Professor Robert White is medical adviser to the Pope. He is also the only man to have successfully performed a head transplant.
Throughout the world, science is advancing into uncharted territory — artificial wombs, male pregnancy, cloning, and human/animal hybrids. To scientists, this is progress. But environmentalists argue that these developments epitomise science gone mad. They point to the BSE crisis and claim that tampering with nature will lead to disaster.
New ethics committees are being set up to monitor potentially immoral areas of research, such as cloning, and funding bodies are withholding grants from politically sensitive projects. Meanwhile, governments are passing legislation to ban research involving practices of which they disapprove, such as using tissue from aborted foetuses. Increasingly, scientists feel pressured into abandoning work in contentious areas such as genetics and fertility. Just how much valuable research has been prevented?
Against Nature Hears From Both Scientists And Their Opponents.
|The Curse Of Frankenstein|
|Enemies Of Science|
|Protecting Nature, Controlling Science|
|Genetics, Ethics & The Law|
|Flaws Of Nature|
|Vindication of Frankenstein?|
Art and science: the curse of Frankenstein
Scientific progress is at the heart of the attempt by humans to improve their lot. But human action has been discredited in the late 20th century, and a new pessimism about the future, which is reflected in films and books, has called into question the value of scientific progress.
Books and films have always demonised scientists — from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to B-movies like Dr Satan's Robot. But today film-makers and writers believe they are providing serious cautionary tales about the real threat posed to society and the environment by the excesses of modern science.
But are they right? Are scientists going too far?
Gattaca, a chilling tale of a society corrupted by genetic science, is to be released in March in cinemas all over Britain. And Gattaca is only the most recent of a wave of films that portray science out of control, wreaking havoc on society and the environment and upsetting the delicate balance of nature. The Island of Dr Moreau, released last year, featured a scientist who creates beasts that are half animal, half human.
"When we try to set ourselves up, as Moreau does, as being superior to nature, I think we pay a terrible, terrible toll," says the film's producer, John Frankenheimer. "It's a moral fable that says to people what can happen when these scientists go unchecked, when they run amok. And it has tremendous, tremendous pertinence to what's going on today."
But the idea of mixing the genes of animals and humans is no longer a fantasy. Nor is the idea of cloning humans, which is the nightmare presented in City of the Lost Children. Using a single cell from a sheep's udder, scientists in Scotland have shown how it is possible to clone animals — and there is no scientific reason, they say, why the same could not be done for humans.
Michael Marshall-Smith's novel Spares is a horror story about using cloned humans as organ donors.
"The idea came quite a long time ago," the author told Against Nature, "when I first heard about the idea of cloning. It immediately occurred to me that one possible use of that might be to produce clones that could be used effectively as spare-part banks for their twins."
"I thought I was writing a cautionary tale — an idea that occurred to me that couldn't possibly happen now or hopefully in the near future. But here it is, which I think is one of the reasons why science fiction is important — because these things are happening faster than we can catch up. And we can do our bit to make sure that the bits that they're doing don't end up having consequences which they would never have predicted and wouldn't have wanted."
Scientists claim their work is now being hampered because the public is so suspicious about what they're up to. And many of them blame this on the portrayal of science in the media, which, they say, promotes fear and anxiety about scientific progress.
"I think the continual drip, drip of negativity and the anxieties of the Mary Shelley Frankenstein type probably do have an effect on the public," says Professor Lewis Wolpert, a biologist.
Oliver Morton, Contributing Editor to Wired in the US, agrees.
"I think it's coming from Michael Crichton. I think it's coming from other people like Michael Crichton — people who understand technology and play on the fears that people have about technology, and who know that Technology Runs Amok makes a much better story than Technology Doesn't Run Amok. I mean, what would Jurassic Park have been like if they'd actually designed it properly, put in proper fail-safe systems, not done it in such a completely half-arsed way that half of them got eaten. And this is just ridiculous, when none of us would actually organise a theme park that way. But we're perfectly willing to look at a fiction about people doing something incredibly stupid and say, 'Oh, scientists shouldn't meddle.'"
Meddling medics: technology, the Pope and the yuck factor
But many people are concerned that scientists are now meddling with nature in the most fundamental ways.
The world it seems, is being turned on its head. Italian doctors have enabled a black couple to have a white baby and 60-year-old women to have babies. Japanese scientists have developed an artificial womb which may allow us to grow babies in boxes. And scientists even say men may soon be able to have babies.
