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Fooling with Mother Nature.

Folling with Mother Nature

In 1816 Mary Godwin (Shelley to be) was holidaying in the Swiss mountains near Geneva, staying at the Villa Diodati. "It proved a wet ungenial summer and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house."[1] It was during this summer holiday spent with Shelley and Byron that she wrote her story of Dr. Frankenstein. She was all of nineteen at the time.

The story was intended to be a diversion for the author and an amusement for the poets. Yet the lightly conceived Frankenstein; Or the Modern Prometheus was to ensure Mary Shelley's immortality and was probably to have a greater impact on the sensibilities of our time than the monumental works of those two giants of nineteenth century romantic poetry.

When Mary Shelley first published her story, we were at the beginning of the modern scientific revolution. The idea of one human being fabricating another was pure metaphor. The feat was presumed impossible, beyond human imagination, a grotesque exaggeration. It was a gothic tale, a device for the author to express her philosophical concern about the questing nature of the human being and the potential dangers inherent in this ambitious poking, prodding, nervous, unsatisfied attempt to know everything, to control everything, to confront the forces of nature and to conquer it. We were intended to identify with Dr. Frankenstein. He was the nineteenth century man committing the classical crime of a Greek poet of the fifth century B.C., the crime of hubris - overweaning pride.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the scientist was more than a rival to God; he was God. Technology had surpassed even its own expectations. There was nothing it would not eventually solve. We were too arrogant even to recognize arrogance. We did not have to fear God for we had replaced Him. Up to that point the whole of history seemed to have contrived to serve the purposes and glorify the name of Homo sapiens.

Now as we approach the end of the twentieth century we find that the myth of Frankenstein has become an everyday reality. With the miracle that is modern surgery we use patches and parts, manufactured and real, borrowed from ourselves, other living human beings, or cadavers, and we stitch them together with sutures of nylon or pins and staples of stainless steel. The development of such an extraordinary technology that gives ambulation to the lame and life to the dying is a glory to our species.

The fabrication of a human being is no longer mere metaphor or literary device. It is an everyday fact in the operating rooms across the country. The inconceivable has become conceivable. Dr. Frankenstein is at work in every major city of the modern world. We honor, we revere, we respect and need him. We wish him well and urge him to go further. An artificial heart, a brain transplant, go further - an artificial placenta; go further.

These are achievements from which we should take pride. Why then does the Frankenstein myth still have the power to terrorize us? The tragedy lies in the dreadful fact that with the realization of the promise we have somehow or other switched identities. We have lost our identity with Dr. Frankenstein and now identify with the monster. Perhaps that is an overstatement. Perhaps the real dilemma is that we now identify with both.

The fears have been relatively unorganized and inchoate within the field of surgery. Surgery has a long and incremental history, a gradual development, a story line that can be followed step by step any intelligent layman. It is not so far, after all, from Captain Ahab's ivory leg to a modern prosthesis responding to an electronic impulse; and if we can adjust to the concept of an artificial limb why not an artificial organ? Each step in modern surgery has prepared us for the step to follow and all have been judged good. All are in the service of health, survival, vitality, youth, or productivity.

But even in surgery we are approaching the boundaries of doubt and insecurity. Where will the patching end? How far can the remodeling go? Is a trans-sexual operation a medical procedure or a mutilation? Is a person tied to an artificial heart that bears more kinship to a gasoline pump than to a human heart capable of living a normal life? How many parts can we take, manufacture, make? How far can the experiment be pushed? And on whom? And will there be some inevitable price in some future time in some still unanticipated and horrifying way?

