The frightening idea of engineering immortality


SOCIETY: Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People, By Philip Ball, Bodley Head, 373pp. £20

WHAT SUBJECT could be more vitally important than the future of our species, the possibilities of achieving a sort of immortality by serial identical cloning and the emancipation of women from the burdens of pregnancy and childbirth? The prospects Philip Ball presents in this book are dazzling, but there is a snag: many people are superstitiously afraid that resorting to biological technology to enhance or even create life must result in a loss of God-given natural humanity.

With a Bristol doctorate in biology, Ball is a scientific polymath whose easy-to-read books on abstruse subjects have won great praise: “fascinating and eye-opening”, “lucid and resplendent”, “his mastery of many scientific disciplines is a delight”. Unnaturalis commendable for the fairness and clarity with which he balances arguments in favour of new techniques of ectogenesis (the development of embryos outside the womb) and eugenics (controlled breeding to increase the inheritance of advantageous characteristics) against conservative religious and other ethical objections.

“It is my contention here,” Ball writes, “that all of the current debates about human embryo research, stem cells, cloning, genetic modification, and bioethics and biotechnology generally, regardless of whether they have any direct link to the creation of artificial humans, cannot be interpreted without understanding the cultural history of that idea and its relation to themes of ‘naturalness’. Only by examining the old myths, legends and stories and the ways that they have been modified and mutated by the ages can we grasp the fears and preconceptions that teem beneath the surface of these discussions.”

Therefore he relates in meticulous, witty and sometimes provocative detail the history of anthropoeia, the term he uses for the creation of artificial people, from the time of the mythical creator Pygmalion and of the ambitious alchemists who conceived of accomplishing more than merely transforming base metals into gold. There were ancient Greeks who claimed they could animate statues, in spite of protests that such attempts, in Ball’s words, were “dabbling with phenomena that once had been the preserve of the gods”.

A dread of interfering with natural creative processes has always been in the air. In the popular imagination the danger has never been more vividly portrayed than in the works of Goethe, Mary Shelley and Aldous Huxley. Ball repeatedly cites the influence of Faust, Frankenstein and the scientific dictators of Brave New World. On the cover of Unnaturalthe image of a Faustian alchemist, with the fanatical expression of a mad scientist, pumps heat into a retort containing the naked figure of a fully formed homunculus.

“Surprisingly,” Ball writes, “suggestions that making an artificial being posed a hubristic challenge to God’s monopoly on creation were rare. The theological worry was rather that, generated de novo rather than by coitus, the homunculus seemed to be exempt from original sin . . . In this respect the homunculus was free as no human ever was: it was as though, through the art of making people, men could vicariously shake off the bonds of moral corruption.” Where did that leave the church? What about the soul?

Ball must have had fun retelling the story of Dr Victor Frankenstein’s dangerous experiment, galvanising graveyard bits and pieces to make a living monster. Mary Shelley was inspired partly by Michael Faraday and the widespread 19th-century notion that electricity and oxygen, correctly applied, could enliven the dead. The accidental implantation of a criminal’s brain causes Frankenstein’s monster to run amok so excitingly that the novel, in turn, inspired another 130 works of fiction, including plays and films, fixing in the minds of generations that scientists, even with the best intentions, should not tinker with the life force.

Although Aldous Huxley’s novels have never appealed to a large public, the title Brave New Worldis well known to readers and non-readers alike as the name of a totalitarian society of the future in which evil technocrats preside over factories mass- producing test-tube babies genetically programmed to take their places at various levels of society, from the elite to the subservient proletariat. Huxley’s dystopia has tended to make biotechnologists as popularly distrusted as nuclear physicists.

After all the pages explaining the wonders of artificial insemination in Petri dishes (IVF), the potentials and limitations of cloning and the scope for tissue engineering, the reader is well prepared to consider how the techniques can be commercially exploited. There is a company in the Bahamas that claims it has already created a child from a cloned embryo. The company says it has received cloning requests from around the world, “a surprisingly large number . . . from the Los Angeles/Hollywood area”. Panayiotis Zavos, of Lexington, Kentucky, offers to clone human embryos for fees between $45,000 and $75,000. One commentator has suggested that supermarkets will soon be able to display frozen embryos, each bearing a colour portrait and a text promising the appearance and talents of the potential child.

Ball hopes for international charitable tolerance of medical innovators and seems to deplore conservative governmental restrictions of research. Anyway, he points out, “We know, of course, how to make people,” as he confirms in his acknowledgments: “While I was writing this book, my home team increased in number by one, and for that and everything else I thank my wife, Julia.”

Patrick Skene Catling has published 12 novels and nine books for children