Remaking Ourselves: Technologies of Flesh and the Futures of Selfhood
At The Royal Society
Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar 2022 award lecture. Our biotechnologies have entered uncharted territory. The facility for precision editing of the human genome raises the prospect of systematic, ‘post-Darwinian’ control of inheritance. Stem cells can be used to make embryo-like structures that were never fertilized eggs and which might or might not recapitulate normal embryonic development. Neural ‘organoids’ grown in a dish force us to ask what are the minimal substrates of consciousness. It is easy to spin dystopian tales out of such developments, but those offer little guidance for the more urgent issue of how to regulate these technologies or how to discuss their ethical and societal implications. Here I argue for the importance, in those debates, of keeping historical and cultural perspectives visible and explicit: on the one hand to recognize the deep roots of the more lurid fantasies that these developments evoke, and on the other hand to consider how the latest advances challenge the narratives that scientists themselves have employed to frame their research. We should be prepared to be unsettled by what in 1890 zoologist Jacques Loeb called ‘a technology of living substance’—but perhaps not necessarily in ways we can anticipate.