Dr. James Herrick of the Hope College communication faculty is co-editor of a book that emphasizes the role of language in discussing biotechnological advances and how terminology itself shapes how such developments are perceived.
“Language is almost an invisible concern—people take it for granted,” said Herrick, a specialist in rhetoric, which is a discipline that focuses on how speakers and writers inform and influence others. “But language has a major impact on how we think and act.”
It even happens, Herrick noted, that the advances of science become described in terms that have origins in religion, an important implication when considering capabilities such as genetic manipulation.
“There is going to be a contest over the language we use to talk about biotechnological advancement and human enhancement,” he said. “It’s very common to talk about these biotechnological advances as miracles, for example.”
“After the Genome: A Language for Our Biotechnological Future,” which Herrick co-edited with Dr. Michael Hyde of Wake Forest University, was published in April in the “Studies in Rhetoric and Religion” series of Baylor University Press. It is a collection of a dozen essays by scholars from a variety of disciplines, including ethics, rhetoric, religion and science.
The rapidity with which biotechnological advances are appearing and their potential impact make the topic especially timely, Herrick said. As he and Hyde state in their introduction, “We are beyond the point at which medical science can present itself as a rhetorically neutral method of inquiry, or biotechnology as simply providing a set of therapeutic tools. What foundational ethical principles will guide our uses of miraculous new technologies? How will these technologies affect the theory and practice of medicine? What discourse will we employ to describe ourselves and our technologies? Such questions suggest that an exploration of the language of our biotechnological future is both timely and critically important.”
Two-and-a-half years in the making, the book was released in conjunction with a national conference on the same theme that was co-chaired by Herrick and Hyde and held at Wake Forest on Friday-Saturday, April 12-13. Herrick valued the opportunity that the conference provided for a broad mix of experts to discuss such questions together.
“You had people meeting other professionals they normally wouldn’t run into,” Herrick said. “That was one of the more interesting aspects of the conference—to get these people from different disciplines together.”
The conference involved presentations by a number of luminaries in the medical and bioethics fields, including Dr. Tony Atala of the Wake Forest University Medical School’s Center for Regenerative Medicine; Judge Kenneth Starr, president of Baylor University; President Nathan Hatch of Wake Forest University; Dr. Ezra E.H. Griffith of Yale University Medical School; Dr. Howard Brody, director of Medical Humanities Program at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston; and a number of other nationally and internationally prominent scholars. Herrick made the opening remarks at the conference, and introduced Atala and Starr.
Herrick is the Guy Vander Jagt Professor of Communication at Hope, where he has taught since 1984. His other books include “The History and Theory of Rhetoric,” fifth edition (Prentice Hall, 2012), “Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs” (InterVarsity Press, 2008), “The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition” (IVP Books, 2004) and “The Radical Rhetoric of the English Deists” (University of South Carolina Press, 1997).