Patric M. Verrone: We spent the first ten minutes of my arrival trying to mic me, and now I’ve been de-mic’d. So give me a moment to make sure that quite literally this thing is on. Let me begin by talking about my personal background with Frankenstein, the three salient facts about me.
The first time I ever went trick-or-treating by myself was in 1965. Ben Cooper Frankenstein mask and one piece tie-it-in-the-back pajama costume. And I distinctly remember being told by my mother that it was Herman Munster, but it was Frankenstein’s monster.
The first movie I ever paid to see in a theater without my parents was in 1974 when I went with friends to see Young Frankenstein.
My first and only professional stage performance [some audience members laugh] was in— Thank you for laughing at my failure to have ever had an acting career. My first and only professional stage performance was in a live reading of a 1945 radio play from a show called Weird Circle, based on Frankenstein. I played a constable killed by the creature. My big line was [makes extended croaking sound]
So now in addition to my direct personal connection that I have to Frankenstein, I of course have a scholarly bona fides, having read the novel for the first time fourteen hours ago on my flight from DC to LA. So I come to the text, and especially to the theme of playing God, which is the subject of the first panel, from the position not as a scholar but as a writer, as a creator myself. In fact when I tell the story to people of how I got into show business, how I got it to writing, I recall I was a young lawyer in South Florida, and listening to an NPR interview some writer was saying that when we are creative we are our most godlike. And I thought at the time “Oh. I’d like to be God.” And so thirty years later I write TV cartoons and I am—that’s godlike.
Now, among the most relevant work to the subject at hand that I’ve done was Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s other show Futurama. Several times during the series, main character Professor Hubert Farnsworth dabbled in Frankenstone-ian…or Frankensteinian (Frankenstone was the character on The Flintstones) Frankensteinian creation.
I have a clip that they asked me to show. This was from the first episode of Futurama that we did after a five-year hiatus. And we had to begin the series again—reboot it—after having killed off all the major characters in the last episode that had aired. Now that’s godlike. So ignore the credits and roll clip, please.
[clip was excluded from recording]
So there’s a couple of things I want to emphasize from that scene. So, clearly it was designed to invoke Frankenstein (I’m hoping that somebody who worked on the show had actually read the book, unlike me.) with the lightning switch. But that’s from the movies, not from the book itself.
The second thing is that the creation of life going on here is this sort of sub-notion of rebirth or reanimation, not random creation, which is kind of a mitigating factor in the ethos of playing God. But failing having that in, we tried to make it a little more controversial by using this new technique, stem cells, and by saying that Farnsworth killed people to get those stem cells, thus undercutting the mitigating factor that it might not have been so controversial.
So I mentioned those elements of the clip to highlight the shorthand that’s kind of developed over the past two hundred years in invoking the themes inherent in Frankenstein. My personal belief is that this shorthand has developed because of the sheer number of times Frankenstein has been adapted or produced in other media, and that the themes and metaphors of playing God have worked their way into popular culture.
So let me do a little recap. So as Ed said, five years after the 1818 publication there was a play produced called Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, which really for about seventy years was the major way that you could see a performance outside of reading the book itself.
There were a couple of burlesque shows based on Frankenstein, but they’re kind of lost to history—probably for the better.
These first seventy years, that all changed with the advent of cinema. There were three silent films made in the teens and twenties (19-teens and twenties), one of them by Thomas Edison himself. The dam of course broke in 1931 with the iconic adaptation that we saw the clip from with Boris Karloff as the monster. It had six sequels, produced all by Universal, including meeting his bride, his ghost, Dracula, Wolf Man, and Abbott and Costello.
The British producer Hammer Films made seven films in the 50s and 60s. I found more than forty films with variants of “Frankenstein” in the title, including teenage, space, young, black, and even one, his great aunt Tilly. There’s a film out there called Frankenstein’s Great Aunt Tillie.
The most recent was 2015’s Victor Frankenstein, which was told from Igor’s point of view. Igor of course, not in the book. And Universal’s set to release a shared universe monster series with Javier Bardem as the creature in the years to come.
TV has also been just as fruitful for adaptation and thematic inspiration. IMDB lists more than 160 appearances by the monster, most notably—at least in my worldview—in 1973’s Frankenstein: the True Story, which I believe was early reality television.
