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Event Review: Unnatural - The Heretical Idea of Making People

14 February 2011
Appeared in BioNews 595

Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People

Organised by the Royal Institution of Great Britain

Royal Institution of Great Britain, 21 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4BS, UK

Tuesday 8 February 2011

'Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People', organised by the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Tuesday 8 February 2011

The creation of human life through artificial means is often portrayed as an inherently dangerous and unnatural process, where the product of any such attempt is assumed to be somehow inferior and lacking in humanity. This is a recurrent idea that looms over contemporary debate surrounding many scientific advances and technologies in biology, from reproductive cloning to embryonic stem cell (ESC) research, IVF and human genetics.

But where do these ideas come from? Their origins, the science writer Philip Ball says, are in the myths surrounding 'anthropoeia' - the artificial creation of human life - that have been retold and reinvented throughout history. In the lecture theatre at the Royal Institution last week, Philip Ball introduced us to these myths, which are the subject of his new book 'Unnatural: the heretical idea of making people'.

He began by reading a Sixteenth century recipe for creating life, where the alchemist Paracelsus described how - by fermenting human semen, horse dung and other ingredients - he claimed he was able to create a diminutive homunculus. It is the image of Faust's assistant Wagner, similarly concocting a homunculus in his laboratory that appears on the front cover of 'Unnatural'.

There are both ancient and modern versions of this cautionary tale of the creator and his not-fully-human creation: from Prometheus - the Greek god of forethought - who created man from clay and gave him technology; to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - 'the modern Prometheus' - who assembled his monster from human body parts. As well as the children born in the hatcheries of Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World', and the creation of an army of Hitler clones in the novel and film 'The Boys from Brazil', which are newer iterations of this myth.

In every version, the act of anthropoeia invariably backfires, and produces a being that lacks the perfection of naturally conceived humans: it is infertile, it lacks humanity, it lacks a soul, and it turns against its creator. 'We insist they will not be normal', Philip Ball said. After its publication, the story of Frankenstein was quickly taken up into popular culture, and reinterpreted to accentuate the monster's inferiority to human beings. Frankenstein has now become shorthand for unnatural conception and the initiation of life by technological means. The laboratory is seen as a space for the manipulation of nature.

These myths alert us to the dangers of playing god, but is there any historic or scientific evidence to support their warnings? Philip Ball suggested that these myths explore our preconceptions and unarticulated fears about human uniqueness, new technologies, and forbidden knowledge. He also noted that to call something 'unnatural' is not a scientific description but a moral judgement..

Yet despite evidence to the contrary, the fears surrounding anthropoeia continue to resurface in current debate. IVF has been a successful reproductive technology for many decades, and its pioneer Professor Robert Edwards was awarded the Nobel Prize last year. As IVF has become normalised public fears have dissipated, and it is hard now to imagine the vivid concerns of a mother, interviewed in Life magazine in the early days of the technology, who feared that a child born from IVF 'might sprout horns or wings'.

Philip Ball also suggested that the genetic determinism sometimes implied from the Human Genome Project, the 'blueprint' of humanity, or from reproductive cloning, similarly invokes myths of human 'specialness',and confuses who we are with what we are made of.

I was grateful for Philip Ball's guide to spotting the common themes of myths that appear in current arguments: that technology is inherently perverted; that artificially-created life lacks a soul, is sub- or super-human; that anthropoeia will inevitably lead to the eradication of men, or women; that it will destroy the family; that it will be used by the state for eugenic purposes; that it will resurrect Hitler. The audience asked: why do these myths persist? Are we instinctively wary of interfering with nature?

But I was left wondering, what is the role of these myths in contemporary scientific debate? While acknowledging that they reflect our fears and reactions to science and technology, rather than documented consequences, how can they contribute to public dialogue? I look forward to exploring these ideas further in Philip Ball's new book.

Buy Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

The Frankenstein syndrome: Why fear making humans?
New Scientist |  9 February 2011
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