And what of the miracle of modern genetics! Those of us who may have struggled with traditional human genetics had no preparation for this strange and glorious world of molecular biology. We barely mastered an understanding of the teachings of Darwin and Mendel. Which of us still remembers the simple-minded rules of inheritance? Do you really have clearly in mind the distinctions between dominant and recessive? Do you remember why a child may have brown or blue or perhaps hazel eyes by no intermixtures? How is lefthandedness controlled? If a disease is an autosomal recessive what percentage of the offspring of two people will have the disease? What percentage will be healthy and what percentage will be carriers? What is an autosomal recessive? Are you comfortable when your children ask you to define "penetrance" and "expressivity"? Do you remember anything of elementary genetics from high school days?

How are we expected to make the leap into molecular biology; into DNA and recombinance; into gene splicing and the manufacturing of new species, chimera; to the potential of introducing genetic material and the traits they command from one individual to another and from one life form to another? What about this new capacity to design our descendants? No longer need we depend on the crude and inevitably distasteful methods of the old genetics - diagnosis followed by selective abortion. Now something formerly thought unimaginable is within our grasp; the defective or missing gene can be replaced.

We are on the threshold of a new world as inconceivable to us as the modern world of biology and technology was at the turn of the last century. Yet to this date the new genetics seem to have generated more anxiety than jubilation. We are always more terrified by high technology ways of influencing human behavior than equally potent low technology ones. It is clear to me that there is an unanalyzed irrational element that has entered the debate on research with recombinant DNA.

That extra, additional, unanalyzed variable I have called "The Frankenstein Factor." I define this as having two components. The first is that high technology research, being essentially not understandable by the average layman, will generate an air of mystery that will be more frightening than low technology techniques that effect the same ends.

Typically, we overvalue the dangers of high-technology means of altering life and behavior, while avoiding the very real problems emerging from low-technology developments. More time and energy have been devoted to the issue of the surrogate mother who represents no real threat to our society than to the infinitely more dangerous problem of the unmarried adolescent mother. The unattached, unsupported, and immature teenage mother is a knife at the throat of modern culture, and a mortgage on future vitality and hope in major cities where teenage illegitimacy now constitutes a majority of births. We minimize the problem of the neglected child who will breed a neglected child without our help.

A second element operating in the Frankenstein Factor concerns a bias about the nature of the area studied. Research that is seen as changing or controlling "the nature of the species" or controlling behavior will inevitably be received with a special fear that equally risky research in other areas does not engender. Even success - particularly success - is frightening.

Yet we change ourselves radically through our culture and our design. We began doing this well before the age of technology. It is our nature to define ourselves. Thomas Merton has said: "Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny."[2]

Perhaps my favorite expression of this long-acknowledged fact of our mutable nature is from the Talmud. The Rabbis questioned, "If God had intended man to be circumcised, why did he not create him that way in the first place?" The answer given is that alone among creatures man is created incomplete, with the privilege of sharing with his creator in his own design.

Rousseau expressed this brilliantly when he stated that every animal is "only an ingenious machine to which nature has given senses in order to revitalize itself and guarantee itself, to a certain point, from all that tends to destroy or upset it." The beast "chooses or rejects by instinct" and man "by an act of freedom." "A beast cannot deviate from the rule that is prescribed to it even when it would be advantageous for it to do so, and a man deviates from it often to his detriment.... Nature commands every animal and the creature obeys. Man feels the same impetus, but he realizes that he is free to acquiesce or resist."

"An animal is at the end of a few weeks what it will be all of its life; and its species is at the end of a thousand years what it was in the first year of that thousand." Yet the exclusively human faculty of self-perfection will over the centuries bring to flower "his enlightenment and his errors, his vices and his virtues," and in the long run makes the human being "tyrant of himself and of nature."[3]

No new knowledge emerging from the complex vision of modern scientific biology contradicts this brilliantly reasoned insight of two hundred years ago. Autonomy is complex, genetically determined, and multiply defined. It refers not just to the freedom inherent in the species, but the freedom of each individual to behave in certain ways that are unpredictable and idiosyncratic.

The wisdom of Genesis informs us that the ancient Jews well understood the uniqueness of our species. God created Adam and Eve free but uninformed. The first creative use of that autonomy was Eve's defiance of God, in eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Through that action the human animal fulfilled the potential for autonomy and self-determination. The punishment would fit the crime.