"Transplanting a uterus from a woman to a man is, I suppose, theoretically possible, providing one could arrange the appropriate plumbing," says Professor Roger Gosden, a specialist in reproductive medicine.
It would seem that even the most bizarre horror stories can hardly keep pace with real-life scientific developments. Dennis Potter's Cold Lazarus presents the horror of a severed head that is artificially kept alive. In fact, a scientist — who has been accused of being a real-life Victor Frankenstein — has already managed to keep a severed head alive.
Professor Robert White is one of America's leading neurosurgeons, treating people with spinal cord injuries. He is also medical adviser to the Pope. His pioneering work began in the 1960s, when he transplanted the brain of one dog into the neck of a second dog. "So, in other words, this dog wound up with two brains," Professor White explained.
However, in the process of removing the brain from the dog's skull, Professor White had to sever the links with its eyes and ears. So although he could tell it was alive, by measuring its electronic impulses, he could not measure how conscious the brain was after transplantation into another body.
The obvious solution was to keep the brain inside the head. So, in 1971 Professor White attempted to remove the head of one monkey and transplant it onto the body of a second monkey.
In the course of his experiments, Professor White has discovered that the only organ which can be transplanted without fear of rejection is the brain. Only the rest of the head is likely to cause problems.
Against Nature shows Professor White performing this experiment. After the blood supply has been connected, the head can safely be removed from its original body, with its brain functioning more or less normally. Then the body's original head is disconnected and its new head is attached. Shortly after, the transplanted head appears to regain consciousness. Although the transplanted head cannot control its new body, the head itself appears to be working normally. Its eyes follow Professor White around the room. The monkey will survive for up to a week but could possibly live like this indefinitely if drugs were used to prevent the body from rejecting the head.
But Professor White's ambitions lie beyond monkeys and dogs. He believes his work could be developed to help humans whose bodies are diseased or damaged.
Professor White's work has been hugely controversial, especially among animal rights groups. There have been calls for this type of scientific research to be banned. Dame Jill Knight MP, for example, told Against Nature:
"Government is there to protect the people — to protect them from outside enemies, to protect them from a bad environment and to protect them from very, very outrageous things like transplanting heads, which will, I'm quite sure, invoke horror in the population."
But the basis of the criticism of head transplantation mainly concerns what scientists often call the yuck factor. "The 'yuck factor' is, I think, an absolutely crucial issue," says Professor Wolpert. "But yuck is not a really good basis for making important decisions."
Although Professor White has been widely attacked for his experimental work, support has come from a perhaps unexpected quarter — Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II.
"I have been repeatedly encouraged by them personally in my work," he says. "I believe from a biblical standpoint I stand on solid ground."
The new enemies of science
Although some radical Christians still repudiate the idea of evolution and oppose developments in fertility, mainstream Christianity has more or less come to terms with scientific progress. The new enemies of science are to be found elsewhere.
"In the past the critics of science tended to be traditional conservatives or religious authorities," says John Gillot, author of Science and the Retreat from Reason. "Today they've come to terms with scientific progress. The striking thing now is that the critics of science are the people you might expect to be supporters of it — it's former radicals, it's film-makers, it's novelists, and, most striking of all today, it's environmentalists. Scientific advance is problematic for many environmentalists because it gives the people more power — more power to meddle in nature and the natural order of things. For environmentalists, that's the greatest offence of all — the 'balance of nature' or the 'natural harmony in nature' is one of their big ideas."
Indeed, according to Edward Goldsmith, editor of the Ecologist,
"Every one of the scientists today is a Dr Frankenstein producing colossal monsters that could wipe us out. Genetic engineering can wipe out humanity."
Many film-makers, novelists and journalists have been deeply affected by environmentalists' thinking over the past two decades. Greenpeace is one of Hollywood's favourite charities and many films incorporate environmentalist themes. In Terry Gilliam's recent film Twelve Monkeys, a virus escapes from a lab and causes ecological havoc, wiping out 99% of the human race. He believes this reflects legitimate concern that humans are upsetting the delicate balance of nature.
"Man has gone into the rainforest and opened up our ecosystems, which were quite happily living there, devouring each other. And suddenly these viruses are now running around finding new hosts, new dinners — and they're us. And we don't understand, but we know somehow we've overstepped our bounds in our relationship with nature."
