Art, Artificial, Artifice... Hubris?
Is there any room for magic in biology?
Yes, in the sense that biology is never a static thing, but a constant reevaluation of things, and often the reevaluation can blow people away. No, in the sense that magic requires suspense of belief, a lack of knowing, and biology is the ongoing attempt to know.
This question has followed me for a long time. When I was little, I usually had a crayon and pad of paper under one arm and my sister’s biology textbook under the other. I have always had an immense appreciation for life and for my ability to observe it, categorize it, and copy it by doing art. In doing art, I felt I was recreating life. The thrill of being able to make art has waned with age, probably because of societal influences that taught me that art is not usually a financially viable skill. Still, I love art, and I love life. I think the way everything works is beautiful and comprehensive, yet random, out of my control, and magical. It is humbling to know that life is much bigger and stronger than I am; on the other end of the spectrum, it is invigorating to know that I am, perhaps for about another sixty years or so, a unique part of it.
As a student of biology I understand that the material that makes up my body is not what makes me unique. My atoms have been used for countless other purposes and been countless other places, and are constantly being removed and replaced. What makes me unique are my processes; the processes of my DNA that have my body continually copying and continuing. It does a rough job of copying and maintaining me when looking at my life from a large time scale, but it copies quite accurately on a daily one, from my scale. The processes of the choices I make, and the stories I tell, and the assemblies and relationships between the different emotions and senses going through my body, collectively and in the present—those things make me unique.
I mention these personal outlooks as a way for me to frame my views on a very tense ethical disagreement between people concerning humankind’s increasing ability to make life and life-like creations in innovative, untraditional ways. Scientists have discovered ways to help women get pregnant with in-vitro fertilization, which entails a scientist overlooking the controlled meeting of sperm and egg in a Petri dish. Often, more eggs are fertilized than will be implanted; the remainders are either frozen, donated to research, or disposed of, depending on what the parents want. Another invention that works toward creating a human baby an untraditional way is artificial wombs. Fertilized eggs have successfully grown in chambers with a fabricated amniotic fluid concoction and a placenta-like cluster (4), but were aborted at a certain point due to laws still in play that prevent scientists from being able to develop a baby fully in an artificial womb (6). Even artificial intelligence, using entirely un-human materials, blurs the line between fabricated life creation and traditional life creation and makes some people very uncomfortable.
Art is one way in which people attempt (and successfully do) recreate some aspect of life, and evoke a real reaction from viewers. Visual art requires the ability to make improbable assemblies. It requires an ability to realize patterns and then accurately copy them to make an image that is comprehensive and therefore evocative to other human viewers. But how is art meaningfully and critically different from the contested new method of creating/developing life, especially human life, through artificial, unnaturally occurring means? Why is it so wrong to create a human life through untraditional creative methods?
I am unique, but I would not call myself sacred. It is cool the way I am assembled and up-kept, and, although both my emotions and my sustaining sources of energy are also biologically explainable, I do think my personality and soul are meaningful. As a whole, I am a very improbable and elegant assembly, with astounding autonomy and reaction abilities. Life is beautiful and something to be in awe of. Still, I do not think of myself as sacred. I belong to the stuff of the physical world. My emotions are made out of something. My reactions, interpretations and choices are extremely hard to explain in biological terms, but these too—thoughts—happen thanks to operations within my brain, which are triggered by environmental messages I get with my senses or other thoughts.
Religious people are often the voice of anti-abortion and anti-creating-a-human-through-artificial-means sentiments. The Catholic Church announced itself to be anti-In-Vitro Fertilization. In Islamic cultures, geometric patterns in art are embraced more than human or animal figures, for only God is believed to be able to make such improbable living assemblies. Likewise, Persian rugs must always bear an imperfection for the same reason that only God can create perfect symmetry (though of course, nothing is probably perfectly symmetrical, for everything has parts and no two parts are identical. From our scale, we can make things that seem perfectly symmetrical, however). Though art has these limits in some cultures, in the same cultures beauty is celebrated as something God loves and wishes his people to make. Art is hubristic in the sense that it copies improbable assemblies, but that does not prevent most people from celebrating it.
