CRISPR, Cloning, and Self Preservation: How SF Handles Morality
September 16, 2019 § 7 Comments
Cloning is my favorite thing ever.
Okay, let me rephrase. Studying the sociological and scientific impacts of cloning is one of my favorite intellectual ventures (second only to my recent research on the Oxford comma). In high school, I even had the opportunity three times to hear renowned Harvard-alum Sam Rhine lecture at his annual Genetic Update tour, where I was introduced to the (at the time) foreign, promising idea of CRISPR—short for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindrome repeats.”
CRISPR, an up-and-coming genetic editing technique, has become incredibly crucial and influential in the world of medicine over the past decade. With what Dr. Luhan Yang describes in her Ted Talk as a special “scissor” enzyme and a unique guide RNA “microscope,” the gene has made it possible to grow human organs in, surprisingly, a pig. This is an exciting feat, particularly as another person is added to the donation list every ten minutes; hence, Dr. Yang dubs CRISPR as the way “to create a world where no one dies waiting for a transplant.”
This made me wonder…how far WILL we, as the human race, go for this kind of advantage, and is it ethically right?
The answer, I think, lies far beyond recent science advances. In fact, it begins in science fiction literature that consistently recognizes when actions are right or wrong. This begins in 1818 with Mary Shelley’s renowned Frankenstein, which has a stark contrast between moral and immoral. Throughout the novel, we see a lonely, intellectual, curious Victor Frankenstein yearning for companionship, creator-ship, and self-improvement. His means for reaching such? Creating this THING, which we come to know as “the fiend,” “the daemon,” and “the Adam.” I think most (including Mary Shelley) would agree that Frankenstein’s desires and actions throughout the novel are wrong; they are rooted in self-interest, in indulgence, and in evil. Thus, Frankenstein’s monster rebels, and the fight for good/evil (though neither the creation nor the creator are “good” by any means) ensues.
This same kind of good/evil cloning literature is echoed for years throughout history, literature, and the media. However, there is arguably no greater modern example of “complicated cloning” than the 2005 Michael Bay thriller The Island. In Bay’s film, society is thriving, and citizens are healthy. However, when two people realize that the antagonistic health system is cloning patients in order to harvest organs for future donations, the world turns upside down. Yet again, we see a good/evil narrative as the protagonists fight the government and the health system in hopes of regaining a safe community, even if that means sacrificing improved donation rates. As always, good conquers evil.
If the SF novel and film industry specializes in good and evil, why don’t we live like we know the difference?
We are always differentiating the good from the evil in literature and in life; it is what makes us inherently human, able to comprehend what qualities we want to possess and which ones we don’t. Even so, how are we able to fathom the good and evil in Frankenstein and The Island yet unable to see the reality of CRISPR, real science?
Some argue there is no good or evil after all. There is only self preservation, and perhaps that is the message of all of these SF works. For example, without his version of self preservation through creation, Victor Frankenstein would never tell his story to Walton. Without self preservation, millions of citizens in the world of The Island would die without transplants. The list goes on.
Maybe it is the same with science of the modern world. Without self preservation, the concepts of survival of the fittest and natural selection would be a farce; after all, a species can’t make a moral decision to avoid fitness and adaptability. Similarly, perhaps this realm of CRISPR is merely a work of self preservation; we have no other choice.
Maybe someday in the near future we will know.
Organ Donor Data: https://www.organdonor.gov/statistics-stories/statistics.html
The Island Photo: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0399201/