A central feature of much anti-science thinking is pessimism about the future and the idea that humans can only mess things up. This gloomy view of the future stands in stark contrast to attitudes earlier in the 20th century. The future was going to be extraordinary and people found it exciting. It was widely believed that labour-saving devices would deliver masses of leisure time and that science would generally bring us the good life.
"In the 30s and 40s we believed technology was going to lead to a Utopia of one form or another, and it hasn't been the case," says Terry Gilliam. "And so we're all rather disillusioned. What we do in films, I suppose, is deal with the general sense of things, and the general sense of things is that things aren't getting better."
John Carpenter's films, such as the recent Escape from LA, present a particularly dystopian, nightmarish vision of the future.
"I think in the 90s all of us are cynical about everything," he says. "Science, politics, our institutions, religion — everything seems corrupt in a way. And I think a lot of this is just fear of the future."
Films that demonise science or present a dystopian vision of the future promote the idea that man is his own worst enemy. Nature, on the other hand, is seen as a wholesome and harmonious thing that man has defiled.
Protecting nature, controlling science
The concern to protect nature, which has found expression in the rise of environmentalist thinking, goes hand in hand with the new suspicion of science and has led to calls for stricter controls over scientific research — and for some areas of science to be banned outright.
Michael Marshall-Smith, for example advocates more controls because, he argues,
"the magnitude of the mistakes that can be made, the implications that they can have for everyone, not just the scientists in their own lab, are so enormous."
But scientists say that this is leading to valuable research being censored or closed down. For example, Professor White, the Pope's medical adviser, was attacked so bitterly when his work on head transplantation became public that he ended his experiments before he could perform a head transplant on a human. And the effective censorship of Professor White's work isn't disappointing only for him. His research might have saved the lives of quadriplegics who tend to die early from multiple organ failure.
"Only a brand new body can keep them alive."
John Gillot argues that the suppression of such work will have serious consequences.
"Over the years pioneers have always followed their instinct, tried things for the hell of it, allowed their curiosity to guide their research. That's a great thing, because that's how we learn new things — we think of [the 17th-century physician William] Harvey carving up bodies or Leonardo dissecting animals as a child. To seek to restrict that today would be a terrible thing."
Popular fears about science are reflected in the work of ethics committees, which oversee and vet what scientists do. Until recently, most ethics committees were attached to local hospitals and merely acted to prevent bad or dangerous scientific practice, but in the past few years a whole range of national ethics committees has been set up. Often operating informally and discreetly, these bodies can effectively shut down areas of research that they consider too controversial.
What's more, scientists don't just have to contend with ethics committees. Funding bodies can withdraw support from scientific projects that are considered too controversial. And such bodies have become increasingly sensitive to criticism from outside pressure groups.
Keeping it in the family: genetics, ethics and the law
Former geneticist David King now runs an organisation called the Campaign for Real Intelligence, which is dedicated to restricting research into genetics.
"I really think that there are some areas of human life where it is simply too dangerous for us to try and take control," he explains.
One of David King's recent targets has been research into the genetic basis of reading difficulties and IQ, which was carried out by the behavioural geneticist Professor Robert Plomin. Professor Plomin believes his research could help people with specific learning difficulties, but David King fears that it will result in less clever people becoming second-class citizens, and that parents might abort babies who don't have the right intelligence genes.
Following David King's campaign, the Medical Research Council is now considering whether to withhold funding for this type of research, effectively conceding that some areas of scientific enquiry are simply out of bounds. Meanwhile, Professor Plomin, who is based in Britain, has been forced to seek funding for his work in the United States.
Other areas of research are banned outright when politicians decide to legislate against them. Roger Gosden's work was one casualty. He suggested that aborted foetuses could be used as egg donors for infertile women, since even foetuses have a full complement of eggs.
"Some people are born with sterile ovaries," he explains. "Other people have a premature menopause. At the moment they may be able to have egg donation, but there are not enough eggs to go round. So the idea of using eggs from another donor, a dead donor, was to overcome this particular shortage."
But Professor Gosden's research was made illegal under the Criminal Justice Act, thanks to Dame Jill Knight, who was horrified by the idea that eggs from aborted foetuses could be used to breed children.
"To be told that the child had come from a dead mother, a mother, in fact, that was never actually born at all — he could never see a picture of her, he'd never know the colour of her hair or her eyes. It's the stuff of nightmares."
