Books » Book Features

The Monster

Bioethicist Jonathan Moreno talks Frankenstein at the Central Library.

by

comment

Isn't it so that new technologies, once conceived and perfected, will inevitably be used regardless of the dangers? Isn't that the legacy of the bomb? Isn't it only a matter of time before cloned humans roam the earth?

"The history of science suggests that is true," says Dr. Jonathan Moreno, president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities and bioethics commentator for ABC News. On May 13th from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Central Library, Moreno will deliver a lecture, "Brave New World: What's the Price?," as part of the library's "Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature" exhibit, which runs through August 20th.

"Someday there will be some cloned humans," Moreno says, "and there will be a lot of suffering. There will be a lot of catastrophes, and there will be a lot of failed efforts along the way. It probably won't be such a big deal though once people realize that these humans are genetically identical but not fully identical."

Boris Karloff: The Monster
Courtesy Ronald V. Borst/Hollywood Movie Posters
Courtesy Universal Studios Licensing, Inc.

According to Moreno, it's the symbolism of cloning and genetic modification, not the substance, that bothers people the most.

From its first printing in 1818, Mary Shelley's literary nightmare about a scientist out to unlock the secrets of life has served as a cautionary tale for scientists everywhere. It continues to remind us that too often nature makes us pay for tampering with her mysterious plans. The "Frankenstein" exhibit -- originally conceived by the National Library of Medicine -- juxtaposes vanguard medical imagery from the 19th century with the evolving cultural status of Mary Shelley's creation and shows how Shelley began a public debate that has continued for nearly two centuries.

"I'm going to talk about the good that can come from genetics versus the concerns and implications of making people," Moreno says. "Images of attempts to clone animals cause alarm in humans. It's because most all [of the animals] turn out to be monsters, just like Frankenstein was a monster, albeit a misunderstood monster. The mob always blames the monster while the people responsible for making it get away. You shouldn't blame the victims."

The ethical boundaries of genetic science are not easily circumscribed. The more we learn about the origins of humans and the origins of disease, the more difficult it becomes to draw the line between easing human suffering and notions of human perfection.

"There are gray areas, like gender selection," Moreno says. "If a family already has a boy and they really want a girl, why shouldn't they be able to increase their chances of having a girl?" he asks. "It's these gray areas that are troubling." From gender selection it's not a huge leap to fully customized children. And that's not even the scariest part.

"Government-created companies are creating banks of genetic material," Moreno says. "These are to help us try to understand how genetics influences the way we get sick and age. Now, what happens if we discover that a certain ethnic group is more associated with the gene [linked to] alcoholism? Will preexisting bigotry and prejudice be reinforced?"

According to Moreno, these discoveries are inevitable.

Visible Humans
Computerized Images
National Library of Medicine
In 1993, the National Library of Medicine created The Visible Human Project on the World Wide Web for the benefit of researchers and the public throughout the world. The Visible Humans are available on the Internet at www.nih.nlm.gov.

"We don't need genetics to tell us these things. These are things we already know. Certain groups are more likely to develop some diseases. Sociologically, there are also some things we can see, and what if we find some genetic component? What people have to understand is that every group will be susceptible to some disease in greater numbers. But will this new information enlighten us, or will it reinforce our prejudices? These are questions we have to ask."

Despite the complexities, Moreno is hopeful that genetic enigineering will progress in an ethical way.

"If you ask people whether or not doctors should pursue genetic medical treatments, the answer is overwhelmingly yes," Moreno says. "If you ask, Are you worried that genetic research could lead to some Boys from Brazil situation, the answer is YES! And that's good. We should be conflicted about this. Scientists should be concerned, and they are; they are extremely sensitive. And they are talking about all of this."

"This is a controversial exhibit," says Heather Lawson, adult services coordinator for the Central Library. "Hopefully, it will lead to good discussions."

The exhibit consists of reproduced images and text. But the library has assembled a number of items and events to complement the main exhibit. Nineteenth-century medical equipment is on display courtesy of the Pink Palace. Local special-effects wizard Matt Singer will show how advancements in medical prosthetics lead to advances in Hollywood monster makeup on July 13th. On August 5th, Dr. Gordon Bigelow, assistant professor of literature at Rhodes College, will discuss Frankenstein following a screening of the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff.

"We think this is a good lineup of events because it combines literature with current issues," Lawson says. "Besides, who can't enjoy Frankenstein?

For more information on "Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature," check out the library's Web site, http://www.memphislibrary.org/InfoDATES/index.html.

Add a comment