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Airplanes and Embryos

By March 16, 2004 No Comments
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Sometimes, when I’m strapped in my seat, a strange body close on either side of me, two hundred of us altogether packaged like eggs in this long, narrow tube, I wonder, is this what Leonardo DaVinci and the Wright Brothers and all those zany, imaginative madmen in between who dreamed of flight and tried to fly, is this what they had in mind?  I don’t think so.

What they were after, I think, was the feel, the ecstasy, of flying that an eagle seems to experience.  They wanted to glide on the wings of the wind, feel the air on their faces, scream at the excitement of quick dives and rapid ascents.  They knew they could not have the ecstasy and excitement without risk and fear and discomfort.  For a short time after the Wright brothers, flyers had that and they barnstormed around the country, flying by the seats of the pants. 

But it didn’t take long before flight was tamed, and the poetry was replaced with practicality.  Flight was harnessed by industry and the very first thing the engineers of practicality did was try to make flying seem as unlike flying as absolutely possible.  No wind.  No stomach in the throat.  No excitement.    We go hundreds of miles an hour and ascend six miles above the earth and we might as well be sitting in our basements.  Bored, we open a Fortune magazine, sip a soda and kill a couple of hours while the airplane annihilates space.

Everyday airplanes effortlessly move millions of tons of cargo thousands of miles.  And so we have turned the bird into a mule, a beast of burden who merely hauls cargo.

It seems to me a general principle could almost be developed from the specific example of the airplane:  Human artifacts, invented for one reason–often noble or high-minded or exotic–are gradually transformed or subverted and end up doing something quite different or having quite different consequences from what the original inventor envisioned.

Recently, scientists in South Korea announced that they had created human embryos through cloning and extracted embryonic stem cells.  Their goal, according to the New York Times, “is not to clone humans but to advance understanding of the causes and treatment of disease.”  Well and good.  Still, many Christians believe that an embryo  is a human being and to use that embryo stem cell as a sort of replacement part for defective genes constitutes murder. 

And there are others who object for a different reason.  They would be happy if the use of these embryo cells was confined to the battle against disease.  But they know it won’t stop there.  As embryonic stem cells are used to eliminate diabetes or Parkinson’s Disease, they might also be implanted in a woman’s uterus to clone a human being.

And how long will it be before germline genetic engineering (related to cloning) results in children made to parental specification, children who are taller or happier or prettier or smarter or all of the above.  (Oh, I know that nurture as well as nature makes us who we are, but still, research shows that a whole lot can be done by a bit of genetic tweaking.) 

Three recent books, each powerfully persuasive in its own way, argue against embryonic cloning.  Leon Kass in Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity argues against germline engineering because he fears it will produce a kind of “shrunken humanity” similar to that depicted in Huxley’s Brave New World.   A world inhabited by engineered people causes Francis Fukuyama to title his recent book Our Posthuman Future.  Bill McKibben in his book Enough makes essentially the same argument against genetic engineering and says the decision to go ahead with the technology or stop it is “arguably the biggest decision humans will ever make.” 

The transformation of the airplane from a bird to a mule is not an especially big deal.  But what about humans?  What will happen to this quintessence of dust made just a little lower than the angels after science and business lay their collective hands on his DNA?  If they free him from pain, discomfort, and fear, what will they leave in its place?

And why aren’t the presidential candidates being asked that question?


David Schelhaas teaches English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. He is a member of the editoral board of Perspectives.
Dave Schelhaas

Dave Schelhaas

Dave Schelhaas is the author of a book on word histories called Angling in the English Stream, a memoir called The Tuning of the Heart and three collections of poetry including his most recent collection Tounges that Dance.