Another area of research that is completely banned in Britain and America is germ-line gene therapy. This involves altering someone's genetic make-up in such a way that the genetic changes are passed on from generation to generation.
Dr James Wilson, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania, is baffled by the ban. "The first patient that I ever interviewed as a potential candidate for gene therapy was a young woman with a lethal inherited disorder," he told Against Nature.
"She was going to die from a heart attack at the age of 20. She came to me to find out whether I could fix her so that her children would not have the same kind of disorder. That's germ-line therapy. That was a reasonable human being who was dealt a poor hand in life. Is that wrong?"
Scientists are already learning how to get inside a cell and insert new genes. The difference with germ-line gene therapy is that they do this to a newly fertilised egg. As the foetus grows, the new genes are copied into all the cells of the body. This means that the genetic changes are passed down from generation to generation. But some people, such as Jeremy Rifkin, author of Who Should Play God, think it's too risky to tamper with genes in such a fundamental way.
"We know very little about the evolutionary plan and scheme of things," he argues. "And we know very little about our own evolution as a species. To my mind it's the height of irresponsibility for scientists and corporations to begin rushing into making permanent changes in the genetic code of our species with very little knowledge of where that's going to lead. So when scientists say it's their right to begin changing the genetic traits in a germ line, I shudder. I actually shudder."
This is unfortunate for the many thousands of parents and children who suffer from heritable diseases such as Hurler syndrome.
Emily Hayward is a Hurler sufferer. She is five years old, but she stopped growing at the age of 18 months. Within a few years she will die. Emily's parents love her dearly, but they can do little to ease the symptoms of her disorder. She finds it painful to walk, she is almost deaf, she can hardly see, and mucus in her lungs makes it difficult for her to breathe.
Emily's parents do not suffer from Hurler's, but it was their genes that made her how she is. And although their other children are healthy, it is likely that they are also carrying the Hurler gene. So the spectre of Hurler's will haunt the family for generations to come.
Germ-line gene therapy might have held out hope for the Hayward family and thousands of others whose lives are blighted by inherited diseases. But ethics bodies in Britain and America have banned research into the area because, they say, we don't know enough about genetics and it would be too risky.
Emily's father can't understand their attitude.
"To argue that we don't go down a line because we don't know about something is a very strange thing to put forward to human beings who have done it all through history," he says. "The very fact that we don't know about a particular thing is the very reason why we explore it."
Germ-line gene therapy might also have been used against HIV and AIDS. Last year, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania discovered a mutant gene, found in 1 in 100 people, which makes them immune to the HIV virus. If the scientists here had been allowed to research into germ-line gene therapy, they might have learnt how to copy the mutant gene into embryos, thereby immunising future generations against HIV and offering a real hope of eradicating AIDS.
For many scientists, the huge potential benefits of germ-line gene therapy far outweigh the possible risks involved in tampering with human genes.
"Risk taking is integral to the experimental process," says John Gillot. "We learn new things by experimenting and by taking risks. We can't say in advance what we'll learn. We also can't say in advance exactly what the risks will be. That's something we have to live with and cope with. To raise risk and danger as a barrier to experimentation is to defeat the whole idea."
The problem of self-censorship
We aren't just missing out on scientific advances because lines of research are banned or denied funding. We also miss out because scientists are increasingly censoring themselves. In fields such as fertility, genetics and transplantation, scientists now avoid certain areas of research because they believe they will come under attack.
"I like to think I'm tough enough to take it," says Robert Plomin. "But after a while it wears you down — especially when some scientists in my area have been attacked physically and their families threatened."
Robert White has had such problems.
"A laboratory some distance from here had some damage done to it under the belief that it was my laboratory," he told Against Nature. "And an individual was picked up at this institution who had planned on killing me."
And physical threats are not the only source of pressure.
"If you go in this direction — the dangerous way — you know that it'll be harder to publish, it'll be harder to get grants, it'll be harder to get people to work with you," says Professor Plomin. "So all the pressure pushes you a little bit towards the safer side. And then it's continuing and snowballing reinforcement."
Some scientists believe the accumulated effect of ethical blocks on scientific work, legislation banning areas of research, and the self-censorship exercised by scientists themselves is seriously retarding scientific progress.
"It is my contention, and that of others," says Professor White, "that whereas before we would have drugs in a week or a year or two years, it'll take decades now. And the surgical techniques that we need right now will not be available perhaps for half a century."
