Friday, July 31, 2009

Artificial babies are so last century

[Here’s the pre-edited version of my latest Muse for Nature’s online news.]

The best way to understand the recent fuss about 'artificial sperm' and the 'end of men' is to consider old versions of the same debate.

Few science stories seem as guaranteed to make headlines as those that can be distorted to reinforce lazy clichés about gender. These range from the folksy – women are better multitaskers – to the ugly – ‘women who dress provocatively are more likely to be raped’.

So no one should be terribly surprised that recent reports of ‘artificial sperm’ made in the laboratory focused on the question of whether the advance makes men obsolete (see here and here). It hardly seems worth blustering about tabloid stories that claim ‘Women have always known that men are a bit of a waste of space’. And weary resignation seems the best response as even the ‘more respectable’ press plod in bovine array down the same false trail (see here and here).

But while one could have predicted that some commentators would line up to express shock and horror (or pretend to do so), and others would tell them not to be so silly, it’s far more instructive to take the long view. For we’ve been through all this before. Fears that men would become surplus to requirement for perpetuating the race were voiced in the 1920s, and on similarly fatuous grounds. Then, as now, the debate revealed much more about the society that spawned it than about the future of humankind.

First, to the latest news. Contrary to what was widely claimed, Karim Nayernia at the University of Newcastle in England and his colleagues have not made artificial human sperm. They have found a way to turn embryonic stem cells into cells with some of the attributes of sperm [1]. That, however, certainly seems a big step along the way, and Nayernia’s group has already achieved live births of mice from eggs fertilized with sperm made by this technique. That the mice pups did not live long suggests there are some serious remaining problems. (Nayernia’s paper has just been retracted, but not because of any concerns about the results – it seems that the introductory material foolishly plagiarized essentially verbatim two paragraphs from a review article by different authors.)

Now, let’s not go into the wrongheaded objections about destroying ‘perfectly healthy human embryos’ (such God-like omniscience!) to make these pseudo-sperm. And the concern of one critic that the method might be used to create children who do not know who their father is seems bizarrely to suppose that no such children already exist.

But the main worries seem to be about ‘babies being born entirely through artificial means’, or of sperm being created from the genetic material of men long dead, including perhaps some we’d rather remain that way. And (shudder) they might not even have to be men…

This research undoubtedly raises important ethical questions. But the alleged horror at such imaginary scenarios is disingenuous. We do not shy away from ‘monstrosities’ of this sort, but instead return to them compulsively. They are among our most persistent cultural myths: we have been contemplating artificial babies in ‘test tubes’ since at least the Middle Ages. We needn’t be embarrassed by this fascination, but neither should we parade it with fresh indignation (and amnesia) each time it surfaces. We should instead simply consider what it tells us about ourselves.

The modern vision of the homunculus was conjured up in 1923 by the British biologist J. B. S. Haldane in his book Daedalus; or Science and the Future, one of the influential ‘To-day and To-morrow’ series of short books by leading thinkers published by Kegan Paul. Here Haldane prophesized about ‘ectogenetic children’ conceived and gestated in artificial wombs entirely outside the body. Haldane and others saw this as having two main benefits. First, it would allow eugenic selection of the progeny; second, it would liberate women from the burden of childbearing. Those views were echoed by Dora Russell, Bertrand Russell’s wife, and other campaigners for women’s freedom such as the feminist Vera Brittain and the sexologist Norman Haire, all three of whom contributed to the To-day and To-morrow series [2].

This emancipating role of ‘artificial babies’ was precisely what terrified the conservative philosopher Anthony Ludovici, who claimed in Lysistrata, or Women’s Future and Future Women (1924) that ectogenesis would relegate men to mere sources of ‘fertilizer’, perhaps with one man considered sufficient as a sperm machine for every 200 women. Mark my words, Ludovici warned in his ludicrous diatribe, ‘in a very short while it will be a mere matter of routine to proceed to an annual slaughter of males who have either outlived their prime or else have failed to fulfil the promise of their youth in meekness, general emasculateness, and stupidity.’ It makes the current tabloid hysteria (a singularly inappropriate word here) seems mild.

All this was set within the context of the decimation of Europe’s menfolk by the Great War, and the dystopian vision of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. These fears were connected to the encroaching industrial mechanization of other all-to-human tasks. Concerns for the role of men resurfaced when, in 1934, American biologist Gregory Pincus announced the ‘in vitro fertilization’ of rabbit eggs (actually a form of parthenogenesis in which the eggs were stimulated to grow without fertilization by sperm). This early precursor to human IVF was reported by some as an assault on the male: ‘No father to guide them’ ran the title of an article in Collier’s Magazine in 1937.

Today, it seems, the ‘end of men’ is cast in terms of bathetic solipsism – who will take the spiders out of the bath? – mixed with the frisson of The Boys from Brazil via Jurassic Park (it being de rigeur for modern myths to find a role for Hitler). While we can laugh or scoff now at the dreams and nightmares of the 1920s, we should feel confident that our grandchildren will do the same at ours.

1. Lee, J. H. et al. Stem Cells Dev. doi:10.1089/scd.2009.0063 (2009). Paper here.
2. Ferreira, A. Interdiscipl. Sci. Rev. 34, 32-55 (2009). Paper here.


JimmyGiro said...

"While we can laugh or scoff now at the dreams and nightmares of the 1920s, we should feel confident that our grandchildren will do the same at ours."

Assuming the government reads it to them, and tells them when to laugh or scoff.

Unknown said...

It seems, the ‘end of men’ is cast in terms of bathetic solipsism – who will take the spiders out of the bath.

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