If the Daily Mail review is anything to go by (see below), people are going to find in Unnatural just what they expect to find.
And I think that must be how also to understand Robert Harris’s review in the Sunday Times. Take a look at it (if you have access), and I think you’ll allow that this is a review of a book in which a scientist complains bitterly about Mary Shelley and Aldous Huxley, accusing them of having “a lot to answer for” for writing novels that doomed blameless modern biomedical research to alarmist newspaper headlines which would never have appeared in the novels’ absence.
Well, well. So how do we account for this passage in the book’s introduction? –
Scientists engaged in new ways of ‘making people’ – what I here call anthropoesis, which condenses that phrase into its Greek equivalent – in modern times, such as those researching in vitro fertilization and cloning, resent and lament these intrusions of myth and legend into their field of work. Here we are, the scientists will say, trying to improve medicine and to relieve man’s estate – trying to do good – and all the rest of the world can see are Gothic ghouls and mad inventors. ‘Whatever today’s embryologists may do, Frankenstein or Faust or Jekyll will have foreshadowed, looming over every biological debate’, said Robert Edwards, a pioneer of IVF, in 1989 at the height of the debate about research on the human embryos that IVF had suddenly made available. Edwards was impatient with the way, in his view, science-fiction narratives were shaping the discussion: ‘The necessity or otherwise for experiments on human embryos sparks the most intense argument, as fears arise about tailor-made babies, or clones, or cyborgs, or some other nightmarish fancy.’
‘The trouble really started way back in the 1930s, by courtesy of the brilliant Aldous Huxley’, Edwards asserted. But he was wrong about that. Aldous Huxley did not conceive a tale that subsequently shaped thinking about embryo research, any more than did Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson or Goethe. Rather, they and other writers gave particular embodiments to pre-existing myths and legends that would have exerted their influence come what may. Edwards might well have wished that Brave New World had never been written, but as we shall see, Huxley’s authorship of that novel was almost incidental; the ideas were firmly bedded down before he put pen to paper.
Edwards also failed to perceive the true role of fictional tropes of anthropoesis. It is not simply the case that there happen to be stories and legends that create inconvenient and misleading stereotypes. In the stories we tell about artificial people – how they are made, and what we assume they are like – we reveal some of our most profound feelings about what is natural and what is not, and about what this distinction implies in moral terms. For making people has always been cause for moral judgement, which is at root a judgement about naturalness.
Could this be more clearly saying that it is naïve to hold Shelley, Huxley, Stevenson et al. responsible for the way Frankenstein and Brave New World loom large in all public/media debates about these issues?
Yet here is what Harris presents as a criticism of my alleged position:
“If it had not been raining in the summer of 1816… [Mary Shelley] almost certainly would not have written Frankenstein, and there would have been no plays and no films showing a man with a bolt through his neck. But I doubt whether the widespread contemporary unease aroused by scientific intervention in the processes of procreation would be one jot the less. Our response has not been “conditioned” by Mary, Huxley and the rest: it has been expressed by them.”
Now let me give you again a bit of that quote from Unnatural:
“Aldous Huxley did not conceive a tale that subsequently shaped thinking about embryo research, any more than did Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson or Goethe. Rather, they and other writers gave particular embodiments to pre-existing myths and legends that would have exerted their influence come what may.”
Can you see any substantial difference between these two points of view?
Ah, but that’s why Harris encounters a little cognitive dissonance that compels him to say, “to be fair”, that I do put forward that case (while citing a different quote that masks the fact of how exactly I do so). However, he says, this means I am trying to “have it both ways.” Well, I suppose it would if one of those ways were not Harris’s invention.
Incidentally, you’ll come away from his review imagining I am a “staunch supporter” of cloning. I should be very surprised if you would come away from the book with the same opinion.
My book is not, as Harris claims, about ‘artificial life’. I steer clear of that phrase, for the simple reason that it is the wrong one. ‘Artificial life’ can mean several things, and the idea of making human beings by artificial means or interventions has some overlap with some of them, but is a much more specific enterprise – which is why I invented a new word for it. I say very explicitly why the computer-science visions of artificial life are not very relevant here – that the myths matter primarily for the ‘wetware’ rather than the ‘software’ version. So HAL and AI and all the rest of that stuff are not simply ignored but explicitly set aside. It is also irksome that Harris implies that my statement that IVF “does not exactly make people” is an admission that it is off-topic. He neglects to mention that I also explained why the association of IVF with legends of ‘making people’ is nonetheless “not only permissible but essential… the central issue in both cases is that human life is seen to be initiated by art, by means of human ingenuity rather than merely human biology.” Perhaps he disagrees with this claim (which is central to the thrust of the book). But to imply that I don’t even offer such a justification for my choices strikes me as odd. Besides, if Harris himself felt it was indeed the case that IVF is not a valid part of what he calls ‘artificial life’, why does he then say, “The commercial success of IVF, and its social and political acceptance by almost everyone except the Roman Catholic church, may well point the way to a new attitude regarding artificial life”?
So why do I think Harris wrote this stuff? I certainly don’t think he was trying to be unfair. Rather, I think it is obvious that he has a deafening narrative playing in his mind: ‘here’s a scientist berating popular/media culture for presenting serious scientific research in ways that are [in his words] “highly unscientific, irresponsible, alarmist, dangerous and just plain wrong”.’ It’s frustrating that this is so badly to misunderstand my point; but it is doubly more so given the pains I took to argue that rants of that kind, which scientists do make, are themselves missing the real point.
But really, what a fool I would be to be surprised by this. My book is about how the assumptions and prejudices we bring to this issue get in the way of a clear debate (as opposed, let me reiterate at the risk of boring, to getting in the way of an uncritical acceptance of what the scientists want to do). Can I be surprised if some reviews will exhibit that same problem? Indeed, I now have evidence of two utterly different readings of the book based on what the reviewers expected to hear. For Robert Harris, this is a polemic against the alarmist ignorance obstructing the noble science. For the Daily Mail, it is a book pointing out how ‘our hunger to play God could be the death of us’. I suppose I must look on the bright side and tell myself that it’s heartening to have my thesis illustrated so clearly.