Scientists say we really should be terrified — not that they will rampage out of control, creating monsters and meddling with nature, but rather that, in the current atmosphere of anti-science, valuable research is being closed down. Perhaps, they say, it is time to defend the Victor Frankensteins of science, the pioneers who believe that nature should not be protected but conquered.
Knowledge: the value of the value-free
A new suspicion of science and disillusionment in man's ability to change the world for the better has revived the old idea that knowledge is a dangerous thing.
John Gillot concedes that there are risks, but argues that these can be managed.
"Of course more knowledge can be used to do bad things," he says. "But that's something we've got to deal with. We've got to deal with the harm as we go along. To deny knowledge is to deny benefits to people."
Indeed, some scientists, such as Lewis Wolpert, refuse to accept that there can be any bad knowledge.
"Knowledge is value free," he says. "Water is made of H2O. That's the way it is. It has no particular value one way or another. Genes are genetic material made of DNA. That's the way it is. We are not at the centre of the universe. We came from ape-like creatures. You may not like those answers. That's the way it is. There are genetic differences amongst us that may affect our musical ability or our intelligence. You may not like it, but that's the way it is."
The flaws of nature
Unfortunately, the way it is is just how some people would like to keep it. For the new enemies of science, radical scientific advances are seen as going against nature, and it is precisely the idealisation of nature that has brought conservatives and radicals together in their opposition to science.
As Dame Jill Knight puts it:
"It's infinitely better to work with nature than to work against it — just as it's better to work with the grain of the wood."
But scientists are keen to refute the idealistic vision of nature as a harmonious and delicate thing that must be protected.
"There is nothing that great about nature," says Oliver Morton. "Nature is full of diseases; it's full of failures. Almost every organism that's born on the planet fails — doesn't make it to reproductive age. Humans are rather better than that — most of us do make it to reproductive age. In fact many of us reproduce. That's a great achievement, and that's an artificial achievement. If you leave it to nature, all you get is a lot of dead babies."
Lewis Wolpert agrees.
"It's very ironic that people who believe we shouldn't meddle in nature wouldn't hesitate to go to a doctor," he says. "What else is going to a doctor other than meddling with nature?"
"Nature is infertility; nature is genetic diseases that have terrible effects on families, that cause early and painful death," adds Juliet Tizzard of the Progress Educational Trust. "Nature is a whole range of conditions that medicine can treat. And in that sense, medicine is unnatural — and that's what's good about it."
The vindication of Frankenstein?
From artificial wombs and pregnant men to cloning and head transplants, the latest developments in science make scientists look like modern Frankensteins. Yet, some people insist that instead of censoring them, we should be encouraging them to go still further.
Cloning, for instance, scientists say, could bring enormous benefits if they were only allowed to develop the technology.
"Human cloning research will allow us to further our knowledge about the ageing process," John Gillot believes. "It will allow us to tackle disease in novel ways. We'll be able to culture and clone cells to fight cancer. Cloning of embryos might allow us to produce special kinds of cells which could really do a great job in terms of fighting off many diseases."
Some people argue that dabbling with the unnatural is precisely what we should be doing. According to John Gillot, Victor Frankenstein should be regarded as a hero, not a villain.
"Victor Frankenstein, the father of the monster, was based on a real-life scientist, Humphry Davy — a man who championed scientific innovation and experimentation," he says. "Today there are plenty of Mary Shelleys — in fact people a lot worse than Mary Shelley — but where's our modern-day Humphry Davy. Where's our real-life Victor Frankenstein? There aren't any, and that's a problem, because it's these kind of people who are going to take society forward through experimentation and innovation."
Robert White is now thinking of defying his critics and performing a head transplant or a body transplant on a human, even though he will have to leave America to do this. He has patients who have put themselves forward for the operation — Craig Vetovitz, for example, who broke his neck in an accident.
"Yes, I'd like to be the first," he says. "There'll be complications the first time around, and I'm very well aware of the risks. But if I can promote and accelerate this type of research, yes, I'd be prepared to do it."
"In the final analysis," says Professor White, "We'd be trying to save somebody's life — or if we want to be specific about it, someone's brain life, which in my judgement characterises us all. After all, our memories, personalities, capabilities, intelligence are located between our ears."
Instead of glorifying nature, scientists argue that we should be celebrating progress. Rather than attacking science, we should applaud those scientists who dare to be called Dr Satan.