There’ve been other plays, novels, comic books, video games, more than a dozen apps that invoke the name Frankenstein. Most of them rely heavily on building things or making yourself look like Boris Karloff. And it all sort of follows Moore’s Law, which is there was one adaptation in the first seventy years, a handful over the next decade, dozens in the years that followed that, and hundreds in the recent past. We will now call it Franken-Moore’s law.
Which brings me to another way that Frankenstein has spawned creation. The name Frankenstein itself has come to mean creation by assembling or cobbling together parts that weren’t necessarily meant to be. The prefix Franken‑, which is even more specifically attributable to otherwise natural things that are manmade. Frankenvirus, Frankengun Frankenfood, Frankenberry…which is a Frankenfood.
In the political world, Frankenstein is an editorial cartoonist’s best friend. Any time something is developed that gets out of hand and turns on its creator, Frankenstein’s monster—typically the Karloff variant—rears his ugly head.
And allow me to throw out the first “Trump” of the of the conference. In September of 2016, after months of cartoons showing then-candidate Donald Trump as the GOP’s Frankenstein monster, Senate minority leader Harry Reid actually used those very words on the Senate floor.
Now incidentally, when you enter “Frankentrump” into Google, you get 10,400 results as opposed to 1,290 for “Frankenbama.” (Which I guess people preferred “Barackula.”) And 6,040 for “Frankenbush”, which means something else. But, when you enter “Trumpenstein,” you get 32,300 entries. And the Urban Dictionary has defined Trumpenstein as someone who voted for Trump. So in this portmanteau, he’s the doctor not the monster. So it’s a rare occasion where he gets to be both sides of the creation.
So, one final thought and then we’ll get to our panel. I actually believe quite firmly that Mary Shelley meant this to be the impact of the book. She titled it a “modern Prometheus.” Prometheus, the Greek god who stole lightning, created humans, and caught hell for it from Zeus. Modern, which we can scoff at the notion that this woman who wrote this book the year that Queen Victoria was born in pre-industrial England would consider herself modern. But the fact is we are as far from her as she was from Shakespeare. Which puts it all sort of in a—not a funny context but an interesting context.
In Shelley’s vision, Frankenstein was the modern Prometheus. The hip, up to date, learned, vital god who chose to create human life and paid the dire consequences. To Shelley, gods create and for humans to do that is bad. Bad for others but especially bad for one’s creator.
So we’ll now hand the discussion back to Ed Finn to introduce my co-panelists. Forgive us if we create a scene. We are only trying to be godlike. Thank you.
Ed Finn: Thank you Patric. So let me invite Patric up here; Nancy Kress, science fiction writer, author of the Probability trilogy, Beggars in Spain, and Yesterday’s Kin, among other books; and Josephine Johnston, director of research and research scholar at the Hastings Center.
Let me get things started. Thank you. That was a really nice introduction to this, our topic for this panel, the question of playing God. And you alluded to this in your opening comments, Patric, that there’s a trope around this. There’s a set of gestures we can make now to allude to the playing God myth, especially in the Frankenstein context. That you can do very efficiently. You can have the big switch, the electricity or the lightning, the laboratory equipment. A lot of it comes from the Whale/Universal productions.
But this is a story that we’ve been telling for a long time. It’s been a human obsession for so long that at times it seems like a kind of cliché. So my question for all of you is, is this an idea that’s become so familiar that it’s lost its moral force?
Nancy Kress: No. …is the short answer. The idea that we still have the option of playing God, if anything, is more relevant now in terms of what can be done with genetic engineering and with science than it was for Mary Shelley. Her science of course was ridiculous, but we forgive her that because given the context of the day—what Galvani and Volta were doing—that was the best that she had available.
What we have available today are in many ways genuine godlike powers. And I know Josephine is probably going to want to comment on this a lot, too. I write about genetic engineering all the time. And there is an enormous potential here, as well as of course enormous dangers. And neither one is particularly well-understood. Which was also true of Mary Shelley’s monster.
Josephine Johnston: Yeah. It’s interesting because— So, I work in a field called bioethics, which not everybody has heard of. But it’s really looking at ethical, in my case sometimes legal, policy and social issues in science and medicine. And you’ll have to forgive the accent. I’m not going to do an American accent for you. And in my field, to talk about arguments as playing God arguments is actually often dismissed as meaningless. Is said to be irrational. Is said to hinge on particular religious ideas that do not and cannot be used in a secular society.
