These are in effect, artificial or mechanical men, individuals without souls, without anything that, in a traditional understanding can be seen as distinctly human.
- Krishan Kumar1
Michel Huoellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island (which will be referred to as Possibility) touches on many ideas relating to the reproduction of the human self and its repercussions for mankind. With advances in technology this is something which is increasingly ever more in the public mind. It is impossible to say whether this modern day dystopia is predicting events which will be commonplace in the future, but there is scientific research speculating the potential problems. An important question in this chapter is how these technologies effect human identity, and essentially what element of human identity is the essence humanity.
We may see this as a kind of adventure, a kind of heroic test; to take artificialisation of living beings as far as possible in order to see, finally, what part of human nature survives the ordeal. If we discover that not everything can be cloned, simulated, programmed, genetically and neurologically managed, then whatever survives could truly be called ‘human’.
Throughout Possibility the long term effects of cloning are described, resulting in the ‘extinction of humanity as a culture of togetherness’3. Through the diary of Daniel 24 we learn that by clone four the ability to laugh was lost and by clone ten the ability to cry had also gone4. The clones became more isolated with each incarnation and the redundancy of physical reproduction lead to there being no need for human interaction, ‘the disappearance of social life was the way forward’5. The clones communicate with each other through an advanced internet which could be representative of how our lives are becoming wholly liveable without leaving the home. Because of the nuclear disarray in their society the neohumans have now become phototrophic, although interesting this idea does not continue the realistic ideologies of artificial reproduction. It is apparent that the neohumans are removed from a conventional society yet they sacrifice their lives to meet others, consolidating the feeling which Daniel 24 claimed to have, the ‘nostalgia of desire’6.
Perhaps through the fact that the neohumans still feel a longing displays a suppressed humanity. McKee considers Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence (A.I) (2001) as a prime example of the key aspects of the human. A.I depicts a family replacing their lost child with a lifelike child robot which is imprinted to love them. As soon as their biological child returns the parents are willing to cast aside the ‘robot’. Although he could be mistaken for a child and behaves like one the underlying knowledge that he has no soul is always present7. In this way the parents have used him to fill the void, perhaps as you would a pet, but abandon him in a forest knowing he may be attacked by other humans for being artificial. An argument to this ideology of humanity would be Nietzsche’s idea that humans are of the species ‘whose type is not yet fixed’8, implying that the purpose of humanity itself is to evolve and advance.
The idea of evolving humans was introduced by Charles Darwin, by hyperbolising those ideas J.D Bernal wrote of the three stages of human in 1929. Firstly, he predicted that there would be between sixty and a hundred and twenty years of natural life, from the time of writing, but with ectogenetics, making only the strongest genes prevail. This stage allows for human creativity and the exploration of the human body. Secondly Bernal envisaged a chrysalis-like stage in which the human would adapt to mentally directed movements and mechanisms. The final stage would see the human central nervous system in a tank of spinal fluid; the being will no longer resemble a human, but will be far more advanced. He believed that at this stage all humans would link in some way through nerve endings and brain cells rendering everyone immortal through the knowledge of their shared existence9. Bernal confirms this by explaining ‘normal man is at an evolutionary dead end’ and that a break in tradition to ‘mechanical man’ would provide the ‘true tradition of a further evolution’10. It could be interpreted that the internet provides humans the ability to communication in this non-physical way, allowing information to become the primary medium of communication.
The ideas of cloning in Possibility are a subject which provides an amount of modern day paranoia. In Possibility the same people are constantly replicated, this results in a loss of individuality and an ‘implosion of being’11. In an interpretational level Baudrillard argues that because of our culture and society everyone is becoming an involuntary clone12. There are many problems with cloning, both scientifically and ethically. In Possibility Richard Branson and Bill Gates submit themselves to the cloning process13; in reality this could cause significant problems and disappointment. Laing argues that in this circumstance a clone would be recreated as a replicate of an already known person causing ‘rigorous social expectations’ which would be unfair to project upon an individual14. Moraru claims that socially a clone is the result of a ‘narcissistic desire of self replication’15. It is likely a clone would feel their life is predetermined and always being controlled. Realistically to clone a human in modern day the clone would begin life as a baby not an adult replica and because of this would be embraced by a wholly differing society to the original subject, in the same way as a father and son would be.
One of the most prolific moral debates within cloning is that of parenting. The clone would have no natural parents; the closest it had to a parent would be its original counterpart which is effectively its identical twin. The closest the clone would have to a father would be the original subject’s father, but in practice this would be its grandfather16. Although Harris argues that ‘there is no significant evidence of any enduring harm’ from the lack of having two separate genealogical components17 Laing counters this with research which indicates the importance of ‘biological or blood relations’ and that a lack of these can cause ‘genealogical bewilderment’18. A clone would undoubtedly feel this to an extreme. An idea which takes this even further is the possibility of an animal/human hybrid. In this situation the person would not only be produced in a non sexual way, it would be alienated from the species from which its existence is due. It would potentially mean the loss of one or both parents and little in common with any species19.
