Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Irony Alert: Brave New World

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.

Lady Gaga [Photo credit: Getty Images]

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?”)

4 comments:

  1. Yet another great post. I observe that many who are excited about the prospect of artificial wombs do so on the basis of 'libertarian' premises.

    http://www.popbioethics.com/2011/06/unthinkable-of-the-day-4/

    But isn't it clear that 1) artificial wombs will reopen the abortion debate by removing viability as a distinction; 2) that one powerful argument for them will be that they are safer for the fetus because constantly monitored (indeed no one would use them unless they are at least as safe... or -- chastened by the NIH study on elective caesarians -- close to as safe); 3) that the state/medical establishment would have to be heavily involved in oversight of any use of an artificial womb, and to the extent that they are 'better' their use will be encouraged by a state increasingly fixated on health and safety; 4) that because the mother's attachment to the baby can no longer be presumed upon as before precisely because the baby is more chosen and made, the state (through the medical establishment) will have to supervise post-natal rearing of the baby more closely; 5) that all of these expansions of state power and supervision of baby making and rearing would be drastically expanded in a regime of universal health care? I'd be curious to hear an argument for why artificial wombs wouldn't lead rather seemlessly to the state run hatchery in BNW.

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  2. Mr. Craig — thanks for the kudos. You're quite right about artificial wombs leading easily to BNW territory; I think the more pertinent question would be whether transhumanists would consider that such a bad thing (and if so, on what grounds).

    (Very apropos link, btw — those "Unthinkable" posts are really hilarious.)

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  3. artificial wombs will reopen the abortion debate by removing viability as a distinction

    As the saying goes, that's not a bug, it's a feature.

    I also don't see why the State must step in if a woman didn't give birth to her child. Traditionally, major decisions were made by the father ... someone else who didn't give birth to the child.

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  4. Why do you not allow comments on so many of your articles? In "Why Not Artificial Wombs?," keeping with the theme of this site, you appeal to the mystery of life, and quote the Christian Bible. The application of the scientific method is at odds with the religious and traditional desire for mystery. Scientists and their supporters want to learn as much as they can. There are certainly a great many people who prefer mystery, but there are increasing millions who would rather know. I am one who would rather know. There will always be more to wonder about in the universe. When we understand the womb entirely, as we surely someday will, there still be infinite mysteries to ponder. I'm simply not interested in artificially-maintained mysteries, and I won't abide women being forced to carry children around for nine months simply because reproductive freedom runs counter to your or anyone else's sensibilities. The freethinking scientific community is not interested in and will not allow religion and tradition to place limits on discovery and creation. Oh, and why are there six options to choose from for posting comments, but the most popular one - Facebook - is unavailable?

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