So it’s really interesting and somewhat disorientating to be here and feel this idea having some sort of serious weight. Now, it’s disorientating in a good way—for me—because I’ve actually come kind of full circle in my own thinking about what this argument can do. You know, just like everybody else I was a utilitarian for a long time. But then I grew up, and I thought well you know, maybe it’s not all just about harms and benefits. And so I’ve started to think that playing God is actually a really useful metaphor or idea that needs some modern translation sometimes. And I’m sure becoming a parent is one of those moments where you realize that you’re sort of in this position of being a creator or of having made somebody? And so it’s really kind of caused me to reflect differently on it.
But like I said, in bioethics if you raise concerns about things like human dignity and playing God and hubris, you can be laughed out of the room because those ideas are not sort of officially seen to have any weight in a kind of “rational,” “liberal” academic community.
Kress: Apparently this is a question of definition. What do we mean we say “playing God?” One way to look at it is remaking nature from what it would be ordinarily. And if you want to take that on the very simplest level, antibiotics are playing God. We’re remaking nature. Many many people have died without antibiotics being available.
But if you want to go deeper and say well yes, but they were there. Penicillin was there until Fleming just happened to discover it on a bunch of moldy bread while his peanut butter sandwich was overdue.
But if you talk about actually remaking it at a genetic level, then you are playing God. And there’s been tremendous benefits from this. E coli, modified, now produces insulin in enough quantities that people with diabetes have it available at a reasonable cost, which they did not before this happened. That’s only one very simple example. There are many many others. And it has produced tremendous benefits and can go on producing tremendous benefits. For me, the Frankenstein novel’s value—because I don’t actually like it is as fiction. [To Ed Finn:] You want me to leave?
I’ll explain later why I don’t like it as fiction. But the value [in it for] me is that it shows both sides of technology. This can be good, this can create good things, this can be misused. But that’s true of all technology. The day man discovered fire, the crime of arson became a possibility. It’s a two-edged sword, and it isn’t do we use it, it’s how we use it.
Verrone: It also seems to me, and this alludes to the clip from Futurama, that there are several subtexts of playing God that are not just making something out of whole cloth, that include bringing things back to life. And then also isn’t there an element of playing God in keeping something alive? Or alternatively, is it playing God to kill something prematurely? The same way that the Wizard of Oz is used to be a metaphor for everything starting with William Jennings Bryan’s international monetary policy, to whatever the issue du jour is, I think Frankenstein becomes a metaphor for… You end up Frankensteining the metaphor to fit the story itself, or the real-world scientific development that’s happened.
Johnston: One of the things that fascinated me when I read the book for the chapter that I wrote for the book that was mentioned was not just that by “playing God,” by making life, Frankenstein had unleashed harm on himself and people he loved, but that the experience of being that person who made really changed him. And I think that’s a really interesting aspect of what playing God can code for, which is not just the fact that you take power and use it and that has consequences for others and you change the world around you, but that in the process of being somebody who creates, who makes, who does that, you change who you are.
And I think about this in the context of things like stem cell research, or IVF, or preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or even potential use of gene editing in reproductive contexts, which are all issues I work on, where we’re also thinking not just about the consequences of using these technologies for those that are made or created but also what it does to you as a parent or to be someone who has that degree of control over someone else. How it changes you. And in the book you know, he really suffers, physically suffers, from the experience of playing God.
Kress: This is one reason I don’t like the book. And I know I should not say that at a forum that’s dedicated to Frankenstein.
Finn: Oh, do you not like the book, Nancy?
Kress: I don’t like the book—
Johnston: She was a teenager.
Kress: And I don’t like the book for two reasons. The first reason I don’t like the book is that I don’t believe the psychology. Okay, the monster is rejected by Frankenstein. He has all of these terrible experiences of rejection and cruelty and barbarity, so he turns into a killer. I’m willing to buy that.
What I’m not willing to buy is the repentance at the end, which happens for no particular reason and suddenly he’s completely upset that he did all of these things and repentant about it. Sociopaths don’t repent that way. And as a novel, the construction doesn’t work. Because there’s no foreshadowing that he is going to be able to do this. And that’s one reason that I dislike it if his repentance is going to come about. And it isn’t as though— It was an early novel, yes. But Jane Austen was even earlier and her psychology holds up beautifully. So that’s the first reason.
