Broadcast by Channel 4 in the
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 epitomize 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 fetuses. Increasingly, scientists feel
pressured into abandoning work in contentious areas such
as genetics and fertility. Just how much valuable
research has been prevented?
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
Books and films have always demonized 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
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
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
"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
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 organize 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
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.
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
"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
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
"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."
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
The new enemies of science are to be
"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 favorite
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 demonize 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.
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
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
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 organization 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 behavioral 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
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 fetuses could be used as egg donors for
infertile women, since even fetuses 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
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 fetuses 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 color of her hair or her eyes. It's the stuff of
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 fertilized
egg. As the fetus 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
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 immunizing 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
"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
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
"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.
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 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
The flaws of
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
idealization 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
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
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
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,"
"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
"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 judgment characterizes us all. After all, our memories,
personalities, capabilities, intelligence are located between
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.