau of people that had to come together, well, didn’t have to, but did come together to create these technologies of freezing life.
Now the next question that people often ask is, what about freezing whole humans, which is known as cryonics.
So these actors are also in the mix in the 1960’s. In the Sixties, anything is possible with this technology. And it’s not clear that cryonics is any more fantastic an idea than freezing sperm for the future, or eggs for that matter. It’s all part of the suite of possibilities.
But gradually some of the cryobiologists start to say, I don’t know. This kind of makes me uncomfortable. Maybe we should not have cryonics be part of our Society for Cryobiology. And there started to be efforts to push cryonics out as a kind of pseudo-science.
But it never really goes away. And what has been interesting for me to track is that every year, I’ve been working on this for over a decade, cryonics is in the news a little bit more, a little bit more. Because now people say, oh, our bodies are going to be uploaded to the cloud and the singularity. And the way we’re going to get there is we’re going to freeze ourselves. We’ll freeze our bodies until it’s time.
Another colleague of mine, Abou Farman, calls it a form of secular immortality. We have to preserve our body until the Rapture, at which point our minds can be uploaded. And freezing seems to be the way to do that.
So this perpetual idea, when confronted with death, when confronted with disappearance, to use freezing as a means of resisting death, resisting decay, to kind of freeze time, which it cannot do. You can freeze life, but you cannot freeze time, because time marches on.
CC: I TAKE IT THAT SINCE YOU COULDN’T FIND THE BOOK IN THE LIBRARY, ALL OF THIS RESEARCH ENDED UP IN A BOOK. WHAT IS THE NAME OF YOUR BOOK?
JR: The name of the book is “Life on Ice: A History of New Uses for Cold Blood”.
And in the book, I talk about all of these stories and I also trace the story up to the present where these blood samples, frozen blood samples from Indigenous peoples, are being thawed for a variety of purposes and are also encountering controversy from Indigenous peoples who have not disappeared and in fact, have strengthened claims to how they want to think about their relationship to science and to their bodies.
So what I have been really fascinated to find is that it’s not so much that this is science vs religion or science and anti-science. It’s about what’s at stake is what counts as good science. What counts as knowledge that serves people whose bodies are being asked to serve as a substrate of science.
And so, what I find remarkable, and tragic, is that the scientists who were so intent on imagining a future in the Fifties and Sixties could not stretch their imagination far enough to imagine a world where Indigenous peoples were thriving, and an important aspect of thinking about , what it means to make knowledge.
So they have been continually surprised to encounter controversy or people who say, you know what, enough. You’ve had decades to use our blood. You still have these conditions or we haven’t benefitted. We want it back.
And increasingly, several cases, high profile cases, blood has been repatriated.
In other instances, these forms of resistance or refusal have helped to generate or begin to generate new kinds of ethical engagement and new ways of thinking about what does it mean to preserve the body. What does it mean to imagine questions of life and death. Moreover, one of my colleagues, Kim Tallbear, who has thought with me about questions of freezing has pointed out that the whole project of cryonics actually breaks down a life-not life binary and opens up the possibility for radically different kinds of ways of understanding relation and connection.
For example, one of the stories that came out of my research which I think is quite interesting is I went to a lab where they maintain the massive collection of frozen Indigenous blood samples and they were discovering that not only was there human DNA in these blood samples, but there was a wide range of microbial DNA, including DNA from malaria. Including DNA from malaria before it had evolved resistance to anti-malarial drugs, because it was collected before then.
So this is a kind of fascinating way of reimagining the human as a kind of cosmos unto itself, its own environment, that has so many different forms of life in it. And it offers a chance to think, well, the forms of malaria eradication that we pursued that were so focused on technology without taking into account society didn’t work. Let’s think differently about how we might use this knowledge.
The mere presence of this old malaria doesn’t determine anything but it invites us to recognize where we started that if you think about science as a social activity as something done by people working towards certain goals, there’s enormous untapped potential for innovation, for working together and re-establishing the kind of world that we want to live in and what counts as a solution to a problem.
Often my students, especially my undergrads, are so focused on coming up with a solution to a global health challenge that they haven’t stopped to ask if it’s the right problem in the first place.
And so that for me was one of the major, major takeaways. And it definitely left me thinking about freezing, this thing that seems to be so resistant to analysis or cold and off-putting, I found this remarkable amount of life and liveliness.
So I guess you could say I got hooked.
