Lords of the Flies

The Economization of Life (EoL) begins with its cover – a series of Drosophilain jars. Drosophila melanogaster – the common fruit fly – may be the model organism par excellence. Seeing the book cover, I was transported back to my graduate school days and the sweet smell of the yeasty food that filled the fly room. During one of my lab rotations, I spent hours transferring fruit flies from one jar into another to keep the strains of Drosophila healthy and generative. The task is tedious, and seemingly endless – it turns out that flies reproduce like flies! In graduate biology programs, Drosophilists had it hardest because fly cultures are kept year-round and often in perpetuity. It always amused me that I played a part in the theater of Drosophila sex.

As a model organism, Drosophila has been experimented on for over a hundred years and bred into thousands of strains, giving rise to endless lines of morphological, behavioral and developmental mutants and transgenic flies. Most lab-grown fruit flies and their distant ancestors have never seen the wild. In fact, compared to the laboratory model organism, we know remarkably little about fruit flies in the wild. In contrast, we have a vividly-detailed, often sexually explicit cornucopia of evidence from the laboratory fly. Drosophila are creatures who live their lives in bottles – in the past, glass milk bottles, and now, usually plastic ones. Both the bottle and the fly are a kind of laboratory artifact, endlessly duplicated.

The fruit fly appears benign. And yet, as Michelle Murphy shows us, it is precisely these laboratory artifactual arthropods and their sexual proclivities that have shaped our modern biopolitical fates. Early experiments with Drosophila produced models about population growth that came to be sanctified as the scientific model of reproduction and the epistemological infrastructure of reproductive and population biology – models of life and death, theories of population growth and extinction, and indeed, as Murphy powerfully shows us, life itself. In so doing, these experiments produced concepts that we learn in school, such as “exponential growth curves,” “logistic equations,” and “carrying capacities.” The heart of Murphy’s book is about explaining how these models became enshrined as population “science.”

Far from “neutral,” Murphy argues, the field of population science is a deeply political project fundamentally shaped by gender, race, class, and national citizenship. This argument expands on an observation Murphy makes in a 2013 article, that reproduction is constructed around bodies and “framed by a birth story populated with genitals, sperm, eggs, kinship, family, contraceptives and heteronormative futures that promise alignment with a ‘good life’ of a house, job and affective bonds: 1 plus 1 equals 2.4 children and a dog” (Murphy 2013). The book’s power and potency comes from chronicling just how those dry mathematical models generate a biopolitical infrastructure that Murphy calls “the economization of life.”

In many ways, Science and Technology Studies (STS) is primarily concerned with tracing objects, theories or formulae from conception to their life on the ground. But a singular contribution of EoL is in disrupting this (often) linear story enshrined in our textbooks by showing us that the story is endlessly layered by various actors and always driven by the interests of power. Murphy draws on the work of feminist scholars of color and the concept of reproductive justice to reframe what counts as reproduction, coining the term distributed reproduction: “reproduction occurring beyond bodies within uneven spatial and temporal infrastructures. …some aspects of life are supported while others are abandoned. Infrastructures promote some forms of life, and avert others…Some life survives despite infrastructures” (Murphy 2013). Murphy’s account disrupts the linear story of Malthusian inevitability – the idea that population growth is potentially exponential while the growth of the food supply or other resources is linear – through the book’s many detours and side-stories, often ignored by normative theories and models taught in our classes and in textbooks. It is stories of this uneven terrain that frame the consequences of population logics, and their eugenic scripts. Filled with passion and outrage, EoL often feels deeply visceral, as we see the wide and deep tentacles of the monsters of economization that work to shape life itself.

Murphy’s analysis of the economization of life resonates with some of my new work on the afterlives of colonial botany. As I trace the myriad creatures that have been rendered ghostly to the economic logic of extractive capitalism, I am aghast at the devastation of our world. I am stunned by the legacy of colonial hubris. As they built plantation economies across the world, the colonists reshuffled the world’s biota in a single, massive bio-invasion; and yet, after this rapacious onslaught of the planet, they dare to draw borders and render some life as “other,” as foreign, exotic, and invasive – on land that they usurped, and colonized. This, I have realized, is what a quintessential and disciplinary biological education is all about – the normalization of colonial ideology in the textbooks of population biology and ecology via an abstract set of theories and axioms. This was the case in my biology classes in postcolonial India and in settler colonized United States, alike. The enduring presence of colonial ideology in biological science is the vivid legacy of Malthus, Darwin, Pearl, and the countless scientific hours that chronicle fruit fly sex in the laboratory. Our ethical task, as Murphy reminds us, is to lay out the uneven terrain, to call out the hypocrisy, to name and remember the ghostly dispossessed, the mutilated, the dead and dying.