Visual art is only a matter of visual improbable assembly, however, and much more goes into actually creating a life. Self-regulating processes and energy are essential to life as well. In cloning, humans have figured out how to insert DNA into a nucleus-extracted egg cell, and then give it an electrical current to start cell division (called somatic cell nuclear transfer)2. The egg material and the DNA were not assembled by a human (people have not figured out how to make these improbable assemblies yet), but the rest of the assembling can today be carried out with human technology.
The contradiction I find most striking about the large number of people who are anti-abortion/pro-life and also anti-artificial life is that a life is a life. Religious concerns and biological insights often clash and cannot easily be talked about. The possible common ground I see it is that religious stories are just a mysterious, poetic way of describing biological processes, and biological processes are material-based observations describing religious stories. However, there are many stories in religion that cannot be accounted for on biological terms because there is not substantial observable material or occurrences that can be made to describe the stories. My roommate is Mormon, and explained that if religious stories were biologically explainable there would be no faith, "only facts." In our biology course, we have learned that there are no "facts," and there is no "Truth." This interpretation of science could maybe shed light on some misunderstandings between religion and science.
My roommate also attempted to explain why abortion is viewed as unjust treatment of a human life in her religion. She said that there are souls in heaven, and when an egg is fertilized, that soul is given a body. When a baby is aborted, you are not giving that soul a chance to live the extent of its life, and the soul remains in limbo for eternity. This is a scary and convincing story. Biology cannot be brought into this without conflict (I made my roommate cry for a moment there). I asked her about the exact timing of the soul coming down, because, I explained, the source of energy that begins meiosis is biologically explainable. I also told her that zygotes do not develop major organs or a nervous system until they reach four weeks of development (3). Our terms could not match up, for her religion is based on faith in a story that is unexplainable in the material world.
This all harks back to a question that was posed near the end of our biology 103 course: Is everything biologically based? Perhaps it is arguable that the stories religions have created to account for God and life were created by humans due to a physiological need to explain life, or leave room for mystery, or to fear certain impulses (sins?) due to very real consequences. Is that not, then, biological?
There is much more to be said on the actual ethics and implications of increasing humankind’s variety by enabling so many more means of successful birth. Once again, technology is enabling humans to temporarily avoid death, as we are so inclined to do in the United States (even though death is inevitable, we spend billions in this business of creating life and putting off death). An ethical problem that will have to be reviewed at some point, if we are to keep breeding at the rate we are now, is addressed in the famous work The Tragedy of the Commons , whose essential idea is implied in the title. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a pertinent game people in my biology class are perhaps familiar with, and can be visited here.
1. “Biology Bioethics Case Study.” McGraw Hills Company. 2000. Last reviewed December 14, 2009. <http://www.mhhe.com/biosci/genbio/olc_linkedcontent/bioethics_cases/g-bioe-17.htm>
2. “Cloning Fact Sheet.” 11 May, 2009. Last reviewed 10 December, 2009. <http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/cloning.shtml>
3. “Fetal Development.” Medline Plus. 30 November 2009. Last viewed 14 December, 2009. <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002398.htm>
4. McKle, Robert. “Men Redundant? Now We Don’t Need Women Either.” 10 February, 2002. Last reviewed 14 December, 2009. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/feb/10/medicalscience.research>
5. Siddiqui, Elizabeth. “Islamic Art.” MSA. Last reviewed 15 December, 2009. <http://www.colostate.edu/orgs/MSA/find_more/islart.html>
6. T.P.L. “Artificial Wombs.” Nothing’s Simple. 17 April, 2009. Last reviewed 15 December, 2009. <http://nothings-simple.blogspot.com/2009/04/artificial-wombs.html>