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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Art and artifice.

Pippa Goldschmidt is part of the ESRC Genomics Forum Writers team covering the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2011.

Further to Peter’s blog below, I went to Philip Ball’s talk based on his book ‘Unnatural’, about the fears and myths provoked by the processes of creating life through assisted conception, such as IVF.

Ball listed eight myths of what he called ‘anthropoeia’, the art of making people, and showed how those myths are frequently based on anxieties about the nature of human identity itself. If we have dismissed the idea of a soul as a physical entity, then how do we define our so-called uniqueness? Where does humanity enter the scientific process?

There are of course different ways of ‘artificially’ creating life, probably a continuum from the low-tech turkey-baster approach, to pre-implantation genetic diagnosis; where embryos created by IVF are screened for genetic disorders. And different myths attach to different processes. Some relate to the anxieties about the process apparently replacing the ‘natural’ method, as articulated by the Catholic Church’s claim that artificial insemination turns the domestic home into a ‘biological laboratory’. Others are concerned about the genetic content of people created through these processes. If their DNA has been manipulated, are they real people? What is the status of clones?

It’s clear that literature has been one of the most powerful way of rehearsing and expressing these fears, but often the literature is more nuanced that its popular representation. Countless media stories about IVF invoke Frankenstein, but Ball argued that the main message of the book is often lost; the Creature is at his most human and gentle when he is living near and interacting with humans. And the Scientist is at his most inhumane when he is isolated from other people. It’s in the immaterial relations with each other that our humanity exists, not in the chemical formulations of DNA, or the processes by which we are created.

Originally from London Pippa used to be an astronomer. Now with an MLitt in creative writing from Glasgow University she has had several short stories published. Much of her writing is inspired by science and she is currently writing a novel about a female astronomer. Visit her website for more information www.pippagoldschmidt.co.uk

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