Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Womb, Not a Factory

Movie Morphogenesis

Way back in 2005 when I reviewed The Island, I left off a discussion of the film's hypothetical technology for "manufacturing" human clones (a process that fills in some of the details for a fictional cloning process hinted at in Blade Runner).

In the film, the clones are grown to adulthood in plastic wombs. This process is interesting to examine. As good film-making practice recommends, it is not so much discussed as shown.

(I found a couple of those photos in a thorough review of the film; h/t via Google image search)

They look like the plasticized cadavers from Body Worlds, don't they? The first shot inside the Incubation Silo shows clones at various stages of development. The plastic wombs are fed by umbilical tubes. The succeeding shots show successive stages of development. (You can click through some of the images to see larger versions.) The premise seems to be that if you're going to produce immediate adults, that you have to grow them from the inside out, starting with the circulatory system then moving to the skeletal system, the muscular system, and finally the skin.

Since the whole point of life is achieving the mature, adult form, doing so as quickly as possible would certainly be advantageous. We get a hint that there's something wrong with this movie morphogenesis for the reason that, if such a process existed, nature would have discovered it.

Before we get to a more precise analysis of the reasons this movie morphogenesis is purely fictional, we need to look more closely at what makes a living thing different from a non-living—even animated—thing.

An Organism, Not a Machine

A well-written article in latest issue of Touchstone elaborates on the point of how organisms are not human constructions or artifacts. A machine, like a Corvette, is constructed piece-by-piece by an external agent.

In construction, the form defining the entity arrives only slowly, as it is added from the outside. In development, the form defining a life (that which a major Christian tradition calls its "soul") is within it from the beginning....

Life is not formed or defined from the outside. Life defines and forms itself. Its form or nature is there, in its activated genes, and begins to manifest itself from the very first moment of its existence. The only things embryos need are food, oxygen, and protection from external hazards, not form. They don't need to be molded into a type of being. They are already a definite kind of being.

In other words, the womb doesn't assemble the new organism, but gives it the proper environment to allow it to develop itself. He defines development "as the continual presence but gradual appearance of a being." In other words, the being already exists but slowly unfolds or manifests itself fully.

Excellent. The only reservation I have is his implication that the embryo's form resides (exclusively) in the genes. No, the form resides in the whole of the zygote, with the genes being the primary organ of the form. (Most notably, maternal determinants, factors already present in the cytoplasm of the ovum, play a significant role in development.) Similarly, the human being is the whole of the body, with the brain and nervous system simply being the primary organs of the body's humanity.

It's worth contrasting the modern knowledge of ontogeny with the ancient speculation. Aristotle thought that the male's semen formed the embryo, which only acquired life after it had reached a certain point of development ("quickening"). We now know that development is much more organic than Aristotle thought (and thus more faithful to Aristotle's core ideas like natural form and matter).

The article illustrates the idea of development with an apt analogy.

Suppose you have taken a Polaroid picture of a jaguar darting out from a Mexican jungle. The jaguar has now disappeared, and so you are never going to get that picture again. As you are waiting for it to develop, I grab it and rip it open, thus destroying it. When you get angry with me, I just say blithely, "You're crazy. that was just a brown smudge. I cannot fathom why anyone would care about brown smudges." You would think I was the insane one. Your photo was already there. We just couldn't see it yet.

That is just what pro-lifers think when people say, "How can a microscopic dot have the same rights as a reader?" That microscopic embryo is a human being in the first stage of its development. We each started off looking like that. But we each have been the same organism and the same kind of being at every stage of our development.

The author points out that some object to abortion only because of the idea that it destroys something that will become valuable, not because it destroys something that is already valuable. The former and latter positions coincide with regard to late-term abortion, but diverge as the hypothetical intervention becomes earlier, and are most at odds at life's earliest stages, when issues like implantation and cloning are important. Some abortion opponents' fail to appreciate that a living thing is not like a machine.

Analysis of the Hypothetical Development Process

The fallacy in The Island's version of morphogenesis is evident in the observation that life is dynamic: it is as much as about the concrete process of development as it is about the end product. You can't carve an organism out of marble. Each part of your body is alive because it was formed through a concrete process of morphogenesis (body formation). Indeed what makes an organ an organ is that it is part of an organism. To bring about that body part (or a whole body) through a different process would make it something quite different. I suspect that it would be different even if the result looked the same, as the interaction of the parts in morphogenesis speaks to how the parts interact in the mature form: the organism is a whole not only at any given time, but throughout its life. Organisms are characteristically renewing their parts constantly; the process of forming the parts is of a piece with what allows the organism to maintain itself and renew damaged parts.

As we've seen, an organism is not a machine. It is the same being through every stage of its development, and all the various tissues in an organic body develop together interdependently. Think about it: not only do bones need the circulatory system to bring them nutrients for growth, but also the circulatory system cannot retain its shape without bones (for tissues to grow appropriately, nutrients need to be moved to the appropriate places). It's impossible to grow one without the other. The film treats the human body as if it were a machine that can be assembled in discrete parts or tissue types. It becomes more human as more is added, just like a car becomes more a car as parts are added.1

In a real organism, its form precedes any of its component parts. The particular parts (this cell or this molecule) are irrelevant: the organism only needs particular kinds of cells or molecules. Notice that you existed as you before your body had any of the cells in your present adult form. In movie morphogenesis, the parts precede the form, just as they do for a machine.

