Here is a commentary that I have just published in the Lancet.
“I don’t think we should be motivated by a fear of the unknown.” Susan Solomon, chief executive of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, made this remark in the context of the current debate on mitochondrial transfer for human reproduction. Scientists working on the technique presented evidence to the US Food and Drug Administration last February in hearings to determine whether safety concerns are sufficiently minimal to permit human trials to proceed.
Although the hearings were restricted to scientific, not social or ethical, issues, Solomon was responding to a perception that already the topic was becoming sensationalized. Critics have suggested that this research “could open the door to genetically modified children”, and that it would represent an unprecedented level of experimentation on babies. Newspapers have decreed that, since mitochondrial transfer will introduce the few dozen mitochondrial genes of the donor into the host egg, the technique will create “three-parent babies”. There seems little prospect that Solomon’s appeal will be heeded.
The issue is moot for the present, because the scientific panel felt that too many questions remain about safety to permit human trials. However, the method – which aims to combat harmful genetic mutations in the mitochondria of the biological mother while still enabling her to contribute almost all of her DNA to an embryo subsequently made by IVF – is evidently going to be beset by questions about what is right and proper in human procreation.
In part, this is guilt by association. Because mitochondrial transfer introduces genes foreign to the biological parents, it is seen as a kind of genetic modification of the same ilk as that associated with alleged “designer babies”. That was sufficient justification for Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the California-based Center for Genetics and Society, to warn that human trials would begin “a regime of high-tech consumer eugenics”: words calculated to invoke the familiar spectre of totalitarian social engineering. But the debate also highlights the way in which technologies like this are perceived as a challenge to the natural order, to old ideas of how babies are “meant” to be made.
All of this is precisely what one should expect. The same imagery has accompanied all advances in reproductive science and technology. It is imagery with ancient roots, informed by a debate that began with Plato and Aristotle about the possibilities and limitations of human art and invention and to what extent they can ever compare with the faculties of nature. J. B. S. Haldane understood as much when he wrote in his 1924 book Daedalus, or Science and the Future that
“The chemical or physical inventor is always a Prometheus. There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion. There is hardly one which, on first being brought to the notice of an observer from any nation which had not previously heard of their existence, would not appear to him as indecent and unnatural.”
In Haldane’s time one of the most potent mythical archetypes for these ‘perversions’ of nature was Faust’s homunculus, the ‘artificial being’ made by alchemy. The message of the Faust legend seemed to be that human hubris, by trying to appropriate godlike powers, would lead to no good. That was the moral many people drew from Mary Shelley’s secular retelling of the Faust legend in 1818, in which Frankenstein’s punishment for making life came not from God or the Devil but from his creation itself. While Shelley’s tale contains far more subtle messages about the obligations and responsibilities of parenthood, it was all too easy to interpret it as a Faustian fable about the dangers of technology and the pride of the technologists. Many still prefer that view today.
This was surely what led IVF pioneer Robert Edwards to complain that “Whatever today’s embryologists may do, Frankenstein or Faust or Jekyll will have foreshadowed, looming over every biological debate.” But Edwards could have added a more recent blueprint for fears about where reproductive technologies would lead. He had, after all, seen evidence of it already. When Louise Brown was born in 1978, Newsweek announced that it was “a cry around the brave new world.”
One could charge Aldous Huxley with having a lot to answer for. His most famous book now rivals Frankenstein as the off-the-shelf warning about where all new reproductive technologies will lead: to a totalitarian state biologically engineered into a strict social hierarchy, devoid of art, inspiration or human spirit. Science boosterists thought so at the time: H. G. Wells considered that Huxley had “betray[ed] the future.” But Huxley was only exploring the ideas that his biologist brother Julian, along with Haldane, were discussing at the time, including eugenic social engineering and the introduction of in vitro gestation or “ectogenesis”. That we continue to misappropriate Brave New World today, as if it was a work of futurology rather than (like much of the best science fiction) a bleak social satire of its times, suggests that it fed myths we want to believe.