CC: WELL YOU ALSO ALLUDED TO THE POLITICS INVOLVED. AND YOU HAVE WRITTEN A BOOK ON CRYOPOLITICS. TELL ME A BIT ABOUT THAT, PLEASE.
JR: Yes. So the cryopolitics volume is an edited volume that features a number of the other scholars that I’ve mentioned as we’ve been talking. And that grew out of the fact that my book was dealing with a relatively particular case study, of blood.
But through my research I started to see that freezing was everywhere. Freezing and anxieties about ice melting or thinking about perpetuating life or questions of reproduction, freezing was there.
And it was remarkable to me that this sort of thermal concern was so present but had been so ignored, perhaps because it seemed like static and like maybe something wasn’t going on there.
So my colleague and collaborator Emma Kowal who is a medical anthropologist and physician in Australia decided to try to really think about what it would mean to take these questions of low temperature seriously on a broader scope. Was there something more than just this kind of case study that I had done?
And we started thinking about ideas of biopolitics which is the way a lot of scholars in the university come around to understanding questions of who gets to live and who gets to die in a society.
And so one of the important thinkers of biopolitics is a French philosopher and historian named Michel Foucault and in his definition, biopolitics was about making live and letting die in a society.
And we started thinking about how cryopolitics and low temperature were changing that. And we realized that crypolitics allowed us to look at places, identify places, where people were made to live and not allowed to die. Not just people, but endangered species and animals, all kinds of things, even glaciers.
Which isn’t to say that we think melting glaciers are necessarily good, but to understand the impetus when confronted with uncertainty and change was to freeze.
And what we got interested in as well was the politics of deferral, right.
So I saw this in my book and I see it across these domains. This idea that somehow the future will provide the solution. If we could kind of just press pause on life now and all its complexities, we can buy time, right, to figure things out.
One of the examples that people talk about is umbilical cord blood. So when a baby is born, in the last 20 years, you can freeze the umbilical cord. And often times parents refer to it as a kind of biological insurance. The idea being they hope they don’t have to harvest stem cells, it can be grown to substitute for a bone marrow transplant. But just in case.
So you think about all these bits of bodies that are just waiting around for some future,
Maybe one of the most dramatic examples that we see in the news are seed banks, right. The doomsday Svalbard Seed Bank the idea that one day we will have this global apocalypse and we will have the seeds to replant and start again.
And so we are not trying to put a value judgement on whether or not these things are good or bad but to recognize them as a broad global strategy for dealing with the challenges of the present. And to ask, by paying attention to that use of technology to address social, environmental problems, what are we missing and what opportunities might be there that we might not be recognizing.
CC: WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU JOANNA?
JR: That’s a great question. So I don’t think I’m ever going to be fully be freed of freezing blood or freezing.
But also in the work that I’ve done as a kind of white settler, I’ve been really impacted by Indigenous studies and thinking about what kinds of potentials there are for promoting attention to science, medicine and technology amongst scholars who are coming up in Indigenous studies. So I’m really interested in the enduring kind of nexus of science, settler colonialism, and Indigeneity. And so not all of that work is for me to do, but I’m really interested in helping to hold open a space for that.
But, on the other hand, I’m working on something that continues my interest in the future and like future making, but in a very different vein.
So one of the people who was hanging out with my scientists in the Sixties and Seventies at Harvard where a lot of them trained was a guy who trained as an anthropologist, went on to get an MD in medicine, but who we know better as the author of books like “Jurassic Park”.
So I’m writing about Michael Crichton, the science fiction author. And I’m really interested in trying to understand how his work and his way of blurring science fact and science fiction has contributed to shaping how we think about science, how we think about what counts as truth in our current age of fake news and disinformation. Looking at Crichton’s work, his fiction writing and also his non-fiction writing, I think provides us with some really powerful ways of understanding what it means to do science and be a knower.
The work that I had done was very specific and in some ways esoteric, but I’m interested in taking some of those core concerns and trying to look at them through someone who is much more well known in the popular sphere, but who comes out of a similar place, to try to share some of my views and ideas about why history of science and medicine is worth knowing.
And we’ll see. We’ll see what happens. Stay tuned.
CC: THANK YOU VERY MUCH, JOANNA.
JR: You’re very welcome. It was great to talk with you.
Dr Joanna Radin is an Associate Professor of History of Medicine at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Her books “Life on Ice” and “Cryopolitics” are available through Amazon.