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Book Review: Unnatural - The Heretical Idea of Making People

18 April 2011
Appeared in BioNews 604

Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People

By Dr Philip Ball

Published by Bodley Head

ISBN-10: 1847921523, ISBN-13: 978-1847921529

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People' by Dr Philip Ball

What does Mary Shelley's Frankenstein have in common with Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner', Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go' and Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World'? According to Philip Ball, these are all permutations of the myth of anthropoieia - the artificial creation of human life.

In his new book 'Unnatural: the heretical idea of making people', he describes how this myth has evolved to reflect and incorporate new advances in science that have challenged contemporary ideas about what life is.

In the first half of the book, Ball describes the origins of the anthropoeitic myth in the Greek myths of Prometheus and Daedalus, and how these have served as a template for its subsequent development. What Ball demonstrates in fascinating detail is how prevailing theories about the origins and nature of life influenced and shaped newer versions of the anthropoeitic myth.

Take, for example, Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' in the 19th century where the monster is stitched together from dissected human body parts. Mary Shelley might have been inspired by the work of Giovanni Aldini, who demonstrated the power of galvanic forces by re-animating the corpse of an executed London criminal, causing his limbs to twitch and an eye to open.

By the early 20th century, in Karel Capek's play 'R.U.R' and Huxley's novel 'Brave New World' artificial humans were produced on an industrial scale. By the end of the 20th century, the genetic code is all that is required to produce identical copies of their human donors, in everything from 1978 thriller 'The Boys from Brazil' to the 1996 comedy 'Multiplicity'.

The message is the same in all these stories: a warning against the over-ambitious use of technology and a reminder of its inherent inferiority to nature. Victor Frankenstein, the original mad scientist, sums up this lesson best:

'Learn from me… how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow… Seek happiness in tranquility, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries'.

There is an interesting chapter on the medieval practice of building increasingly life-like automata, in the spirit of Daedalus. These automata could play musical instruments, produce drawings and even play chess. The retired monk Jacques Vaucanson created a mechanical duck that could perform the bodily functions of eating and defecating. This tradition of creating life from its basic building blocks is echoed in the feats of synthetic biology achieved by Craig Venter and colleagues in the 21st century.

In the second half of the book, Ball describes how these anthropoeitic myths have permeated contemporary debate about new and potential reproductive technologies, from the early developments of IVF to embryonic stem cell research and human cloning.

After a long chapter on the early years of IVF research, it would have been interesting to explore how fears surrounding IVF faded as the technology became mainstream.

By exposing the mythical element of common ethical arguments, Ball is attempting to separate facts from fiction. He cites debates on regulating IVF in the UK's House of Lords and the President's Council on Bioethics in the US to show it is not only the media perpetuating these myths. His view on how we should address these myths in ethical debates on the regulation of human cloning and other reproductive technologies is less clear.

Readers interested in our attempts to understand the origins of life, and our fears of artificial life, will find this book a comprehensive cultural history of the topic. Ball says that a myth should be viewed as the sum of all of its versions, and he certainly attempts to explore as many of these as possible.

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

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