Is biology redefining what it means to be human?
Biology may not only be redefining life, but also human. The picture shows neurons growing from reprogrammed human skin cells as a model system of the human brain. CRISPR creates the opportunity to edit human genome to prevent diseases or design a baby. In his new book How to Grow a Human: Adventures in Who We Are and How We Are Made, Nature's former editor and science writer Philip Ball contemplates how biology developed and where it's going. He argues that pure, objective science does not exist and science does not develop in vacuum: questions, results, and conclusions are shaped by their cultural milieu. He retells the history of biology and introduces us to prominent scientists and the political, economic and social forces that influenced their work. For instance, zoologist Theodor Schwann’s exposure to German Romantic philosophies of universality probably inspired him to extend cell theory from plants to animals. Yamanaka was motivated to circumvent regulatory restrictions on the use of stem cells from human embryos.
Next, Ball leads us around the science-fiction-like forefront of emerging technologies, where human organs for transplantation are grown in pigs, and parents use gene editing to customize their offspring. He points out how chimaeric organisms disrupt our ideas about the “natural order”, evoking images of Frankenstein. And he shows how terms such as “test-tube baby” and “designer baby” are laced with cultural and religious judgements about how conception should proceed.
Ball facilitates an informed conversation about our future by inviting us into the grey zone where binary answers don’t exist and complexity reigns. That ambiguity grows as he discusses the ethical and societal implications of new technologies such as CRISPR gene editing, and growing models of the brain and embryos in culture. How do we ensure equity in an era when intelligence could be decided by gene editing? How do we understand our moral obligations to an organ grown outside the human body that might experience pain, memory and emotion? In exploring innovations that blur our concept of identity, rights and death, Ball forces us to ask how and why. To investigate those questions, we must expand our ethical frameworks.
Ball also points out a chronology of biology: the homogeneity of the protagonists. Stories of biology have been told by old, white men where women and people of color are missing from the narrative. He also recounts how the prejudices of some scientists — such as French surgeon Alexis Carrel’s white-supremacist ideologies in the early twentieth century, and British biologist Julian Huxley’s enthusiasm for eugenics a few decades later — influenced biological theories and practice.
Ball's tour through biology exhibits the translational power of biological research but also shows the uncertainties biology faces in the future. It just shows how important it is for humanities to create an ethical framework to initiate discussions about whether and how to grow a human, to account for how identity, gender, power and mortality influence science, and how science stories will be told in the future.