Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Book Review: Can Man Be Modified?

Written in French by Jean Rostand in 1956 and translated to English in 1959 by Jonathan Griffin, the book Can man be Modified? is one scientific authors prediction of our biological future.  It has been nearly sixty years since this book was written by Rostand, son of Edmond Rostand who was well known for his work Cyrano de Bergerac, and it is therefore interesting to examine in the context of what we currently know.  I found a first American edition of this book, published by Basic Books, in very good condition in an estate sale.  From my research on the price of this book in pristine condition, I can, on first inspection, observe that it is worth very little in monetary value, which may suggest that its content is also of little value.  Older books that are of little value, especially in first edition, suggest that it may have been either overproduced or without substantial merit.   Essays and scientific texts typically hold value due to famous authorship, predictive value, or influence on social change; one can suggest that Can Man Be Modified? may have none of these values. However, Rostand is an excellent writer and makes his case in 105 pages, so it was a weekend read.  Rostand separates his book into three sections; Victories and Hopes of Biology, Man and Science, and Can Man be Modified? which will be the outline of my review as well. 

Rostand begins by discussing his knowledge, due to his scientific work, in parthenogenesis.   He discusses the process of births in amphibians as a result of 'virgin' eggs.  Which he says results in the presence of the two copies of the mother’s heredity factors.  We are presented here with what is absent from Rostand’s world, which is the source of heredity, i.e. DNA, which although explained by Watson and Crick as the potential genetic material in their seminal paper in 1953, may not have been clearly established to Rostand, but will have been very well known by 1962 when the dynamic duo received the Nobel Prize for their work.  Rostand is however aware of the existence of chromosomes and suggests that this is the source of the heritable material that is duplicated from the mother to produce offspring from an unfertilized egg.  He questions whether this could be done in a human egg, in which the mother’s chromosomes were removed and only the father’s chromosomes remain to produce a viable offspring.  Again the lack of genetic understanding is apparent, since it has been well established that the X chromosome, found only in the mother, contains vital material needed for survival that is not found in the male Y chromosome.  But Rostand does suggest that evidence has been shown in 1955 that chromosomes from a distinct embryo could be transferred into another, where the chromosomes had been removed, and therefore create an offspring of the first embryo, which is a precursor to later cloning experiments (see Dolly the sheep).  Rostand in general is very fascinated by heredity and is further fascinated by the preservation of hereditable material, which until that date had only been accomplished by the freezing down of spermatozoon.  From which he makes this completely incorrect concluding statement, “In any case, the spermatozoon is certainly the only form in which the human race could conceivably resist the freezing of the globe.”  He also suggests, perhaps rooted in a personal fantasy,  that frozen sperm could be joined with a female from Mars or Venus to make some new species (after the earth has thawed presumably... oh and Mars or Venice develops life).  But Rostand does an amusing and interesting review of the known literature in the field of hormone and explanted organ research which was ongoing at the time and even suggests the future of ectogenesis;  test tube babies, which was famously described in Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World.   Rostand goes on to make the point that in all of a biologist’s exploits we are mere magicians nor sorcerers, indeed he says, “we are rather like revue artists who win cheap applause by parodying a scene from Le Cid or a speech from Cyrano de Bergerac,” in a nod to his famous father's work.  But I would retort that all human endeavor is a parody or nod to someone else’s work, whether it be another human's or nature itself.  We are intent on understanding the mechanisms of life in order to manipulate them. Never the less, Rostand has set us up for discussing the modification of man, specifically the modification of man by biological means to make us super smart.  
Rostand's second section, called Man and Science, was continues where the first section leaves off with the general theme of describing what was known in his scientific world and associating it with well trodden ideas.  However, in this round he discusses slightly more precisely the ways in which science has influenced our society.  Specifically, Rostand discusses the disillusionment with science that has decidedly turned the discoveries of science from a state of societal amazement to a state of expectation.  He states, "now, in the 1950s, there is no longer any victory of science that could astonish us."  As such, "the cure of tuberculosis by means of streptomycin has had a distinctly less warm welcome than that of diphtheria fifty years before."  He points out that science has made waves in the areas of beauty products and hormone therapy, including "electronic waxes" and "radioactive mudpacks,"and has invaded popular thought in the realms of science fiction and  even in the works of charlatans, who use scientific catch phrases  like radiations and wave lengths, to give validity to their false practices.    He brings up Wiener's work on cybernetics (a great read) and the creation of the artificial brains like the E.N.I.A.C. computer system, which could solve an equation in a fraction of a second with a hundred unknown factors.   Perhaps he contends, that in the future, machines will displace man for many physical and mental tasks, but he suggests it may never replace us in our creativity.  He thus suggests, that while machines of our innovation will replace us in the drudgery of daily tasks, it will free the 'human spirit' to "devote itself to what is essential," i.e. "to specialize in genius." Interestingly, Rostand, is an advocate of the eugenics movements, and suggests that biology can aid us, if moral or ethical issues are not considered, in breeding individuals best suited for intelligence with superior brains; i.e. a class of supermen.  He suggests further that test tube births like in Huxley's Brave New World, would be one way to get this race of supermen, and side line one of the issues; human brain size at birth, by disposing of the birth canal and growing all fetuses in vats.  I for one,  envision Rostand's future world as full of highly intelligent  but extremely ugly individuals, though the heredity of beauty is undoubtedly just as easy to predict as intelligence. 
Finally, we get to Rostand's last section, titled like his book with the question; Can man be modified?  This is not a new question, in fact, Rostand, has spend the previous two sections describing both modifications to man and developments in science that could lead to modifications in man.  He does however, set limits to the discussion to only modifications by means of biology (this to him, does not mean learning or the environment; although they would indeed create changes to biology as much research has shown).  He further points out that we have long since ceased to evolved in the traditional sense, humans have not evolved in over 100,000 years, he posits, and may indeed no longer be considered Homo sapien but Homo biologicus - his idea here is that we will become a race of creatures that reproduce through parthenogenesis; i.e. without the need for fathers or nature reproduction generally.  This is a premise (presumably rather important to the very intelligent who have lost all virility) that may still hold weight today; biology has not ruled out this possibility nor has it been shown to be ethically or morally unsound.  He returns to his thoughts on designing a master super human, suggesting that while the conformation and size of the brain are important in creating the 'super humans' he envisions  it may be technically easier to change the function, through psychotropic drugs, then its structure.  Indeed, he mentions that students are already experimenting with 'phycogenic' drugs (I know quite a few experimenting today who aren't even into biology).  I had to look up the drugs he specifically mentioned; orthedrin and maxiton, since I had never heard of them before, and I found very little on the internet, (I guess all information is not preserved by Wikipedia) but they may be forms or uses of amphetamines. If so, they have not proven useful in creating super-humans but have been useful in creating junkies with bad teeth.  Again, he broaches his favor of eugenic reproduction, stating that "there seems hardly any doubt that, under a system of artificial selection, the proportion of human beings of high quality would be bound to become greater - and, indeed much greater- than it is in our time."  While I applaud his idealist optimism, I would tend to disagree that in 'his time' (nor mine), they knew enough about brain development and the roots of intelligence to select for such a superior being, not does his attempt address the serious influence that the environment plays in that which we consider 'great.'  For an example, let me refer you back to avid amphetamine users.  He concludes by mentioning the increase in the number of chromosomes as a potential way of making a mutation that could be biologically significant to man, perhaps by making a human more robust.  From my perspective this supposition might be a more interesting way to store ancillary genes then to make us more robust, although radioactive mutations (due to electronic mudpacks) would have to be much stronger to destroy all alleles of a gene under these conditions. 

