OPINION | Cosmos Online | 25 October 2012
Medical advances this century may will make our future more bizarre. Get ready for medical science to push the boundaries of what it means to be human, says Wilson da Silva.
THE COLOSSAL ERUPTION of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in April 1815 was the biggest in recorded history: ejecting 160 cubic km of debris into the air, killing 71,000 people and disrupting climate patterns around the world. In the Northern Hemisphere, 1816 came to be known as the Year Without a Summer: rain and cold dominated, agricultural crops failed and livestock died, triggering a severe famine.
On the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, battered by cold and dreary weather all summer, a group of holidaying Britons were unable to enjoy the outdoors as they had planned. So they stayed inside, read and wrote poetry, told ghost stories, and tried to make the best of it. Among them were 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (better known as Mary Shelley) and her lover (and later husband) Percy Shelley, who were staying with their friend, the English poet Lord Byron.
That night, Mary Shelley had a powerful dream about a young medical student who reanimates a corpse; this inspired her to write a short story that eventually grew into a novel.
Sitting around a log fire one night, Byron suggested they each write a supernatural tale. That night, Mary Shelley had a powerful dream about a young medical student who reanimates a corpse; this inspired her to write a short story that eventually grew into a novel. In 1818, it was published as Frankenstein; Or the Modern Prometheus. Byron and his friend John Polidori wrote story fragments based on legends Byron had heard while travelling in the Balkans; from this was born the novel, The Vampyre, published in 1819. Thus, two legendary stalwarts of literature began in the same place.
These days, it is the vampire genre that has exploded in popularity, expanding into crime, fantasy, police drama, soap opera and even teenage romance. But what remains fascinating about Shelley’s vision is the uneasy tension it shows, even at the beginning of the 19th century, between scientific advancements in medicine and their cultural acceptance. Yes, the young Victor Frankenstein re-animates lifeless matter – a stupendous achievement. But his creation is rejected by society, and turns on the populace and on his creator. It’s clear from Shelley’s tale where she stands: the unnatural creature is an abomination.
This unease with medical advances has flared up sporadically over the nearly two centuries since Shelley’s gothic novel. For instance, anaesthesia – which has become an essential part of surgery, and especially childbirth – was slammed by some moralists, who argued that it was an interference with the natural order and would diminish our character. Similarly, the introduction of heart transplantations in the 1950s generated much heat and debate. In the 1970s, it was in-vitro fertilisation (IVF): detractors argued that test-tube babies would be psychologically harmed by the knowledge that they weren’t conceived naturally.
Today, anaesthesia is taken for granted, heart transplants are one of medicine’s glories, and the public approval rate of IVF is over 70%, from just 15% in the early 1970s.
Nick Bostrom, director of the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute in Britain, argues that we need to overcome this ‘yuck factor’: “One lesson [from history] is that our immediate emotional reactions to medical developments are an unreliable indicator of their morality. We are prone to prejudice and to narrow-minded underestimation of the long-term benefits of technological development.”
If our unease was a problem before, it is likely to be tested more forcefully in the years ahead. For we are on the cusp of dramatic advances in medical science: stem cells, robotics, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, genetics, artificial intelligence and cellular biology – all of these technologies are accelerating, and converging around medical solutions.
The world’s population is ageing fast, thanks to declining fertility and steady improvements in life expectancy. The baby boomer generation is the best-educated, healthiest and wealthiest generation ever to reach their twilight years – and they are demanding a high quality of life. There are 450 million baby boomers worldwide, and by 2025, a third of Europe’s population will be aged 60 years and over.
There are some truly inspiring advances being made in medical science. Some are likely to trigger the 'yuck factor': if not stem cells derived from foetal tissue, then artificial organs printed to order, or perhaps something as simple as artificial eyes looking back at you.
This is driving an explosion in medical innovation, which is itself driving up average life expectancy. “We will not be like our parents or grandparents,” says Joseph Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab, and himself a baby boomer. “If we are tired or suffer from a little bit of pain, that’s not what we’re going to accept as a natural part of ageing. We’re going to have a higher set of expectations. And the expectations are going to be driven by our aspirations and our money to be able to go after what we want.”
There are some truly inspiring advances being made in medical science; many are truly amazing, and offer hope to thousands of people – now and into the future. But some of them are likely to trigger Bostrom’s yuck factor: if not stem cells derived from foetal tissue, then artificial organs printed to order, genetic engineering to remove unwanted traits, synthetic organisms living within the body, or perhaps something as simple as artificial eyes looking back at you.
It’s said that science moves faster than the legal system, which is often true. But it is also able to leap ahead of community expectations, and bring back the unease that was so prevalent in Shelley’s 1818 masterpiece: still able to disorientate with its moral, ethical and social implications. For example, while IVF as a technology has widespread backing today, support can soften when applying it to a woman in her fifties or when used by a gay couple.
If history has taught us anything, it is that we become quite quickly accustomed to technology that might at first alarm us.
If history has taught us anything, it is that we become quite quickly accustomed to technology that might at first alarm us. There are no men with red flags walking ahead of automobiles as was once thought necessary, and we’ve all learned to deal with people walking the streets with tiny earpieces, seemingly talking to no-one in particular.
It is, in a sense, an ode to our extraordinary adaptability as a species. We may be uneasy at first, but if there is a benefit to the individual and to society, we learn to absorb, process and adapt. Even if, one day in the far future, humans are mostly composed of artificial parts, I suspect we will still think of ourselves as human – perhaps, even more than human – and be comfortable with the idea.
Wilson da Silva is the editor-in-chief of COSMOS Magazine. This article was originally published in Cosmos Online on 25 October 2012.