The second reason is what you just said. Yes, Frankenstein suffers. And the way he suffers is every time something awful happens, he falls into a dead faint and goes into some sort of horrors that last for months. Which is really convenient for the plot. And so I have problems with the construction of it as a novel, as well as with the psychology of it as a novel, as well as with the science of the novel.
So what do I like about it? I like the basic idea, which is why it has persisted for so long. The basic questions it raises, as you pointed out. It raises those basic question of playing God that resonate down through the ages. But, I like the Prometheus version better. Sorry.
Finn: Oh, no. One of the interesting things here is the way in which the playing God motif can be used to sweep things under the rug. But it’s also a very familiar story to tell. And so I wonder how each of you have seen people sort of use this as a kind of tool, as a storytelling tool, and what that what the rules are of telling a good playing God story. Because Futurama for example is full of these moments, right. Heads in jars and playing God things.
Verrone: Yeah. Well I mean, the irony of working in animation as I struggle with the concept of trying to be creative… You’re only working with your words and images. You have the voices of real people. But unlike stage, unlike live action TV or film, you are creating an entire world, an entire universe. And with Futurama we were trying to do, on a regular basis, both longstanding tropes and things that were kind of topical. And the difficulty with just the production of animation is that you’re writing something today that’s not going to— The soonest you’re going to be able to release it nine, ten months from now. So we had to deal with things that were somewhat evergreen.
And that clip that I showed was one of about— I found three or four times when we dipped into sort of Frankenstein lore. Those of you will remember there was an episode where we were supposed to bring Fry’s dog back to life, which he then decided he did not want the Professor to play dog God. We got more nasty letters from people because— We ended up flashing back and showing that the dog died of natural causes. The dog died of natural causes and people got mad at us for showing a dog that it ended up dying of natural causes.
Kress: [inaudible comment]
Verrone: Well, but it was natural. You would rather we just didn’t show it.
Kress: No, I’m saying you can’t kill dogs. I had an awful—
Verrone: Right, you would rather we just didn’t— But the fact is, it was 1,000 years later. What do you think ha— It didn’t live forever. That would’ve been unnatural.
And then we also did episodes that involved cyber technology, where implants, robotics that helped to create or prolong life and extend powers and whatnot. And even in those, inevitably you put somebody on an operating table and you strap him down James Whale fashion, and you’ve got the— Everything— I guess even in the year 3,000 power is mostly generated from lightning bolts as opposed to any other means.
So yeah, we were very cognizant of the notion of prolonging or extending or revitalizing life starting with Frankenstein. Not with Prometheus. We didn’t go that far back.
Finn: So how about in the field of bioethics now, Josephine? If the notion of playing God is largely sort of vacated, do people… It seems in popular culture that it’s still alive and well. And so what’s that interface look like? How do people respond to it, or what kinds of issues, what kinds of arguments do they make in lieu of this sort of cloudy notion of what is God and what are we talking about here?
Johnston: I think people in bioethics don’t always respond very well to the fact that the playing God argument means something to most people. The ordinary person on the street pretty much knows what it means. And they sort of often will have that as a concern. Not necessarily a concern of like, “Because of this I will not go near the technology,” but they’re like, “Oh, that’s an interesting technology but I have this little concern about playing God.” And that most of the time is just meet with like, “Well that’s just because people don’t understand science,” or what do they want, we have vaccinations now so that’s playing God, so the whole argument is dismissed.
And so I don’t think it’s met with a whole lot of sympathy. And I think also people in my field take the God part pretty seriously, so they’re like, “Well, you must think there is a God if you think that there’s an argument called ‘playing God,’ ” and then that means something.
So in place of that argument. So, certainly there’s heaps of attention to like well, do we really know what we doing when we do something? And lots of examples from science of not thinking something through clearly enough. So most recently you’re seeing it in real-time right now with the reaction to gene editing technology. In February 2015, so two years ago, a group published an article in Science, scientists and others calling for attention to the uses of CRISPR/Cas9 technology. And that led to this international summit that took place in DC in December of 2015. And now the National Academies of Sciences is in about ten days going to release a report on the uses of gene editing in humans.
So the reason they’re paying all this attention is because they recognize that there could be dangers associated—very practical dangers like how do you know that it’s going to be safe? How do you know it would be safe across generations in humans or in other organisms? They did a report also on gene drives in non-human organisms. So there’s a clear and large body of literature and people paying attention to concrete risks and benefits. What are the safety risks associated with it, and sort of a broad understanding of that.
