Monday, March 24, 2008

Embryo Bill and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Frankenstein is often evoked in the heated debate on allowing the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos.

I have just re-read Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein and was absolutely amazed to note how little thought - or none at all - the young determined scientist Victor Frankenstein had given to the moral side of his work. And not just that, but also to its practical implications.

He was driven by desire to achieve success in creating a living thing from dead elements. Whether that life would have a meaning, how it would affect him and others and, most importantly, could it be reversed, stopped or contained to laboratory walls did not even enter into his thinking - at least while he was working on the project.

Victor runs away from his creation horrified at its monstrosity - and lets him freely roam... until he is hurt by his own monster.

I think, Shelley successfully captured a deficiency in scientific attitudes. Too often scientists are so excited with a new idea and a prospect of achieving the seemingly impossible that their drive leaves out wider considerations of safety, morality and general impact.

The current row in Britain over the Government's embryo research Bill focuses on the Roman Catholic Church opposition to the Bill. Whether the Catholic Church has any authority to argue against this Bill is a different matter.

What matters, I think, is not so much the religious principle, but the 'Red Button' principle: any machinery, any new substance or medication and any new idea must have a stop mechanism.

Especially when we are dealing with living nature where what is done cannot be undone.

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