The technology of human cloning is no longer a question of “if” — it’s “when,” according to science writer Philip Ball, who gave a talk on human cloning on Wednesday evening in Luce Hall.
Nearly 150 people came to listen to Ball’s talk titled “The Heretical Idea of Making People — History of the Creation of Artificial People.” Ball’s was the sixth talk of Yale Quantum Institute’s series of nontechnical lectures. The Institute brings in experts to “cast new light on often-overlooked aspects of scientific work,” according to its website. The event was co-sponsored by the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities and the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.
Ball is a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, a board member and columnist for Chemistry World magazine and was a Nature magazine editor for over 20 years. In the talk, he discussed the human obsession with creating life artificially and the obsession’s history, ranging from the legends of Daedalus and Prometheus to the stem cell and assisted-reproductive technologies of today.
Ball began the talk by projecting an image of his neurons.
Last year, researchers at the University College London took a piece of skin from Ball’s shoulder, which was turned into stem cells — the kinds of cells that appear in the early embryo stage and can grow into any tissue type. Then, by tweaking these cells, the team of researchers were able to turn them into neurons and grow them into a network. Left alone in the petri dish, the cells grew into the same structure that is seen in the human brain’s cortex — the brain’s outer layer composed of gray matter. These structures are called “mini brains” or “brain organoids.”
Ball noted that this research is not only transforming medicine, but also “what it means to be a human being.”
While the technology of human cloning is not yet available, stem cell technology has put human organ transplantation on the brink of a revolution. One of the aims of this kind of work is to grow human organs for transplantation inside a large animal, like a pig. Ball said that human cells can survive inside a pig as it develops, so human organs could potentially grow to full size inside the pig’s body.
He noted that some of the possibilities of this technology are extraordinary, “but also a little scary.” Ball has discussed with several researchers working on this technology that in theory, it may be feasible to grow a pig with a fully developed human brain.
“So, it’s getting pretty wild in the land of cell culturing,” he joked.
According to Ball, stem cell and embryo technologies as well as assisted reproduction provoke anxiety that technological intervention in reproduction might compromise our humanity and result in “unnatural conception.”
He added that these ideas have “dangerous, monstrous and maybe even blasphemous consequences.”
“When we call something unnatural, it’s not just an act of taxonomy,” he said. “The word is a moral judgement. It invites us to find this thing worthy of our condemnation. Our humanity lies not in our material hammering or our origins … but in the matter of how we inhabit the world in community with our fellow beings.”
Simon Sanggaard GRD ’24, who attended the talk, said that Ball’s discussion of how we have viewed cloning throughout the years is critical when thinking about how we will address the technology when it becomes viable. He added that it is important to think about why we have the prejudices and biases against this technology and where they come from.
Max Li ’21 said he came away from Ball’s lecture with a more “socialistic” sense of humanity.
“We are not human by our biological origins or past,” Li said. “It is not [in] our material details of our lives that we find humanity, but instead it is our interaction with others in a social sense — it is love.”
Li said that Ball’s talk made him believe that artificial creation of humans will be the key to the “true liberation of women,” arguing that it will help eradicate the idea that femininity inherently means motherhood.
Ball holds a degree in chemistry from the University of Oxford and a doctorate in physics from Bristol University.
Caroline Moore | firstname.lastname@example.org