Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People

  • Philip Ball
Bodley Head: 2011. 384 pp. £20 9781847921529 | ISBN: 978-1-8479-2152-9

Stem cells, cloning, regeneration and life extension are frequently in the news. When they are, the media often resort to sensationalist clichés — invoking Frankenstein to conjure up a stereotypical mad scientist 'playing God' by creating out-of-control monsters. Whereas the creation of non-human artificial life, such as Craig Venter's engineered microbes, gets a mixed press, the making of humans is invariably controversial. Clearly, human life has a special moral status.

In Unnatural, science writer Philip Ball explores the history of our fascination with — and fear of — creating artificial people, from ancient folklore to today. Tracing a clear path from medieval alchemists' homunculi to routine assisted conception is a feat. Through his impeccable research, Ball successfully argues that the tenacious myths of the past that surround the making of people or 'anthropoeia' (his coinage) affect life-science research today.

Ball traces the concept that nature is good and techne is bad back to Aesop's and Ovid's Prometheus, maker of humanity from earth and water, and provider of technology to man. After Prometheus came recipes for making miniature humans called homunculi. Starting in the Middle Ages, initially as a cure for childlessness, the art of homunculi-making evolved into a debate over whether the miniscule men had a soul. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's nineteenth-century poetic play Faust raises this spectre. Deploying the biological equivalent of alchemy, Faust's former assistant, Wagner, creates his homunculus: a tiny super-being with magical powers who is trapped in a glass vessel, doomed to remain captive without the capacity to become a proper man. In 1818, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, appropriately subtitled 'The Modern Prometheus', in which her eponymous scientist unintentionally constructs a monster, by unexplained means, from human parts. There are also golems — the animated beings of Jewish folklore, made from clay and brought to life by religious magic for the purpose of imitating God's creation.

Ball distills out of all this a set of universal myths surrounding anthropoeia that are deeply ingrained in society, resulting in the widely held view that artificial people-making is unnatural and deeply wrong — heretical, as in the book's subtitle. His thesis is that humans fear that uncovering forbidden knowledge will result in either divine or other retribution. Prometheus, Faust and Frankenstein all pay a heavy price for their transgressions into anthropoeia. Even today, Ball points out, societal and cultural debate is pervaded by the belief that technology is intrinsically perverting and thus carries certain penalty. Views that human cloning will be used for social engineering, eradicating one gender or resurrecting undesirable figures from the past, for example, all reflect age-old fears about the consequences of meddling in the 'unnatural'. Ball warns that, as there is no global ban on human reproductive cloning, there is a strong chance that it will happen. It is thus likely to become a de facto reality without the well-informed debate it deserves.

As scientific knowledge accumulates and makes some acts of anthropoeia more and more plausible, the challenge for the public will be to separate fact from fiction. For example, Ball ends his literary tour with Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World. In 1931, the book's in vitro production of embryos in the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre was pure conjecture by Huxley, based on the scientific forecasts of his day. Today, in vitro fertilization (IVF) is mainstream medicine — more than four million babies have been born using this technique. But the technology still has its critics, including within the Vatican. On the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to IVF pioneer Robert Edwards, Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, stated that the award was “completely out of order”, as without IVF there would be no market for human eggs “and there would not be a large number of freezers filled with embryos in the world”. For some, such words conjure up images of unscrupulous profiteering and factory-like storage of human lives, generating fears that human procreation will be reduced to mere money and industrial bioprocessing.

Huxley was more futuristic in including humans conceived and grown entirely outside the body. As Ball explains, the artificial womb remains fiction, albeit moving slowly towards fact. Its leading exponent, Hung-Ching Liu, at the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility in New York, has grown human uterus lining (endometrium) and thinks it will eventually be possible for fetuses to be grown outside a woman's body. Progress has been made in other species, including mouse embryos gestated to almost full term in 'bubbles' of endometrial tissue and premature goats kept alive by artificial placentas.

Meanwhile, headlines about three-parent human embryos and mice with two fathers continue to fuel science fiction. Back in 1978, the film Boys from Brazil imagined Nazi physician Josef Mengele attempting to resurrect Adolf Hitler by reproductive cloning. Some 20 years later, in The Matrix (1999), countless humans are bred and kept in pods so that their body heat and electrical activity can be harvested as energy for the machines that have taken over the world. More recent films, such as The Island (2005) and Splice (2009), have further built on the science fiction of reproductive science.

The challenge for innovative biological research is that, until it translates into real benefits, it is often viewed with mistrust and worse-case scenario imagery. In reality, once products and services are released into society, they are adopted by a few enthusiasts and then, if successful, by the wider community. In the 1970s, for example, anxieties were rife about the unfounded threat that IVF posed to human welfare and dignity, let alone whether a test-tube baby could ever be wholly human. Yet the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was just like everyone else, so IVF became socially acceptable. We cannot predict whether human cloning will proceed in the same manner, so the past is our only pointer.

For scientists, clinicians and biotechnology business people, understanding deep-rooted ideas, however irrational, is vital for successful dialogue with the public. The fiasco of genetically modified (GM) crops came about because of the failure to predict that the media would label GM products as 'Frankenfood' — together with the moral judgement it would infer. Today, stem cells and cloning are under the media spotlight. Unnatural is therefore a must-read for all stakeholders of these advanced technologies.