For addition to the annals of dazzlingly weird and unself-aware bioethical writing: IEET last month put up a blog post by Nikki Olson and Hank Pellissier (a.k.a. “Hank Hyena”) entitled “Artificial Wombs Will Spawn New Freedoms.” Olson and Pellissier try to make a case, on several grounds, for growing human babies in artificial outside-the-mother wombs.
The main things to keep in mind about this idea, from a practical standpoint, are all of the concerns over “reengineering” a profoundly complicated natural phenomenon about which there is an enormous amount we don’t know. (Consider, for example, the relatively modest and increasingly widespread practice of elective Caesarean sections: even with the great knowledge and powers of modern medical science, an NIH conference recently concluded that “There is insufficient evidence to evaluate fully the benefits and risks of cesarean delivery on maternal request compared with planned vaginal delivery.”)
But let’s set that aside, and set aside how intimately pregnancy and birth (not incubation and hatching) are tied up in who we are, and just note what a totally weird argument the authors put forward. The post begins:
Eggs were first. Millions of years before mammals, eggs existed, their hard shells protecting the incubating embryo inside. Egg Mom wanders mobile, light in her anatomy — unlike her mammalian sister that waddles around, heavily crippled with the burden of her womb. Eggs were an evolutionar[il]y smart idea.
The post goes on to detail all of the ways that eggs are advantageous and wombs comparatively quite problematic. These are true as far as they go — certainly eggs have their benefits and wombs their problems. But the authors seem to be suggesting that eggs are somehow actually more evolutionarily advantageous. There’s a certain logic to this, I guess: eggs have been around longer and so are more “tried and true.” Of course, there are also enormous relative advantages to wombs over eggs, which is why they evolved and permitted the flourishing of many more advanced species. It’s not as if the authors are comparing two species of finches, one of which uses eggs and the other wombs. They’re making an argument about evolutionary advancement by describing just a few traits of whole biological systems in entirely different families, without mentioning how those fit into the much more significant criterion of the relative overall advancement of two families.
In effect, it sounds like they’re saying that evolution works backwards. Put it this way: why stop with eggs? Why not extol the virtues of spores or mitosis, and suggest we reproduce like slime molds? Olson and Pellisier are not simply looking to nature for ideas for an engineering project, which engineers commonly do; it sounds rather like saying that biofuels are good because horses were way better for getting around than cars.
But the best part of the post is when the authors cite, as though it helps their case, the depiction of artificial wombs in Brave New World:
In February at the Grammy Awards, Lady Gaga crawled out of an artificial womb to sing her hit, “Born This Way.” Synthetic uteri have been featured in numerous books and films, from Brave New World to Avatar. We believe eggs are destined to return, to hatch our young, and that we will embrace them.
You can probably imagine how the rest goes.
(Back in 2003, The New Atlantis published a lovely and smart essay about artificial wombs by our senior editor Christine Rosen. It’s well worth reading. Check out “Why Not Artificial Wombs?”)