At the very least, to get a body to develop in this way would require major tinkering with the genetic signaling pathways that lead to the development of the adult. In actual morphogenesis, the original or stem cells begin completely unspecialized, but their daughter cells increasingly specialize in successive generations (e.g., central or endodermal cells differentiate into various digestive organs, and to the specialized tissues of each organ). In movie morphogenesis, it seems that cells begin as specialized (circulatory) and then bring forth tissues with different specializations (e.g., bone, muscle, skin). Or else there's some sort of reservoir of undifferentiated cells that are gradually fed into the plastic womb and somehow figure out where to settle and how to differentiate without a complete corporeal context.

The film apparently treats the organism's cells as passive and only capable of growth. Animals cells are famously mobile in early stages of embryogenesis, and are known to migrate around the developing blastocyst: they aren't simply delivered, or just grow from pre-existing tissue. The film treats the human cells more like plant cells, which in their passivity are similar to components of a machine.

The screenplay draft by Caspian Tredwell-Owen (completed writing credits shared with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) posted online is rather different from the film. In it, the doctor making the sales pitch comments on the early failures in cloning:

So what do we learn from our mistakes? That human parts cannot grow outside a human body. That human bodies cannot grow outside nature's grand design.2 (20)

Exactly. Nature's grand design: a womb, not a factory.


1. In The Island, the customers (and the government) refrain from protesting the cloning process because they are told that the (adult) clones are kept in a vegetative state. The natural question to ask: why would this make any difference? Does someone's lack of consciousness make them less than human? If lack of consciousness impaired a person's rights, anesthesia would make murder legal. But equally neither should age or state of development: the organism is the same being at all stages of its development.

A less obvious question to ask: if the clones are grown like machines, to what extent are they truly organisms and thus truly human?

2. It may be significant that the doctor's name is Sanger. The sequel to these comments makes provocative sci-fi reading:

SANGER: I said the problem with a clone is it doesn't survive infancy. The solution is to find a different starting point. Why sow the seed when you can create the fruit? Or what we like to call... an "agnate".

An agnate is sequenced from a point on the cellular timeclock. It is spawned post-maturate. It is `created' adult. Of course, its brain is still vestigial so for the first three years we keep it in suspension. During which time we use data impression to supply a template for functionality - a process we call "foundation" . After foundation we transfer the agnate into "containment" where it enters the conditioning process . An ongoing series of quality controls designed to test and maintain its functionality. After a minimum of two years conditioning, the agnate becomes eligible for harvest...

What any of this actually means is anyone's guess. "Sequenced" sounds scientific, but what does it mean? Can one "sequence" the state an entire cell? No. The assumption seems to be that the DNA represents completely the state of development of the cell... and of the whole organism!

Richard Stith, "Arresting Development: Human Beings Don’t Roll Off an Assembly Line," Touchstone 21:1 (Jan-Feb 2008), 32-35.

Michael Bay, The Island (Dreamworks SKG, 22 July 2005).

Also of interest: Jonas on Philosophical Biology

Note: I'm headed to the March for Life in DC this week and probably won't get a chance to post again until I'm home. Hopefully the posts from last week will be enough to keep you busy.


Tony M said...

I have wondered whether, if asexual cloning were to turn out to be possible for human bodies, whether that process would preclude or sidestep the ensoulment which happens by GOd's hand at fertilization. That is to say, what if the biological process of sexual fertilization is inherently foundational (as a required pre-condition) to God's act of creating a soul to be the form of that body? Would we get human bodies that are not human beings?

Probably the question is meaningless on some level that I am not seeing. But it occurred to me as a revolt against the possibility of a child who had no real parent properly speaking. The meaning of father and mother in the fullest sense is in reference to an act whereby their physical, emotional, and spiritual union is fruitful. Even when a child comes to be by rape, that child has a father who chose to engage in a physical act which bore fruit, so the biological father has a real tie to the child by his action. He may never operate as a father, but the ontological relationship is there. Further, there is always a mother who bore the child in her womb. Parents as such seem to be intrinsically involved in the material and agent causality of a child's being.

But with cloning, it can be true that the person whose cells are used are not involved in any way by choice or act. Thus there is no person whose chosen act is connected with the material cause of the being of the child. I.e., no father or mother. Which is an abomination even greater than that of abortion, in my mind.

Anonymous said...

i wonder...if we were to atempt this process, would it work? i am but 14 and am fasinated with these types of expirements. i once thought of what would happened if we mixed species, i.e. the mule. what would happen if we morphed humans to animals? if it worked, would we be able to clone them? cloning is possible in alot of childerns videos, such as star was, the island, etc.after reading many other sites on cloning, people say it is un-ethical. do clones have souls? if we didnt dull their minds, how would they react?

Lawrence Gage said...

Dear Anonymous,

My point is that it is not possible to grow an organism with such a process, because organisms grow and aren't assembled like machines. To successfully assemble a human (or any organism) in such a way would require God-like technical powers--powers that far outstrip our rather puny moral aptitudes.

Do clones have souls? Ask identical twins. They are genetic duplicates just like clones, and neither class of person is any less a person for it. The fascination of cloning is the technical power it would require and not so much the result, which is at best just another human being.


The soul is the form of the body, so it's hard to see how there could be a human body without a human soul. A human body without a soul is a corpse, and readily falls apart without its form.

I don't understand how the lack of consent of the donor of the genetic material adds much to the moral deviancy of cloning humans. The process itself is such a gross violation of the natural order that consent wouldn't significantly alleviate its wrongness. The lack of consent per se is an injustice to the person whose genetic material was taken.