One of the most powerful of these myths, which infuses Frankenstein but began in ancient Greece, is that there is a fundamental distinction between the natural and the artificial, and a “natural order” that we violate at our peril. In a recent study challenging the arguments for draconian restriction of human reproductive technologies, philosopher Russell Blackford remarks that
“where appeals against violating nature form one element in public debate about some innovation, this should sound an alarm. It is likely that opponents of the practice or technology are, to an extent, searching for ways to rationalize a psychological aversion to conduct that seems anomalous within their contestable views of the world.”
In other words, accusations of “unnaturalness” may be the argument of last resort for condemning a technology when a more rational objection is not so easily found. Blackford shows that it is extremely hard to develop such objections with rigour and logical consistency. But the fact is that these accusations are often the arguments of first resort. In public opinion they tend to be dubbed the “Yuk!” factor, which conservative bioethicist Leon Kass dignifies with the term “the wisdom of repugnance”: “the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it.” In other words, one can intuit the correct response without being obliged to justify it. Whether there is wisdom in it or not, disgust at “violating nature” has a long history. “We should not mess around with the laws of nature”, insisted one respondent in Life magazine’s survey on reproductive technologies when IVF was becoming a reality in 1969.
These attitudes need probing, not simply ridiculing. One common thread in such responses, both then and now, is a fear for the traditional family. It is a fear that reaches beyond reason, because the new technologies become a lightning rod for concerns that already exist in our societies. Take the worry voiced by around 40 percent of participants in the Life poll that a child conceived by IVF “would not feel love for family”. Such an incoherent collision of anxieties will resist all inroads of reason. A review of my 2011 book Unnatural in the conservative magazine Standpoint took it for granted that a defence of IVF was a defence of single-parent families, making the book merely “erudite propaganda in the ongoing cultural war against the traditional family and the values and beliefs that have traditionally sustained it”.
These assumptions are not always so easily spotted – which brings us back to “three-parent embryos”. This label prejudices the discussion from the outset: what could possibly be more unnatural than three parents? Only on reflection do we realise we probably already know some three-parent families: gay couples with children via sperm donation, step-parents, adoptive families. The boundaries of parental and family units are in any case more fluid in many cultures outside of Europe and the United States. Ah, but three genetic parents – surely that is different? Perhaps so if we like to sustain the convenient fiction that our parents acquired their genes de novo, or that the word “parent” is exclusively linked to the contribution of DNA rather than of love and nurture. Calling an embryo created by mitochondrial replacement a “three-parent baby” perhaps makes sense in a world where we tell children that all babies are made by a mummy and daddy who look after them for life. But I suspect most parents no longer do that, and feel that their duties do not either begin or end with their chromosomes.
In a poll in the early 1980s in Australia – the second country to achieve a successful live birth through IVF – the most common reason given for opposition to the technique was that it was thought to be ‘unnatural’. Why does this idea still have such resonance, and what exactly does it mean?
People have spoken since antiquity about actions that are contra naturam. But they didn’t necessarily mean what we mean. The simple act of lifting up an object was contra naturam according to Aristotelian physics, which ascribed to heavy things a natural tendency to fall. This was a simple, neutral description of a process. Today, saying something is unnatural or ‘against nature’ has a pejorative intent: the German prefix ‘un-’ implies moral reprehension. This is a corollary of the ‘natural law’ outlined by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, whereby God created a teleological universe in which everything has a natural part to play and which gives a direction to the moral compass. The implication remains in the Catholic Catechism: God intended the natural end of sex to be procreation, ergo the natural beginning of procreation must be sex (not sperm meeting egg, but an approved conjunction of body parts).
Those who oppose mitochondrial transfer on grounds of discomfort about its “naturalness” are not, in all probability, appealing to Aquinas. But those who support it might need to recognize these roots – to move beyond logical and utilitarian defences, and understand that the debate is framed by deep, often hidden ideas about naturalness. This is a part of what makes us fear the unknown.
P. Ball (2011), Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People. Bodley Head.
L. Daston & F. Vidal (eds) (2004). The Moral Authority of Nature. Chicago University Press, Chicago.
D. Evans & N. Pickering (eds) (1996). Conceiving the Embryo. Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.
J. B. S. Haldane (1924), Daedalus; or, Science and the Future. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London.
L. R. Kass (1985). Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs. Free Press, New York.
M. J. Mulkay (1997). The Embryo Research Debate: Science and the Politics of Reproduction. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
S. M. Squier (1994). Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technology. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.