God said to Eve: "I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception, in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children."[4]

Human birth is difficult - difficult and premature. It is necessitated by the giant and disproportionate size of the infant brain. This huge brain is a function of our potential for knowledge and learning, both of which are essential in an animal free from instinctual patterning.

Given the nature of the human pelvis (designed for upright posture) and the extraordinary size of the fetal brain at nine months of gestation, it is essential that the fetus pass through the birth canal at that time even though this means that by comparison with other mammals the human infant is born in a state of extreme vulnerability, and will remain in a helpless state for an unprecedented and extended period of time. The human brain weighs about 350 grams at birth. By the end of the first year of life it will have grown to 825 grams out of a total potential growth for the adult of 1,400 or less!

The human child is also subject to an extraordinary prolonged period of dependency. This has its complications. It allows parents the time necessary to mold the raw materials of the child into their predetermined models of a proper adult. Even here the unpredictability of these efforts is only too apparent to anyone who has raised a child. Still, our children are our products for good or bad and we shape them to our conscious or unconscious designs. These designs will be profoundly influenced by the standards of our culture and the selective values within the subculture of the particular family. These influences will be further modified and reinforced by our behavior and attitudes as parents.

The power of early conditioning to facilitate the development or the dissipation of our human potential is incalculable. It is demonstrated in the existence of those distorted few who abuse their children. They violate the biological directive on which the future of our species is built, the compassionate concern for the dependent child.

The battering parent is one extreme example. What of the adolescent who with equanimity can hit a fellow human being over the head with a lead pipe to gain the contents of a purse or for no reason at all? The absence of any constraining guilt or shame in his behavior implies a defective mechanism that is unlikely to be reparable. When a conscience-free individual emerges due to an inadequate or corrupting early environment, no amount of good will, understanding, compassion, or for that matter psychotherapy is likely to rectify the deficiency. Controls with these individuals will reside in fear of retribution, not in remorse.

In matters of conscience and values, the impact of early conditioning mediated through the emotions of fear, guilt, and shame are powerful forces for automatically determining the most profound aspects of human life. This being so, why not press for social engineering to insure the development of human beings who will contribute and conform to the kind of civilization we respect?

In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B.F. Skinner went beyond an exposition of the implicit philosophy of behaviorism. He offered a political agenda based on the assumptions of that philosophy. The swap that he asked us to make was freedom for security. Professor Skinner attempted to ease the pain by his reflection that this exchange was not only necessary but a free lunch. We gain a great deal and we give up nothing. Freedom is only an illusion that we maintain to protect our vanities. We pretend that we differ from the lower animals, building our special worth on an erroneous assumption of autonomy, propagandized by pre-scientific philosophers and theologians.

By the time we have reached adult life, Skinner said, we are no freer than the jackal. But we have been conditioned with no specific program and therefore no rational purpose. This chaotic state has led us to the brink of the abyss. We need to give up the illusion of freedom while there is still time to save ourselves and begin the process of self-design with at least the same intelligence and planning we would use to build a machine or train a dog.

The fear of autonomy-gone-bonkers is understandable in this age of macho super-patriots who place themselves above the law and beyond accountability and command the use of atomic weapons; when the lawless and perverse destroy our public spaces, converting the parks of our inner cities into no-man's lands where even the police are reluctant to enter; in a time when a self-indulgent middle class is destroying our forests and countryside with acid rain to satisfy their irresponsible desire for ever bigger automobile behemoths; when industrial leaders by corruptly narrowing their focus on "the bottom line" contaminate our rivers and streams and beyond that the very oceans that for centuries have been seen as the incorruptible purifiers of all things.

Nonetheless, we have at this point many cultural and political maneuvers available that are less risky than an abandonment of autonomy via early conditioning to a fixed design. The behavioral method of conditioning could in itself be more destructive than the risks of freedom.

