Life Imitating Art?

Our decisions regarding upcoming biotechnology issues like stem-cell research and human cloning will do more to shape our future than any other decisions we could make. Thus, understanding the implications of biotechnology isn't just important: It's vital. And where can we turn for that information? One answer may surprise you, although it shouldn't: science fiction. Some months ago, I recommended Kazuo Ishiguro's recent novel Never Let Me Go. It is set in England, where human clones are used for spare body parts. Unlike similar stories, Ishiguro's clones know that they are clones, but they are so well-indoctrinated that they passively accept their fate. The only mild dissent from this arrangement comes when the clones begin creating art and, therefore, prove that they have souls -- that is, that they are human. It's Ishiguro's way of reminding us in poignant fiction that this kind of exploitation is possible only if you first deny the humanity of those being exploited -- like human embryos. The parallels between the England of the novel and our own time are clear: In the media, the possibilities of cures to all kinds of dreaded diseases -- however unlikely -- take priority over all other considerations. Likewise, when Ishiguro writes about the "new possibilities" that kept people from "taking stock" and "asking the sensible questions," he's describing our world as much as the novel's. Clear-sightedness about the moral implications of biotechnology isn't limited to books. The recent movie The Island will be remembered as a huge box-office flop. That's unfortunate, because it also was a valuable lesson on the perils of cloning. THE ISLAND is set in a suspiciously hygienic underground complex whose residents believe that they are the sole survivors of an environmental catastrophe. The winner of a nightly lottery is told that he or she is being sent to "the Island" to help repopulate the surface. That, of course, turns out to be a lie: They are actually clones created for their body parts, and the real "prize" is a one-way ticket to a dissecting table. While the second half of the film is typical summer-flick fare, the film's "lottery" serves as a metaphor for the emptiness of the assurances and promises being made by that world's proponents. The Island reminds us to be skeptical about the brave new world we're being promised by today's advocates of biotechnology. And speaking of a "brave new world," seventy-three years after it was first published, Aldous Huxley's novel by that name remains an irrefutable rebuke to those who refuse to see the dark possibilities of biotechnology. Huxley reminds us that biotech is more likely to become the means of social control than personal liberation. A society that believes genetic "perfection" is possible will eventually make such "perfection" mandatory -- if not by law, by financial and societal pressures. You see, science fiction is not only about aliens and spaceships: It is also about showing where present trends -- technological and moral -- lead us. That's why I suspect that the world portrayed in books and even in the movies is a lot closer to reality than what's being promised by more "respectable" sources. Science fiction exposes the kind of world where life imitating art is a very bad thing.


Chuck Colson


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