Genetic Engineering

In HG Wells’ novel, The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), a rampant drooling vivisectionist is secretly conducting surgical experiments with the goal of transforming animals into humans.  Though the aim was to create a race without malice, the result of the doctor’s chicanery is a race of half-human, half-animal creatures that lurk in the island’s jungles, only marginally under Moreau’s command.

Wells’ book was the most notable example of a handful of early stories that featured the deliberate ‘engineering’ of living creatures.  It was written at a time when the scientific community was engaged in impassioned debate on animal vivisection. Indeed, pressure groups were even created to confront the issue: the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was formed just two years after the publication of Wells’ novel.

By 1924, little more was known of the biochemistry of genetics.  Even so, British biologist JBS Haldane foresaw our genetic future.  His remarkably prophetic, Daedalus, or Science and the Future (1924), divined a day when scientists would engineer a solution to the world’s food problem, and modified children, born from artificial wombs, would represent a eugenically selected improvement of our race.

But Haldane was also a keen and shrewd populariser of science.  He realised that there would be an acute reaction against the ‘blasphemous perversions’ of direct genetic manipulation.  He was not to be disappointed.

Haldane was friend to the Huxleys.  Ideas from Haldane’s optimistic Daedalus, such as ectogenesis (the growth of foetuses in simulated wombs), had greatly influenced brother Aldous’ Brave New World (1932), in which ectogenetic embryos are engineered to fit them for life as ‘alphas’, ‘betas’ or ‘gammas’. Aldous’ extrapolation of a future in which there is no war, no poverty and no pain through the application of genetics, harboured dark secrets.  A future stripped of genetic variance, rids the race of any humanity.  Brother Julian, friend to Wells and to Haldane, wrote a notable story along the same lines in The Tissue-Culture King (1927).

By the 1950s the code was cracked.  DNA was deciphered, and since then the genetic engineering of bacteria has became commonplace.  But Haldane’s prediction persists.  Notwithstanding the technophilia of science fiction, there has been little support for genetic engineering.

A new wave of fiction predictably surfaced after the 1960s.  The anxiety with which the popular imagination held biological engineering was typified by Doomwatch, a BBC TV series about an agency dedicated to preserving the world from dangers of unprincipled scientific research.

As genetic research makes rapid progress, authors have acquired a better sense of what actually goes on in real labs.  Michael Crichton’s Next (2006) is a techno-thriller about our bio-technological world.  Throughout the novel, Crichton explores a world dominated by genetic research, corporate greed, and legal conflict.

Next features governments and private investors who spend billions of dollars each year on genetic research.  It follows a genetic researcher as he produces a transgenic ape, with some human features, and the psyche of a young child. His family struggle to raise the chimera, as they attempt to hide the true nature of the ape’s genetic makeup. And a leading genetic research company is embroiled in a lawsuit with a cancer survivor whose cells it has taken without his knowledge.  The company also develops a ‘maturity’ gene that seems to transform social deviants into sober, responsible individuals.

Is this our future?  A frighteningly bizarre world of gene-mongering scientists and biotech profiteers leading us into a strange moral wilderness?  Only time will tell.  Meanwhile, it seems many writers reflect, only too willingly, public anxieties over what Haldane once described as the ‘blasphemous perversions’ of direct genetic engineering.

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