12 June 2011


Philip Ball. Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People. Bodley Head, 2011.

A major theme of the modern alien abduction folklore is that of the mass produced 'hybrid' children, fermented in various sorts of equipment from test tubes to incubators via nutrient vats. Being raised thus, these children are assumed to be somehow wan and soulless.
Though the alien abduction lore is nowhere mentioned in it, Philip Ball's excellent book shows how such fantasies develop. His central thesis is how the power of ancient and not so ancient myths continues to befuddle modern discussion of reproductive technologies.

He traces the growth of various strands of thinking about people produced by human art across the ages and how they influence modern thinking on such topics. One strand, that of the creation of artificial organic life, stretches from the alchemists' homunculus through to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein's Monster, another from the Jewish legend of the golem through to Capek's Robots, and the third more modern one, the industrially produced babies of Huxley's Brave New World. He shows how all of these themes were used by various technophobe writers to construct dystopian visions of the future and to imply that any child produced through human art would be some sort of less than human creature.

In the first half of the twentieth century these dystopian visions were to some extent aided by the pronouncements of some scientists themselves, particularly those associated with the eugenics movement.

Ball shows how the ideas of the Frankenstein Monster, the mass produced Xerox clone, the soulless robot, and the decanted baby, as envisaged in numerous works of science fiction, continue to bedevil rational discussion of topics such as IVF, cloning and other reproductive technologies. The hysterical reactions to the development of IVF in its early years, now largely forgotten, are presented in all their glory here. Magonia can testify to this hysteria because some 30 or so years ago we received a review copy of a tome produced by some Ultra-Montane Catholic group in the USA, mainly concerned with the Bayside Marian apparitions, but which proudly reproduced some piece from an American gutter tabloid presenting Louise Brown (the first test tube baby) as a sort of science fiction monster possessed of amazing psychokinetic powers. Even today the Roman Catholic Church opposes IVF and regards these much wanted and loved babies as 'unnatural', unlike that is those conceived 'naturally' by 9 year old victims of incestuous rape. This kind of moral reversal is what happens when you regard the welfare of real, living breathing human beings as being more important than abstract dogma as 'sentimentality'.

Other reproductive technologies are likely to be years away, but I would agree with Ball that they pose much less acute moral problems than the myth inspired headlines would suggest. Ectogenesis, the bringing of an embryo to term in an artificial womb is probably decades away. When it comes along it will as a result of developments in keeping very premature babies alive, and we actually therefore have a very good idea what it would entail. It would be hugely demanding in time and emotion on the parents, who would be tied to a hospital facility for months as their foetus develops, but there seems no reason to imagine any such child would be less bonded or wanted; indeed the father and wider family may bond with such a child even more strongly as they watch it develop over months.

Ball also argues that almost all the fears about clones are nonsense, based on these literary myths. There is no reason to believe that a clone (or sib-child) would be an exact copy of the donor parent, and many to believe it wouldn't. There are alleged horror stories about having a dead child cloned as a replacement, but even this would be nothing new. Dead children were often replaced the old-fashioned way in Victorian times and named after the deceased sibling (as my own great grandfather) and no doubt in some way regarded as the earlier child coming back. (This practice was the cause of a number of cases of alleged super centenarians). The main social problems with 'cloned' children may be the possessiveness of the social grandparents who would be the genetic parents and possible impacts on custody disputes.

Ball argues that these myths are generated by fears of doing things which are unnatural. This is actually nonsense, for there is no reason to regard human beings or their culture or technology as being in any sense unnatural. If you regard all works of human artifice as unnatural, that damns virtually the whole landscape of most of the world, as well as all technology and medical procedure. I note that when the late Pope John Paul II was severely injured by a gunman there was no argument to the effect that he should not undergo surgery as that would be 'unnatural' as God wanted him to be a martyr to the faith.

Behind these surface motivations he sees a deeper one, that these fearful myths about extraordinary children are ways we can indirectly talk about our hopes and fears for our real ordinary children; that perhaps in some sense all children will grow up 'other' than there parents and will escape from us. They allow us to ponder how much we seek to mould and construct all children in our image, and our own position in a dehumanised production and consumption machine. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

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