EoL evoked two difficult questions for me. First, the book’s argument has made me reconsider and think more deeply about “biopolitics” as a term for describing…. In my recent work on science in postcolonial India, I have been repeatedly struck by the insufficiency of “biopolitics” as a concept rooted in a Western vocabulary. On the one hand, the term has a very specific genealogy that is usually traced to Foucault. And yet, in the colonial, postcolonial, settler colonial, and neocolonial worlds there are innumerable ways in which biopolitics is subverted, and emerges as simultaneously overdetermined and underdetermined. Indeed, the instruments of overpopulation logic have created a robust infrastructure of foot soldiers, paper pushers, policy makers, NGOs, and health workers that get paid every day for their service to the overpopulation gods.

Yet life on the ground in India, I have found, is something entirely different. For example, take the Khanna study that Murphy describes in Chapter 05, “Infrastructures of Counting and Affect.” In the 1950s, a vast army of workers fulfilling the logics of overpopulation discourse went door to door, handing out contraceptive pills. According to the official narrative from the government, people started using the pills and, as predicted, population growth decreased. This program became a poster child for population logic and its epistemological infrastructure. However, years later, in 1970, Mahmood Mamdani, a young anthropologist, went back to the villages where the pills had been distributed. What Mamdani found were a host of non-compliers: many people just did not take the pills. Indian hospitality demanded that they invite the researchers in, but people lied to them about having taken the pills. Why hurt their feelings? they asked. These researchers were working hard and only doing their jobs. Why not make them feel good? One respondent had made miniature sculptures out of the tiny pills – a veritable menagerie of miniature contraceptive dolls. Repeatedly, we find that life does not fully capture the idea of western biopolitics.

In my recent work Holy Science (Subramaniam 2019) on the entanglements of science and religion in India, I repeatedly found the difficulties of translating western science into South Asian contexts. Western biopolitics imagines – and indeed, creates – vast biopolitical infrastructures, but life on the ground? It hums blissfully in worlds of djinns, avis, animal gods, sacred groves, planetary orbits, auspicious astrological times and numerous non-modern traditions. To complicate matters, there was a biological politics in India before biopolitics, where the strictures of caste in a feudal society were brutal in their own way. These biological politics did not die with British colonialism; neither did they wrap neatly into a Foucauldian frame with the rise of colonialism and global capitalism. What of these elisions and erasures? What of these worlds that Western notions of biopolitics cannot even theorize? These are not just subversions – but something more. In framing our theories around a Eurocentric Foucauldian biopolitics, STS misses so much about many parts of the world that don’t operate on Eurocentric logics and theories. How do we theorize a more capacious biological politics beyond biopolitics?

The second question EoL raised was about the concept of “population” as a potential site of progressive politics; I was entirely persuaded that “population” has always been thoroughly corrupted in its operation and its imagination. The frame of distributed justice, as I understand it, takes apart the dense entanglements of population science to reveal the many institutions, players, and actors that function on uneven terrain and with unequal power. Understanding reproduction in such a capacious frame means that we can no longer package the theater of Drosophila sex as the foundational logics of a better world.  Instead,distributed reproduction emerges as a potent and tantalizing frame to retheorize reproductive politics.

The idea of distributed reproduction is one of the finer terms that emerged in this rich text; yet it needs more exploration. Yes, we can do away with the term “population.” But isn’t there just too much infrastructure, both historical and contemporary, that is calibrated to its ideologies? Distributed reproduction allows us to see these infrastructures clearly. However, while these infrastructures are distributed, they are also connected. You fight the harm of one contraceptive device; in time, a new one emerges; with more time the old one is dusted off and presented anew. As Murphy describes, racialized heteropatriarchal power is at the center of this process. What is at stake is nothing short of its own reproduction, and it isn’t going to let go anytime soon. How then might we use numbers, the theories and methods of STS to dismantle the monstrous structures? How exactly might distributed reproduction help us subvert the monstrous machine, as Murphy suggests?

Economization of Life is a wonderful read. It helped me connect the sweet smell of yeast of my graduate school days to the potent power of fruit fly biology. This is how science works – the logics of reproduction transcend species into an enduring narrative of overpopulation. What violence has been wrought in its name! How many individuals have been sterilized, maimed and mutilated through its eugenic scripts? Indeed, these logics are resurfacing once again through eco-fascist discourses of climate change. In my most optimistic moments, I fantasize that the nativist and fascist movements growing across the world are the final and last gasp of racialized heteropatriarchy as it unleashes a final burst of force only to die in its demographic fates. But in my less optimistic moment, I worry that it is its first breath in a new and more terrifying incarnation.

Banu Subramaniam is professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Author of Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism (University of Washington Press 2019), and Ghost Stories for Darwin: The Science of Variation and the Politics of Diversity (Illinois University Press 2014), Banu’s work engages the feminist studies of science in the practices of experimental biology.


Murphy, Michelle, 2013. “Life (Un)Ltd: Feminism, Bioscience, Race,” Scholar and Feminist Online,Issue 11.3, Summer 2013:

Murphy, Michelle. 2017. The Economization of Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Subramaniam, Banu. 2019. Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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