We may inevitably be moving to a more homogeneous and predictable behavior, independent of the psychologists, driven by the social and economic realities of our time. The liberation of women from the kitchens and laundry rooms of life was traditionally accomplished not by eliminating kitchens and laundries, or enlisting the cooperation of men, but by exploiting other women. We are running out of everything these days, including exploitable women. The only solution is a less labor intensive system. We are discovering collective caretaking. With the advent of the single parented household and the financial need for two working parents in those families that are still intact there is pressure for earlier and earlier child care programs. Children a year of age or younger are kept collectively under the tutelage of professional help for as long as eight hours a day.

In a family setting where the ratio of caretaker to child is small the power of identification and personality development through role modeling is enormous. The average child will pick up his character traits wholesale through emulation. He is more likely to become the parent, rather than what the parent instructs him to become. In institutions things are different. Conditioning in this setting is more cost efficient.

A crucial fact to keep in mind when considering early "education" is the plasticity that exists in early life. In changing behavior age is a lever that becomes progressively shorter. At birth the inchoate child is all potential awaiting and demanding modeling into behavior patterns. The arm of the lever is extraordinarily long. With a proper fulcrum and the proper position Archimedes said he could move the world. The parent has that fulcrum and that position particularly in the first few years of life.

Parents know that by the fifth year of life the essential personality and character traits of children are so firmly fixed that short of heroic or professional efforts they can barely be modified. My concern about social engineering does not mean that I do not subscribe to the right, and even more, the obligation to modify behavior through proper training. That training had generally been vested in the family, which controlled the infant and shaped his values during that intense crucible of learning that is the first five years.

Obviously, most of us are not planning to turn over our newborn children to be shaped in the character of others. But day care, like television, will be one more reduction in the heterogeneity, already limited, that the family introduced into character and personality. Homogeneity offers less opportunities for survival than heterogeneity. More may survive the predictable, but there will be none left to survive the unpredictable.

The history of scientific and institutional approaches to controlling behavior offers little comfort about the future of scientific behavior control. In many ways we have been better served by happenstance than social design. One need only look at the state of some of our designed institutions today - our public school systems, our prisons - to question the wisdom of social science and social engineering.

Besides, the most intimidating paradox remains. The one attribute of human behavior that must be most scrupulously respected is the mutability of our nature, our freedom from instinctual fixation. While we may modify certain behavior we must not try to produce a human machine. Machines rapidly become obsolete. Nor should we compensate for nature's gift of autonomy by imposing a developmentally induced predictability. We must not look with envy at the order and stability of the insects. We could not endure the life of the ant. Nineteen-eighty-four has come and gone - many times. It has never produced a stable, let alone a happy society.

Freedom was only an illusion to Skinner; abandoning it was easy. Give up those silly myths of human freedom and dignity and get to work with intelligent and rigorous early programming of children to create a more predictable creature that can secure our survival.

But what of those of us who believe in autonomy and see our diversity as our last hope for survival? We recognize the same dangers as Skinner does; our freedom is bringing us close to disaster. We even acknowledge with him that all early conditioning constitutes a form of mitigation of autonomy. We want a child to feel guilt when he does "wrong." We work to create such a child by various forms of explicit and implicit indoctrination. Yet we honor freedom and wish to create an adult with maximum capacity for free choice. We who believe in freedom must walk a perilous path. We encourage by our indoctrination the emergence of an adult who will - guided through conscience and identification - "choose" to do good and eschew evil, yet an individual not so constricted and obsessive that he cannot recognize conditions in which he may feel obliged to change or defy his own rules. That is no mean feat.

Further, we can only maximize freedom and autonomy in an environment that also encourages pride, guilt, shame, empathy, identification, love, duty, obligation, unselfishness, and hope. We do not currently live in such a society and we are critically close to a point of no return. Our present culture with its over-ripened individualism and its contempt for community is dangerously close to a tilt point that will either lead to its destruction or to Draconian reversals in the extremis of a struggle for survival.

