Unnatural: the Heretical Idea of Making People. Philip Ball at the Royal Institution

UnnaturalPhilip Ball is nothing if not versatile – on my shelf I have books by him on Chartres Cathedral, on why we like music, his Nature’s Patterns trilogy (Branches, Flow and Shapes), and now Unnatural, on what the cultural history of the creation of artificial people can tell us about our attitudes to modern reproductive technology.

I haven’t read the book yet, but last night Philip gave a fascinating and thought-provoking talk on the subject at the Royal Institution, and which tied in quite neatly with a book I am currently reading – God’s Philosophers: how the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science. The book’s publication also ties in neatly with the National Theatre production of Frankenstein, and there was an article in New Humanist too*.

As far as we can look back, and probably beyond that, there has been a fear of the creation of human life. It’s been acceptable to produce artificial life, just not human. Working through Prometheus and Daedalus, via Paracelsus to Mary Shelley (who wrote just after Luigi Galvani’s electrical experiments) and Erasmus Darwin (who thought the creation of artificial life a possibility); to Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. and Huxley’s Brave New World, there have always been warnings.

The problem with the medieval alchemical homunculus was its status: there was the problem of equivalence, whether gold produced alchemically was as good as natural gold, so a created creature could be alive but would lack perfection. It was thought a homunculus would be infertile, and would lack a soul (there was also the theological problem as to whether it was free of original sin).

Frankenstein’s monster was a secular monster, as compared to, say, Faust, and was created out of bits of bodies; the story was popularised early on in stage productions in which the monster was depicted as a savage, hairy beast, whereas Karloff in the film version has quite a robotic look. The original robots, in R.U.R., were organic (and also soulless until they threw off their subservience).

And then Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World dealt with ectogenesis; Julian Huxley and JBS Haldane (author of Daedalus: or, Science and the Future) were proponents for in vitro gestation, through which they saw the emancipation of women as well as the improvement of the human race.

Philip produced a list of the ‘Myths of Anthropoeia’ (there may have been more than this, but these are the ones I noted or can remember:

  1. The ‘artificial person’ will be monstrous.
  2. Technology is inherently perverting.
  3. The ‘artificial person’ has no soul.
  4. The ‘artificial person’ is either sub- or super-human.
  5. Making ‘artificial people’ will lead to the eradication of women (or men).
  6. Making ‘artificial people’ will used for social engineering by totalitarian states.
  7. Making ‘artificial people’ will destroy the family.
  8. Making ‘artificial people’ will lead to the resurrection of Hitler.

Today the same instinctive aversion is produced by the concept of cloning people, and the same deep-seated, mythical fears come to the surface, as they were with the introduction of IVF. In a 1969 survey in Life magazine, 40% thought that IVF babies would not feel familial love; it was thought that Dolly the Sheep would be infertile. Today most right-thinking people wouldn’t suggest that a person who had been born as the result of IVF was ‘artificial’ in some way.

Philip suggested that the question to ask about the cloning of humans is not whether it would be right or wrong, but rather why we should do it. Many of the ethical arguments contain mythical elements, and the biggest danger probably comes from the free market (not helped in the UK by the dismantling of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority).

There was a lot more besides this, dealing with Natural Law and teleology, genetic and historical determinism, and a very robust Q&A at the end, and it was much more coherent than my jottings imply – Philip Ball talks fast, and concentration is required, so my note-taking was a little random.

I’m really looking forward to reading the book and finding out in more depth about some of the arguments, but the lecture closed with this thought: the Frankenstein novel can be read to suggest that our humanity lies in how we inhabit the world in community with other humans.

*11 February: There’s also a double-page article in the Opinion section this week’s of New Scientist, the online version’s called The Frankenstein Syndrome.

Update 10 March: Philip Ball is giving a talk on April 20 at the National Theatre in their Platforms strand, Beyond Frankenstein Unnatural Creations.

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