Prophets of Science Fiction – vivisection and transplants

By on August 14th, 2013 in Ethics, Topics

Science Fiction provides a delightful opportunity to look at the possible social implications of technology before it emerges into reality.  A recent series on the Science Channel, “The Prophets of Science Fiction” reverses this logic and explores how early works of ScFi have anticipated both technical and social aspects of today.

The first program focuses on Frankenstein. It combines a perspective of the environment in which Mary Shelley wrote the book, and her own personal life.  It moves back and forth from her context to the 21st century pointing at both scientific advances that realize part of her vision, and also social variations that reflect differences between the two centuries.

Shelley’s story, often misrepresented in movies and public perception, focuses on a super-human creation of Dr. Frankenstein that, if it had been given proper attention in its formative months (rather than abandoning it) might have been the basis for a successor species beyond humans. Dr. Frankenstein prevents this by destroying the female version, and once again abandoning his creation.

Part of the horror of the story for Shelley’s 19th century audience was the combining of various human and animal parts used in creating the creature.  This theme of mix and match body parts is raised again by HG Wells in The Island of Dr. Moreau. Here it is vivisection that is the abomination. A parallel anti-vivisection movement emerged in England, and has continued advocacy for animal rights, or at least ending cruelty to animals.

In the 21st century we have much fewer concerns about many of the issues that dominated the horror of these books in the 19th century.  Animal experiments, in many countries, are managed with strict ethical guidelines and oversight committees.  We cut humans open and re-engineer them using donor organs (from living or dead humans), animal components, and when possible, from the patient themselves.

There are really two social impact issues (at least) here:
a) the question of what is “human” as we start moving to the next generation of mix and match solutions, some of which will involve genetic manipulation as well as a collage of donor and cyber components;
b) the transition we have made socially in terms of mostly embracing the concepts of transplants, animal experimentation, and other technologies that are a significant part of medical treatment and research.

One last SciFi reference (at least) is needed in the context of these two points: Robert Heinlein’s “Fear No Evil” explores the ultimate transplant of a human brain. In this vision, the result is a person with the awareness of both the body donor and the brain donor.

Any other stories or considerations you would like to add to this area of prophecy?