Let me turn to another story that illustrates what I believe has happened to our modern Prometheus. Stephen Jay Gould, in one of his delightful essays, discusses the famous case of the Irish elk.[5] This magnificent beast during the course of his adaptation developed progressively grander and more elaborate antlers. Those animals with the largest antlers won the battle of survival by attracting more females and by threatening their potential rivals. Eventually the Irish elk (ironically neither Irish nor an elk but actually a deer) evolved such a massive and ornamental headdress that it inevitably became meshed in the trees and made flight from predators impossible. Its former glory eventually became a source of its own downfall. What had originated as adaptive had become destructive.

At this stage modern civilization is becoming like the antlers of the elk. There are indications that technological society has estranged us from certain necessary conditions of survival as human beings. Unaware, we may have passed the apex and slipped onto the downward slope of the curve of adaptation. That which formerly was our glory and power - our technology and the culture it has spawned - has begun to reduce us. We feel progressively impotent in the face of the pleasureless social institutions that we ourselves created, but that now seem to control us.

But how are we to know, poor creatures that we are, when we go astray, when we venture too far? How can we tell when we have reached the edge of the abyss? What are the guidelines? We cannot, as an earlier primitive time would have us, avoid the "unnatural." There are no strict natural laws to obey. To say that something is natural is difficult with the human species because we change our nature. We are invited by our nature to tamper with our nature. We can never therefore define the good exclusively in terms of the natural. But even beyond that it is clear that to say something is natural is not to say that it is good. We will always need to analyze and define the kind of life we value.

Being human is special. Those attributes that distinguish us from the beasts, that define our humanness, must be encouraged and enhanced to maintain our status "in the image of God." Acknowledging that one of the primary aspects of our humanness is the capacity to modify ourselves, I would hold that the guidelines necessary to test the value of change would be the degree to which those changes encourage or discourage the emergence of the other noble and human qualities. Here I will submit, undefended for lack of space, my valued set of certain special human attributes: a life of imagination, esthetics, and hope; autonomy and freedom; a range of feeling that includes joy and pride, but also guilt and shame; a romantic sexuality; a joy in work (as distinguished from labor); a developed conscience; and that line of traits that leads from identification to friendship and love.

In guarding these central human attributes, we must not overvalue the danger of the technological because in so doing we will take our eye from the sociological and psychological factors that to this date have had, and probably into the near future will have, the most profound impact in changing human nature. We will be victimized by the Frankenstein Factor, by being intimidated by the method rather than focusing on the effect. No technology to date has been able to dehumanize and demoralize with the power of drugs, poverty, neglect, despair, narcissism, and blind hedonism.

From the moment we left the Garden and stepped into that unpredictable world east of Eden we were embarked on a unique journey fraught with danger and immersed in pain, but a journey that only our species was capable of undertaking. We were privileged to abide in the Garden, but we are equally privileged in our journey from it. We are, in the words of T.H. White, both the once and future king. We are born underdeveloped and will remain that way all of our lives, but only this "eternal embryo," the human being, will always remain "potential" in the image of God. In our quest for that which we may become, we inevitably assume the mantel of Dr. Frankenstein, but we dare not ignore the lesson of the Irish elk. Both the knowledge of the past, and the potential of the future are the special burdens of Homo sapiens. We are, indeed, something special.


[1] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York:

Bantam, 1981), xxii. [2] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

(New York: New Directions, 1972), 32. [3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The First and Second

Discourses, R.D. Masters ed. (New York: St.

Martin's Press, 1964), 113-15. [4] Genesis III:16. [5] Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin:

Reflections in Natural History (New York: W.W.

Norton, 1977), 79-90.
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Title Annotation:using social engineering and biotechnology to modify human nature
Author:Gaylin, Willard
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Previous Article:The place of autonomy in bioethics.
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