In Possibility Daniel 24’s dog, Fox is also a clone. According to the novel animals were the first creature that could be cloned, before humans. In current society pet cloning is already taking place, though cloning a dog is still proving a challenge. Shortly after the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997 American billionaire John Sperling set up the pet cloning clinic Missiplicity, named after his dog Missy20. The project achieved a world first in February 2002 when cloning the first ever cat. It has now cloned numerous cats and in 2006 the fee was $32,000 per cat. The customers are aware the cat will be a replica and not an exact copy, however, feedback has sometimes contradicted this. One man commented that his cat clone was ‘exact in all of her mannerisms, habits, traits and personality’21.
A form of artificial reproduction which is not considered as extreme as cloning, and is therefore being practiced in society is that of genetic engineering, or ‘designer babies’. It would seem that with our image orientated consumer society the idea of a ‘perfect baby’ is an inevitable fate. Baird argues that with character choice ‘the ethical and social consequences will be profound’ perhaps even challenging ‘what it means to be human’22. Although gene therapy is seen as far milder than cloning Chadwick still believes it would have a negative effect on the child in the form of ‘identity crisis’, in that they would not know their true origins23. The ideology of designer babies can be seen as a localised form of eugenics which could ultimately have a similar effect on society. Genetic engineering could potentially allow parents to choose gender, physical features and even personality. So far research and engineering has made mice more faithful to their mating partners through the ‘insertion of a gene’24.
Experts are unsure as to when gender pre-selection first became widely available but American company Pro-Care have been marketing ‘Gender Choice’ kits since 198625. Blank reported in 1995 that success rates for specialised clinics were eighty six percent for males and seventy four percent for females26. He speculates that the cause of this, and more specific selection, is the ‘me-centred’ ethos of the nineteen eighties which ‘demanded immediate gratification of desires through technology’27. Through scanning processes medical technology can detect many diseases, such as Down’s syndrome, Cystic Fibrosis and Huntington’s disease28. Although this is generally seen as a positive by society it is yet unknown how this will affect the public’s attitude to those with disabilities in the future. In countries without public health care it will be the poorer individuals who cannot afford the treatment to detect such disabilities therefore disabilities may be associated with the lower class. In the same way character selection may be implemented to the extreme until it represents an elite class.
Some liberals argue that a proposed change to physique or intelligence through gene therapy holds no threat. They dispute it is no different than the parents influencing a child environmentally, for instance enrolling it in an elite school29.The main threat with character selection is that a specific look, for instance brown hair and blue eyes, could become a trend. If this happens on a large enough scale then features such as green eyes could become extinct30. Alternatively the price of features may differ, if blonde hair was more expensive because of its rarity it would then become elitist and this is reminiscent of Hitler’s attempted creation of an Aryan race.
Baird explains that the technological argument would be that genetic engineering is used to ‘transcend human limitations, and to improve ourselves as a species’31, this could be seen as agreeing with the views of Bernal and Nietzsche expressed earlier. The emphasis on technological ‘perfection’ raises questions concerning the value and purpose of children. Terms such as ‘quality control’ and the child as a ‘product’ have been used in debates32, reducing children to a commodity or even an accessory.
One of the main issues within these extreme forms of reproductive technology are those of responsibility. The potential parents will have the large responsibility to do the correct thing, not only for themselves but for society as a whole. Policy makers must also take all scenarios into consideration33. Goslinga-Roy seconds this by stating that reproductive technologies are a ‘visceral and shifting knot of power’ which can potentially embody ‘race, class, gender, ethnicity and sexuality’34. If Kantian theory was considered it is unlikely that reproductive technologies would ever become common place. Kant believes that human life ‘should never be thought as of a means, but always as an end’, this would rule out cloning for the sake of medical duplicates as it would not respect the dignity of the secondary life created35. Laing clearly agrees with Kant as she expresses her opinion;
The non-sexual creation of human beings, their mass storage, their cryo-preservation, their use purely as means, and their destruction, expose a type of dominion that is not proper to human lives36.
In Possibility sexual intercourse is perhaps one of the key elements to the original Daniel’s motivation, and to the cult of Elohism which instigates the cloning ability. Despite this it becomes something very distant from the future clone’s lives. It becomes so distant that the natural human ‘savages’ are thought to be as sophisticated as beasts. This is a recurring theme within dystopian fiction, Brave New World and Zamyatin’s We both have similar savages which are comparable to cavemen. With the plethora of reproduction technologies becoming more accessible it is possible to imagine a time in reality’s future when intercourse is no longer associated with reproduction and humans become distanced from one another as there is no longer any requirement for the traditional gender paring present in modern day.
In China until recently, only one child was allowed, resulting in a high percentage of late abortions to remove the undesired female foetus. As a family, a son would be a far higher earner and would continue the family name. In India this is even more extreme as they still practise the tradition of dowries. Because of this, to have a female could potentially endanger their family’s financial security37. From a feminist point of view character selection does not directly result in deprecation of the female, however, through the male orientated society it is highly likely that the male would be the gender of choice for many potential parents; thus through preferential choice a danger clearly could exist to the future of the human female38.