Consent, Clones, and Frankenstein

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Defenders of cloning are up against fears that are more deeply rooted than anything born of modern science or politics, I suspect. This worries me, since I've written in defense of therapeutic cloning and, away from my official ACSH duties, have helped organize a petition protesting the ban on cloning that is being considered by Congress.

A reminder of the deep roots of anti-biotech sentiment is provided by Ben Schrank's novel Consent, in which the narrator studies the old Jewish fable of the Golem, an artificial man who turns upon his creator. The reader gradually realizes that the narrator has monstrous, violent tendencies of his own, and it's creepy and fascinating to watch as he struggles to control them. The novel, like the original Golem legend, is a reminder that humans feared losing control of their creations long before we had beakers and test tubes.

That means that every time the "Frankenstein" metaphor is deployed as an argument against, say, genetically-modified foods or cloning, the metaphor taps into emotions that have little to do with the latest research on the safety of biotech corn or the feasibility of using cloned cells to treat disease. Humans fear that if they try to "play God" by creating something new, they will be punished for their hubris.

Mary Shelley's novel was itself inspired by a fear of the consequences of radical and revolutionary behavior, for which science gone awry was only a metaphor. Shelley was married to a major Romantic poet and was friends with others. She was the daughter of founding anarchist theorist William Godwin who, like many nineteenth-century anarchists, wanted both government and property abolished and founding feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft, who defended the French Revolution against conservative Edmund Burke's criticisms. (Interestingly, Burke once compared political revolution to the foolhardy task of tearing apart a man and trying to build a better one from the pieces of the corpse, a metaphor that may have stuck in Mary Shelley's mind.) Added to all this were Shelley's sorrow at losing a child and perhaps lingering guilt over Shelley's own birth causing her mother's death. Infertility and death hover in the background throughout Victor Frankenstein's efforts at creation.

As I'll be discussing next week with other participants in an Institute for Humane Studies literature colloquium, Shelley's depiction of scientists as heroic-but-dangerous has shaped the popular conception of science for two centuries now. Next month alone, the public will see a major motion picture about a man accidentally transformed when bitten by a genetically-modified spider (Spider-Man), an equally big blockbuster entitled Star Wars Epsiode II: Attack of the Clones, and the long-awaited finale to a TV series about aliens stealthily tampering with humanity's DNA (The X-Files).

It all seems like harmless fun and I certainly intend to indulge but this is a strange backdrop against which to carry on fact-based debates about the medical benefits of biotech. In the real world, the biotech picture is considerably rosier than the one seen on screen. This month, the journal Nature retracted a report that had stated that biotech corn genes had spread out of control in Mexico. Reports that a scientist has hastily moved beyond research and helped impregnate a woman with a cloned embryo were greeted with skepticism. Gene therapy saved the life of a young boy in Britain. And the rice genome was decoded, offering the hope of boosting the nutritional value of a food that is a staple for billions.

Yet this month brings debate in the Senate over whether to ban all forms of cloning, a huge blow to biotech research.

More often than not, instead of saying, "I think people will suffer terrible harm as a result of this technology," opponents of cloning tell me as one friend recently did "This is something people weren't meant to do; this is playing God and it will come back to haunt to us." Raised on images from myth, religion, and science fiction that warn us about the terrible consequences of losing control of our experiments, many people have a strong visceral reaction against biotech that can't easily be overcome by appeals to scientific data. They fear that nature will be transformed around them without their consent, and both their democratic and religious instincts rebel at the thought. They want someone or something to reassert control and normality, and government regulation becomes the vehicle for that psychological impulse.

In the long run, regardless of what the law says today, biotech will be accepted as a highly useful part of our everyday lives. In the near future, people will probably find it as unobjectionable as they do conventional agriculture, and that sense of familiarity will erode the power of the old myths and the Frankenstein metaphor (which will then no doubt attach themselves to some unfortunate, even newer science, such as nanotech, which will become the next locus of paranoia). The fear of biotech will not vanish soon, but there are already subtle signs of a change. For instance, in the original Spider-Man comic book forty years ago, the spider-bite that transformed Peter Parker was wholly accidental, the result of a pest that blundered into an experiment involving radiation. Big accidents, often involving radiation, were a staple of Cold War era comic books and horror movies. In the new Spider-Man film, however, the spider is a product of human design, of genetic engineering. True, that means our anxieties have shifted from radiation to genetic engineering, but it also means that we're gradually coming to recognize that humans can control nature with unprecedented precision. We know scientists don't just mix a bunch of chemicals in a vat or set off an explosion and see what happens any more.

Control diminishes anxiety, and in time, as the public imagination grows accustomed to the new level of skill scientists possess, people will not expect random monsters to pop out of laboratories. Indeed, the whole motif of strange accidents producing monsters (or heroes such as Spider-Man) will probably seem quite dated and silly soon, in a world where ordinary people will be able to augment their strength, health, and longevity in very carefully planned ways.

The era when monsters ruled our imagination may be ending soon. Instead of fearing the creation of a Golem or a Frankenstein creature, we'll probably take new biotech advances for granted in the same way that we now do the latest fashions, new snack foods, and perpetual computer upgrades.