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An Interview with Philip Ball

William Kolkey

Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making PeoplePhilip Ball
Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People
Bodley Head, 2011
384 Pages
£20.00
ISBN 978-1847921529


In Unnatural, Philip Ball considers the cultural history of anthropoeia, “people making”, exploring how mythology—from alchemical formulae for creating homunculi (little people) to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—inform and reflect attitudes toward unnatural life. Ball detects in these myths either suspicion, distrust, or disapproval of artificial life, concluding that the mythology of anthropoeia has prejudiced the modern mind into initially mistrusting scientific interventions in the creation of life, such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF), cloning, and gene manipulation. On Thursday, 24 February, Ball spoke at Blackwell’s in Oxford about how the mythology of anthropoeia negatively shapes our perception of the “unnatural”, and argued that the science of anthropoeia should be judged on its own terms.

Your book treats the conceptualisation of the natural and unnatural through the history of Western mythology, and makes the point that artificial life is often stigmatized as “unnatural”. Considering that contemporary advances in the artificial creation of life, such as IVF, often blur the boundary between what is natural and unnatural, is there a value anymore in distinguishing between the two terms?

I think there are two ways that you can make that distinction. One distinction made generally by scientists is to talk about things that are natural and artificial, and even in science that is not an easy distinction to make. It’s not clear where the dividing lines are. We have plenty of examples of things, including organisms, that are part natural and part made by some kind of technological intervention. But that distinction is different from the one between natural and unnatural. My contention in the book is that to call something unnatural is not to say that it is unnatural because it’s not made by nature; it is to say that it is supposed to be condemned, disapproved of. It is a moral judgment.

There is a linguist’s discussion that this prefix “un” has that [negative] connotation. It’s really inviting you to disapprove, to feel uneasy about something. And I think that distinction has never really had any basis in science. I think ultimately it is a theological distinction. And while I think people are inevitably going to keep using those terms, I want to make it explicit that, when we call something unnatural, that’s what’s really going on in our minds.

You argue that we invoke myths of anthropoeia to express our anxieties about scientific attempts to manipulate the processes of life creation. Of course, these myths were not originally intended to serve as critiques of IVF or cloning, so what was their original purpose?

Although [Westerners before the late 20th century] did not have the technological means to create life, that does not mean they did not believe it was possible. Quite the opposite, the myths show [that belief in artificial life existed]: there are stories of artificial statues or beings created by alchemical means, etc. Those debates were still going on.

The question is what myths were for and what they are for. What they are not for is some kind of prognosis of what’s going to happen in the future. That’s the problem. Myths are often seen as “this is where things are inevitably going to lead; things are inevitably going to go badly.” Myths are much more about our fears of what happens in the everyday, mundane sense. So the myths about monstrosities or monstrous births are fears about the possibility of that happening anyway in natural conception…Myths are about what’s going on in the human mind: our nightmares, our worries.

Are myths about anthropoeia purely an expression of our anxieties? Do they serve a didactic purpose?

There is certainly an argument that they may be a codification of taboos. You might say that about incest in Oedipus. But it seems to me that a lot of those taboos don’t need to be shored up by myth. Myths are about fears…Their main purpose is not to persuade us to do something or not to do something. It isn’t to persuade us how we should live; it’s a deeper exploration of what’s going on in the human psyche: our fears and our hopes and our dreams.

Can we learn anything from myths that could positively shape debate over anthropoeia?

It’s not clear to me that there’s any deep wisdom in myths that will help us find our way through the ethical dilemmas we’re confronted with. There are things in myths that are relevant and well worth listening to, but they’re not going to tell us what to do about stem cell research…But it seems to me that we have to confront these technologies regarding the real possibilities that they raise for better or worse, rather than the imaginary ones that no scientist is interested in doing or would contemplate…

It’s striking that in Brave New World, and many dystopian tales of [anthropoeic] technologies, the dystopia is already imposed. It’s already there and already something that’s happened to society that condones [for example] the rearing of children by the state without access to their genetic parents. The implication is that these technologies will lead to that, but the stories already have those totalitarian dystopias in place, and the technologies are injected into them. Sometimes we get it the wrong way around. We use Brave New World as a stick to beat these new technologies…There is no argument in Brave New World for why exogenesis would lead to that kind of state. That’s something that state decided it would do.

How do we go about legislating limitations on the research or practice of artificial life creation? Do we first create an ethical framework to inform legislation, or do we first consider other factors, like utility?

I’m wary about using any ethical framework for answering these questions. We’d find that, once the technology has moved on, the ethical framework has dissolved…We don’t have the ethical tools, the ethical scope, to know how to think about these things clearly yet. They are very difficult questions, and I don’t think the ethical apparatus that has served us so far will deal with them, so I’m very much in favour of dealing with them on a case-by-case basis.

I [favour] using the process in law called casuistry, by which you accept that sometimes new evidence comes along so that you have to change your practice…To a lot of people that feels very unsafe, and they invoke slippery slope arguments: unless you draw the line somewhere it’s going to end up here or there. We have reason to believe that that doesn’t happen at all. In the UK, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority was able to draw up very sensible guidelines for where we are so far that were in some ways quite liberal, allowing a lot of research to happen, but at the same time were cautious…Some scientists found them restricting, which is probably a good thing. It’s a good sign if scientists find them a bit too restricting. So I see no reason why that can’t be done on a case-by-case basis rather than by grand ethical schemes that will collapse when the technology moves on.

William Kolkey is reading for a DPhil in History at Magdalen College, Oxford. He is the editor-in-chief of the Oxonian Review.

*Philip Ball spoke in a speaker series organised by Blackwell’s Books at Oxford. Future events are as follows:

Sunday 6th March, 6pm – 7.30pm

Apostolos Doxiadis: “Quest Myths: From Numbers to Stories”
Blackwell Bookshop, 48-51 Broad Street, Oxford. Please telephone 01865 333623.
Tickets are ¬£2 and are available from the Customer Service Department, Blackwell’s Bookshop.

We are thrilled to announce an event with Apostolos Doxiadis taking place on Sunday 6th March from 6pm to 7.30pm. In his talk entitled “Modern Quest Myths: From Numbers to Stories”, Apostolos Doxiadis will speak about his books Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture and Logicomix, as an introduction to a discussion about their theme and forms.

Tuesday 8th March, 4.30pm
Deborah Harkness: “A Discovery of Witches”
Exclusive talk and walking tour – please note, places are limited
Blackwell Bookshop, 48-51 Broad Street, Oxford. Tickets: £5

Join Deborah Harkness author of the highly anticipated debut novel, “A Discovery of Witches” on a magical tour of Oxford. Starting at Blackwell’s bookshop, you will have the opportunity to chat with the author in Caffe Nero, enjoying a tea or coffee included in the ticket price. Hear about how Blackwell’s itself appears in the novel before moving onwards to visit other locations in Oxford, learning about the history of the famous locations alongside the author’s own experiences and reference points within the novel.

Thursday 17th March at 7pm
Sara Paretsky
Blackwell Bookshop, 48-51 Broad Street, Oxford. Tickets: £2

Internationally bestselling author Sara Paretsky will be with us on Thursday 17th March at 7pm to talk about her latest book, Body Work. Sara Paretsky’s critically acclaimed V. I. Warshawski series has revolutionised female characterisation in mystery writing since 1982. Body Work is the fourteenth outing in the series.