Rostand, does not present us with a dramatically new way of looking at the world, but he is a strong intellect, using the information and influences of his time to come to some solid future directions, not all of which are far off base (if creating super-humans is your game).  His prose is solid and his understanding of the science of his time was competent, but his insights into the future were not significantly different to that of his contemporaries, nor were the ideas promulgated within his book extremely novel.  Indeed, many of the topics are well trodden even in 'our time' and are in most cases better addressed in the works of others.  I will however, suggest that Rostand was fully aware of where the world was going and felt strongly that science would continue to be important for the development of human kind.  He was frustrated by the slow pace of science as noted in the following quote.  “A science, however fast moving, develops less quickly than the impatience of an individual mind.”  I think many in today's society would still consider this sentiment true. Specifically, when we look for cures to human disease and are faced with the daunting and cumbersome task of sledging through the data mines of experimentation.  But perhaps the slow pace of science, prevents undue catastrophe, when ideas are ahead of our understanding of their impact.  He further, saw man as firmly a part of nature, not above it, and from this he had great pride; going so far as to say, "respect for mankind should be even greater in those who believe only in man - in those who, stripped of every illusion about transcendence can only see in man an animal unlike any other, with no obligation except towards itself, with no law to obey except its own and with no values to revere except those of its own making."  Rostand wrote during a time of revolution, existential beliefs, racist sentiments, eugenics, and the burgeoning of biological enlightenment, but his perspectives are broadly similar to those of biologists today.  I would read this book if I were looking for a muse into some well worn philosophical arguments still pertinent in our time.  Does he answer his own question?  Well yes, the answer is yes man can be modified, but Rostand had only really begun to touch on how. 

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