The other stuff that’s encapsulated in a playing God argument I think, or that’s hinted at in it which is not about like, if it was safe— Like imagine if Frankenstein turned out to be great, right. Like he was awesome, he was kind, he was you know. I mean, not Frankenstein—the monster, the creature. And Frankenstein himself felt great about it and was heralded as a hero and all the things he was hoping.
So if safety is taking care of, what else remains? What is that stuff? And that is something I think people in academia are pretty bad at talking about? But again I think it gets back to this stuff about what it means to be someone who has more control, and more power, in a creation relationship than we’ve had in the past. And it’s easiest to see that in parental relationships and what it means to be a parent, and as parents gain more control how does that feel? What is that like? Does that change the meaning of their own lives in any way? And it’s a sort of flourishing type concern rather than a straight-up safety related issue. So that’s kind of how I think “we” are responding.
Kress: One of the responses has been in concerns of safety, and that’s from the FBI. You can now order online, if you find it on sale, for $140 on sale, a CRISPR kit for editing bacterial genes. This is being done in high schools, in some places. The FBI has a unit now whose job is to follow up possible uses of this to create pathogens, airborne or otherwise, out of bacteria. Which is frankly not that hard to do.
We have the genie out of the bottle. And there can be any number of reports issued. And there can even be any number of laws passed. And that doesn’t mean that it’s going to put the genie back in the bottle, because it’s not. And as far as the ultimate playing God, which is human germ line egg and sperm editing rather than bacteria (although editing bacteria has the possibility of ending all of life if they do it right—)
Finn: If they do it wrong.
Kress: If they do it wrong. Sorry. There are reliable reports coming out of China, some of which were referenced not too long ago in an MIT tech journal, that there is editing of human embryos going on in China. In fact they did try to edit an embryo in order to remove the gene that creates a blood disease—a genetic blood disease.
As a follow up to this, MIT tech journal did a survey*** of Americans, trying to find out how Americans feel about editing human genes in embryos. Forty-six percent said that if it were to control diseases they would be in favor of going in this direction. That’s playing God with a vengeance.
What we can do now—it’s illegal to edit genes here in an embryo. It’s not illegal, however, to multiply (as of course you [Johnston] must deal with all the time) the number of embryos that you have, using fertility drugs, and then scan them genetically and choose out the ones that are not carrying, for instance, inherited genetic markers for Huntington’s chorea, or Tay-Sachs, or any of those. That’s a first step. You scan them so that you choose those that have the genes you want.
The second step would be to knock out a single gene and replace it with another one. We know how to do this. We do this all the time in mice. Knockout mice are a basic for medical research. You create mice without immune systems so that you can then do medical research or test various drugs for conditions that you give them. We could do it. It’s illegal to do it now. That isn’t to say that it isn’t going to be happening off-shore.
Again I don’t mean to be a downer, because even though it doesn’t sound like it I’m in favor of genetic engineering, although not necessarily on human embryos. I think it’s necessary in order to feed the Third World. I think it’s necessary in order to clean up pollution. I think it’s necessary to advance medically.
But, we have the genie out of the bottle now. The knowledge is out there. It’s not that everybody can use it, but more and more people can use it. It’s not like creating an atom bomb, where you have to round up a bunch of plutonium and get a big facility to do it. It can be done in a basement, which is why the FBI’s unit is now tracking down these kinds of reports that they get from professors in biology and in genetic engineering who feel that some students may be doing something slightly suspicious, or that there are a lot of supplies disappearing from labs, more than are being used. They have units tracking this down now. The genie’s out of the bottle.
Finn: You know, one of the areas where I think there’s the largest gap between the boundaries of technical ability and the social framework—and certainly the legal framework—around what we culturally understand is possible, what we think about it, is in the biological sciences and around this kind of genetic modification, synthetic biology, this whole arena. So what are the responsibilities of the science fiction writers and the storytellers in trying to bridge some of that gap. Is this something that you’ve thought about, Nancy?
Kress: I’ve thought about it a lot. Because here’s the problem when you write a story. Fiction is about stuff that gets screwed up. Nobody wants to read—or watch—a long movie or a 400-page novel where everything goes wonderfully for the character. You want your life to look like that but you don’t want to read about it. Fiction’s about stuff that gets screwed up.
