Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Superman, mechanistic and supernatural, vs. human frailty; Or, literary tropes just won't stay out of the debate on humans & technology

Times Online - Health:
Following the death of Christopher Reeve due to heart failure last Sunday, Times Online in the UK has published an opinion piece titled "We should fear the disturbing future where man becomes superman" (by Michael Glove), suggesting that "embryonic stem-cell research turns human life into a means rather than an end." I am constanty intrigued by the propensity to incorporate literary tropes into moralized debates about the roles that science and technology should play in human embodiment. While praising Reeve's personal heroism and dignity, this article somehow manages to conflate comic-book heroes, ethical debates on the use of embryonic stem-cells, and Reeve's advocacy of stem-cell research. Glove writes:

"Superman serves a moral purpose. He is a deus ex machina, both supernatural and mechanistic, setting this world to rights through his technologically advanced powers, relieving suffering and injustice by means of his X-ray vision and speed-of-light flight. Superman fills the void apparently left by the unwillingness of God to intervene in human affairs, ensuring that evil will not triumph in this world.

The contrast between the myth of Superman, the sheer potency of this fictional creation, and the eventual fate of Christopher Reeve is inescapably poignant. The actor who played a figure capable of transcending human weakness was, horrifically, trapped by the frailty of his own body. An accident sustained while enjoying his own athletic prowess reduced him to a paralysed state. He became the prisoner of flesh that would no longer respond to his own, indomitable, spirit."

Glove then goes on to defend giving embryos the same protection that we give to other human life.

He concludes:
"For some scientists the promise inherent in stem-cell research, the cloning of human embryos and the whole burgeoning field of biotechnology, is the prospect of remaking man. The frailties that make up the human condition can, progressively, be eliminated by the manipulation of life’s building blocks. Not just life-threatening disease, but all manner of infirmities and imperfections can, potentially, be engineered out of existence. The prospect, if not of Superman, certainly of superior models of man, beckons. The comic-book myth of transcending human constraints has become a modern scientific aspiration.

Before we applaud such ambition, however, can we pause to consider what that would mean for humanity? Have we not learnt from those in the past century who wished to remake man, and saw in the lure of genetics the chance to create their own superman?"

This article raises all sorts of interesting questions, foremost of which (for me) is why the idea of transcending human constraints through science and technology so often falls back upon a literary allegory. Superman stands for the deus ex machina and the impossible ideal of the Man of Steel; therefore Reeve's heartbreaking accident must stand for a moral comment on what humans should be? As Glove defines it, "To be human is to inhabit a world of vulnerability and limits." To use the Superman myth and Reeve's death as a basis for an argument against embryonic stem cell research is ludicrously fallacious. But it's a little persuasive, too, because we like those myths of humanity, and we like those myths of the amorality of mechanism (aspiring toward the "super"-natural, above nature).


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