You can’t help but envy Phillip Ball. Indeed it’s almost unnatural how erudite and eloquent his books are – no pathetic playing on words for him! His book Flow fused the obtusely difficult science of fluid mechanics (the derivations in my physics project on viscosity ran for migraine-inducing ten plus pages) with musings on Renaissance and Japanese artists’ attempts to capture moving water in their paintings. Actually, this is selling him short – he also elaborates at length how cornflakes avalanche in a cereal box and provides some gorgeous still photos of milk splashing into the breakfast bowl. Ball says he has a PhD in Physics but, to be frank, his books – on colour, on water, on music, on nature’s patterns, on critical mass, on curiosity itself – transcend the sciences and give us a God’s Eye view of their particular subject. He’s the CT scanner of science writing, imaging the subject from every angle possible to produce a many-dimensional picture, thus giving magnitudes more insight than a 2-d X-ray machine. And now this many eyed Argus turns his multiple viewpoints to what he calls the heretical idea of making people…
Peoplemaking is too mundane a word to describe this curious craft, however, so Ball translates it into the invented Greek word anthropoeia. He defines this pretty loosely as being about where the standard method of peoplemaking (namely, sex) ends and what lies beyond it. He believes tracing the history of alchemists’, artists’ and engineers’ attempts at anthropoeia is integral to understanding today’s debate over the bioethics of IVF and cloning. He observes that people who oppose these technologies tend to do so based on a gut revulsion against what they see as “unnatural.” For them, unnatural has become a moral category – a synonym for evil. We can contrast this with the deification of natural yoghurt – the zeitgeist has natural and unnatural equalling good and bad respectively. In fact, even just the prefix ‘un-’ is imbued with meaning – as seen in words like unclean and unsavioury, it becomes a loaded judgement beside the much safer ‘non-.’ For Ball, the word unnatural acts as “the repository of our imagined fears” – our fears of the strange and the new. We need to understand the origin of these fears if we wish to create a true bioethics of humanity: we need to understand the cultural history of peoplemaking.
The first few chapters, which deal with the ancient roots of anthropoeia, are the least satisfactory of the book. A flurry of unfamiliar names pockmark the page and, despite my admitted mancrush, I can’t help but sense that Ball is just trying to show off. Surely the opinions of ancient philosophers are irrelevant in today’s debate? Yet the Greek myths – the stories of Prometheus, and Daedelus and Icarus – are the origin of the trope at the heart of our bioethical discourse: the hubristic scientist with his ‘techne,’ his (dark) art, going somehow against nature. E.O. Wilson has argued that our biophilia – our veneration of nature – is an adaptation and an instinct. No wonder then we distrust those who would part the veil and rape the beauty of life. It is part of human nature to moralize these apparent attacks on our human nature.
Fortunately Ball is not so myopic as to interpret the past only in terms of our modern debate. He clearly explains the different assumptions surrounding anthropoeia. For instance, in the medieval era it was taken for granted that life could come from non-life – anyone could make maggots from dead flesh; tales of homunculi were widely heard and widely believed; the resurrection of Christ was a gory fact of history. The border between natural and unnatural was a blur – alchemists, the prototypical mad scientists, saw their craft as growing, even evolving, one metal from another. The hideous monsters (Dogheids!) living at the edge of the world were testaments to God’s creation, while Cyclopic babies were abominations born of a mother’s sin or a witch’s curse. In the Middle Ages, anthropoeia was never, as the modern cliché goes, condemned as playing God. The idea was unthinkable – no mere man could play God. The crucial distinction between man’s (supposed) creations and God’s was one of skill – man made monsters, God make man.
So how did these fairly lackadaisical medieval attitudes morph into the prohibition against unnatural creations? Ball devotes an entire chapter to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein because of the way it dominates our modern conception of anthropoeia – GM crops are Frankenfoods; Robert Edwards IVF-inventor was christened the modern Dr Frankenstein. It is no surprise then that many scientists have said they wished Frankenstein had never been written. But this misses the point, says Ball – Frankenstein did not create the anti-anthropoeic attitudes, it crystallized them. Ball views literature as reflecting the concerns of the society in which it was written – Frankenstein is the dark side of the age of Galvani. It is interesting how Shelley’s original tale, retold and (re)adapted over the centuries, has evolved from that of a noble scientist trying to give the gift of life into the modern morality tale of a mad scientist trying to become God, creating a creature of his own ego that ultimately kills him. Each adaptation takes on the mores of its authors and audience. Indeed, even the public’s perception of the story has evolved to fit society’s preconceptions – nowhere is this better seen than in the way the monster has taken on the name Frankenstein: the scientist has become the real monster.
I was thankful that Ball takes a break from this literary analysis with a delightful chapter on clockwork life that I, as a steampunk enthusiast, particularly enjoyed. Great anatomists like Descartes and Hooke came to view the human body as a machine with the heart as pump and the lungs as bellows. Engineers throughout Europe ended up taking that metaphor to its logical conclusion claiming that, so long as one replicated the machinery of a human, one could create a human. Clockwork flute players and digesting ducks were the hit of the 18th century Paris salon scene. Nevertheless, conservatives and the clergy dismissed them as blasphemous imitations. Ball believes we feel an intuitive disgust towards machines aping mankind. While Japanese roboticists were quick to discover that the more human the face of a robot the more comfortable workers were with, this pattern held only up to a limit – at the sub-Madame Tussauds’ level of humanness the robots became eerie and disturbing. We want robots to be like us but only up to a point. We believe that no matter how human, no matter how clever, a robot will always lack a soul – thus it is unnatural and evil to give it the face of a soul.
Ball argues that this vitalistic philosophy underlines our aversion to anthropoeia. In the 19th century true life was seen as uncreatable – no one could ever manipulate the vital force. Yet with the rise of chemistry life became tractable – it was no longer unnatural in the sense of being beyond our reach. Jacques Loeg managed to fertilize sea urchin eggs with salt creating growth and life in a non-standard manner – i.e. without sperm. His experiments were seen as heralds of the unnatural things to come – Loeg and other early pioneers in reproductive biology were keen to soup up their powers, giving themselves the status of gods in the public eye. Claiming they would clone babies within decades, their brash claims ensured the permanence of the Frankenstein trope.
And so, with the dawn of the 20th century, we enter a brave new world…