So the temptation, the easy way out, is to take the scientific advances and to show them being screwed up. So that you get Jurassic Park. So that you get all of the kind— I just finished an incredibly good novel by the Chinese writer Wang Jinkang. It’s only been here in this country for a year, this novel. It’s called Pathogenic. It’s a fresh and entirely different take— Pathological. It’s an entirely different take on the idea of biowarfare. And again, he has to write about it being screwed up because otherwise you don’t have a story.
But this bothers me because again, I think we need this kind of genetic engineering. And it bothers me so much that I try to create at least outcomes in my stories that are balanced. Some gain, some loss (which is what I think usually happens in real life anyway), rather than all loss, such as the end of Frankenstein where everybody is dead. They kill each other in the book and everybody is dead. It could be Hamlet, you know. The stage is littered with all these bodies.
Finn: Yeah. And Patric, I feel like Hollywood has an incredible power to normalize certain things, right. Or frame [crosstalk] conversations—
Kress: Yeah, why aren’t you?
Verrone: Yes, well here’s a partial defense. I mean, I agree— The general premise is, and I think Hitchcock said this, that drama is life with the boring parts cut out. So you do. You want your life to be normal, but you don’t want your drama to be like that because then you’re not going to get the viewership or the readership.
And to your point [Johnston] I was trying to think of an example of bioengineering to the good. And what came to mind is the bridge between Star Treks II and III from the original series movies, where they go to the genesis planet, or the planet where the Genesis Device is detonated and it terraforms this entire planet, and the scientist who did it, she ends up saying— They see it for the first time in this beautiful, lush rainforest and she says, “Boy can I cook.” It’s not “Boy can I play God.”
And it ends up being the artifice under which, after Spock is killed at the end of the second movie—
Verrone: Yeah, spoiler alert from 1982. The first Spock, not the current Spock. The first Spock dies and then he’s left on the genesis planet, where through some nonsense he’s brought back—both mumbo and jumbo—he’s brought back to life. But it’s to your point [Kress] that it’s not as interesting to do stories where— I mean, despite the Hollywood ending notion that everything is supposed to have a happy ending, these are thrillers. These are…ultimately Frankenstein’s a tragedy. And what’s comedy but tragedy with a happy ending. So tragedy just doesn’t have a happy ending. So no, I don’t think there’s a rush to do… I mean, other than a virus movie where the entire Earth isn’t destroyed, just a portion of it made up of the people who we don’t like.
Johnston: It’s funny because I often feel like Hollywood is the only place where some of the negatives of technology seem to be taken seriously and vividly brought to life. So—
Kress: You need to read more science fiction
Johnston: Oh I do read science fiction. I’ve been reading science fiction. I’m reading science fiction now. I’ve read science fiction my whole life. But I feel like it’s in movies and stories, it’s from artists, that some of the downsides of technology are actually made vivid and real, where in academic writing and science journalism that isn’t always there. So I’ve kind of been grateful for the fact that those things have been explored.
Verrone: I tell you, though. Television changed… Series television… Any time shows like Battlestar Galactica begin with a dystopic setup and then in the interest of keeping characters that you like alive and continuing to tell stories, that’s why you end up not having a completely fatalistic end of the world approach.
But in feature films that are not part of a series— And what feature films is that? Maybe Ex Machina is a typical—and there’s the Frankenstein story in a recent form. Typically TV versus film will have, because of the serialized fashion, a greater need to happy things up.
Finn: And in the spirit of populism, let us open this up for questions.
Audience 1: Thank you. There was a discussion at the beginning about playing God and also mentioning natural causes as being an okay thing. And it sounds as if the panel is saying playing God is bad and it violates the laws of nature— Well, this is exactly where I wanted to get you. You’re nodding this way. So if you would discuss that. Because if we were just to leave everything to nature, we would not be able to address illness and other kinds of things that medicines, for example, allow us to do. But then that’s playing God. And there is a widespread view that you actually can violate the laws of nature, and that that will cause negative effects.
Kress: I’m all in favor of violating nature. I think there’s a lot we can improve on.
Johnston: I guess I would just say violate nature sometimes, and don’t violate nature other times. And the problem with that is that it like, makes you actually have to think about it every time you’re thinking about doing it, and people don’t like that because they prefer bright lines and rules of thumb, right.
