Of mice and men

Rethinking scale and relations with humanised mice

by Javier Lezaun, James Martin Lecturer in Science and Technology Governance and Director, Governance, Accountability and Innovation (GAIn)

In her InSIS seminar as part of the STS Issues in Scale series, Gail Davies (University College London) described some of the many ways in which the genetically engineered mouse, central to so much of today’s biomedical research, helps us rethink the scalar relations of scientific productivity. The ‘humanised mouse’ is a widespread instrument of knowledge production and clinical translation in contemporary medicine: by redesigning the genome of laboratory mice, researchers can mimic in the lab certain aspects of human biology and experiment in vivo without the risks and hazards of involving human subjects.

Gail Davies

Gail Davies, UCL

Davies presented materials from three years of fieldwork into the shifting geographies of the genetically engineered mouse, fieldwork that took her around the world as she traced the development and diffusion of purposely designed mouse strains. The mouse, in Davies’s account, is much more than an ‘animal model’ for human disease and immunity. It is – or is expected to become – a scalar device, capable of connecting disparate domains: the animal and the human, the experiment and the clinic, the local and the global, big science and small organism. Davies’s account called into question the seeming smoothness of these translations; she focused on the work involved in creating equivalent relationships between human and mouse, and some of the points at which those equivalencies break down.

The mouse is always in a state of ‘becoming human’ – to cite and reverse, Davies suggested, Deleuze’s formulation – but this is not simply a matter of translating one state into another, of scaling up or down, but rather of operating on complex topologies. The body of the humanised mouse is not the human body writ small; the relevant shifts and transpositions are not only across species, but also across spaces; the animal is not simply a model representation, but also an organism expected to perform the work that only a living organism can. A proper geography of the transgenic mouse, Davies concluded, sheds new light on the practical problems of scale and scalography that characterise scientific and medical research.

About insisoxford

The Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) researches and informs the key processes of social and technological innovation.

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