So, natural good, unnatural bad. And that would be so much easier than like well, sometimes natural is good and sometimes natural is bad. And so you have to think it through. You actually have to decide. We play God in a sense all the time. We vaccinate our children. Which by the way is an enhancement, which is something that is sometimes demonized as bad, too. Like it would be okay to make changes to embryos that would make them immune to diseases or, no— That would make them not pass on the cancer causing-genes that we’ve identified.
But we wouldn’t want to do anything that would be an enhancement. Well, we do enhancements actually a lot. The question is, is it the kind of enhancement that we think would be good for us and that we want to be engaging in or not? And we have to stop and think about it, because it’s not just a question of good or bad. So I think the problem with the playing God argument is that you can throw it out because you can’t use it in every context. And that would be a mistake as well. It’s like, “Oh, playing God. Well hey, I played God yesterday when I vaccinated my daughter, so the playing God argument is bogus.” Well, that’s too easy.
Verrone: The trick is playing God and not losing.
Finn: Well said. Yeah, another question.
Audience 2: Kind of building on the idea of playing God and losing. In regards to the CRISPR or Cas9 complex that you mentioned, as I’m sure you’re all aware Dr. Doudna ultimately called for a moratorium on her own technology. And I think you see in the book as well that Victor rejects his own creation. So I wondered if you guys could offer any commentary on the process of a creator ultimately rejecting that life that he’s created.
Johnston: She didn’t reject her techno— I don’t think that’s fair to her. She called for a moratorium on its use in humans, which it hadn’t actually been used directly in humans at that time. But she was worried about— So, there are so many uses of it that aren’t even in human organisms or even in human cells. So she really wanted some focus to be brought to potential use in adults, children, sperm, egg, embryos.
And, uh… So I think it’s brave, actually, to do what she did. Because it would have been I think a lot of pressure not to do that, right. Like a lot of temptation to not open up the idea that there was anything negative about this. And I think it was really brave and important that she actually said this is a complex thing that I have helped to make, and I need everybody to pay some attention here and help us figure out how to use this wisely. And that seems like exactly the kind of thing that we should be encouraging and rewarding.
Finn: It is incredibly rare when you think about human nature, to see somebody open the door and then say no, I’m not going to walk through it, when you look at the history of recent technological research.
Johnston: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, it reminds me of people involved in atomic physics, right.
Finn: I mean we did blow up a few of them.
Johnston: You can invent something incredibly powerful and understand that it could have all sorts of uses and that that’s now going to need some conversation, and still not regret inventing it but just really need all of us to put up brains to work to figure out how to use it well.
Kress: Robert Oppenheimer famously said, “I have become the destroyer of worlds.” He had some regrets about it.
Verrone: Of course we also don’t know if there were some great scientific discoveries that were really really bad that the scientists just tore up and threw away.
Finn: Yeah, that may well have happened. Interesting question.
Audience 3: So, part of the ability to create life and watch it blossom seems to be okay generally, even in storytelling. But this jumpstarting of life, or bringing something back to life, and then whether or not to kill it or now that you’ve created it it has to live out its life, the ethical issues related to that end and possibly if gene therapy and enhancements keep going— If you could speak maybe to the ethical issues related to social inequalities— You know, the wealthy will be able to have special treatments but maybe the poor won’t, things of that nature.
Kress: I wrote an entire trilogy about this, starting with my novel Beggars in Spain. And it’s about people who are genetically engineered to not need to sleep. I wrote it out of jealousy—
Finn: I’ve met a few of those.
Kress: I need a lot of sleep. I resent it. Other people get more life. But where the novel goes, I wanted to create a genetic enhancement—what you said—that has no downside. These people are not monsters. These people do not develop weird cancers. These people are not strange in any way, nor do they develop telepathy or anything like that—they just don’t sleep.
And when I did that I had no story. But if I followed it through as I did, for the bifurcation of the human race (because the gene is dominant, the genetic tinkering is dominant), you end up with one strain that needs to sleep and one strain that doesn’t, and one that has an evolutionary advantage. And of course it’s the wealthy as well as the children of scientists who had access to this kind of thing. And that’s where my story went, because again I had to have a conflict of some sort, and there it is.
Finn: Well, thank you. I think we are now out of time. Thank you so much for a fascinating discussion.
Let me invite Joey Eschrich up here to introduce our next panel and to lead us off with a another a reflection. Joey is the editor and program manager of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University.