What science fiction got right and wrong about babies of the future
Science fiction writers have imagined just about every aspect of life in the distant future, including how humans will reproduce. And generally, their visions have included a backlash against those who tamper with Mother Nature.
In his 1923 stab at speculative fiction, for example, the British biologist JBS Haldane said that while those who push the boundaries of the physical sciences are generally compared to Prometheus, who incurred the wrath of the gods, those who fool around with biology risk arousing something far more acute: the wrath of their neighbor . “If every physical or chemical invention is blasphemy,” he writes in Daedalus, or science and the future, “all biological invention is a perversion.”
Some of Haldane’s projections were remarkably specific. He wrote, for example, that the world’s first “ectogenic babies” would be born in 1951. These lab-grown babies would occur when two fictional scientists, “Dupont and Schwarz”, acquire a fresh ovary from a woman who dies in a Crash plane. Over the next five years, the ovary produces viable eggs, which the team extract and fertilize regularly.
Ultimately, writes Haldane, Dupont and Schwarz solve the problem of “the nutrition and support of the embryo”. Soon, lab-grown babies become routine, as scientists learn how to remove an ovary from any living woman, keep it in the lab for up to 20 years, extract a new egg every month, collect blood. sperm (hence, he never says), and successfully fertilize 90 percent of the eggs. Then – and here the details become murky – the embryos are “successfully grown for nine months, then released.”
In Haldane’s imaginary future, 60,000 babies a year “went out into the air” in France, the first country to adopt the new technology, in 1968. At a later date, he writes, ectogenic babies become international and are becoming more common than natural births, with only 30 percent of children “born to a woman.”
Haldane was wrong to exclude the human womb entirely from these reproductive machinations. But he was not mistaken about the eventual ability of scientists to remove an ovary from a living woman and keep it in the lab as a source of eggs for a very long time. This was first reported in 2001, when fertility doctor Kutluk Oktay, then at Weill Medical College at Cornell University, reported the freezing of strips of ovarian tissue taken from women who needed or wanted to delay pregnancy. pregnancy. When the woman is ready for pregnancy, she returns to the lab to thaw her ovarian tissue and put it back into the ovary. If all goes well, the implant will start to secrete hormones normally again in a few months, causing the reanimated ovary to come back to maturity and release eggs on a regular cycle. Today, babies born after cryopreservation of ovarian tissue number in the hundreds. (And babies born through all forms of assisted reproduction technology number in the millions.)
British writer Aldous Huxley was also concerned about lab-made babies as a gateway to the future – in his case, to totalitarian dystopia. (Haldane devoted relatively little time to the social implications of ectogenesis.) Artificial reproduction was central to his 1932 novel. Brave New World. Carefully selected eggs and sperm were mixed in glass dishes and grown in an artificial uterus, where they could either be grown with nutrients to produce a smart and healthy top rind, or fortified with poisons to create a subclass. not quite human servants.
Huxley himself was curious about how accurate his prophecies were. So in 1958 he took another look at Brave New World revisited. It was still two decades before the world’s first “test tube baby” was born in his native England, which might explain why Huxley, then living in California, seemed to think he missed the mark in his original projection of rows. unending. false uterus in the baby making lab. “Bottle-fed babies and centralized control of reproduction may not be impossible,” he conceded, but they certainly weren’t around the corner. He added that “it is pretty clear that for a long time we will remain a randomly breeding viviparous species.”
Yes, even more than 60 years after Huxley wrote these words, humans still reproduce primarily in a viviparous fashion – that is, in a live birth from a mother’s body – and primarily ” randomly “. Yet assisted reproduction technology has become almost mainstream, in ways neither Huxley nor Haldane could have predicted. Nor did they really signal the emergence, in that same surprising century, of a technique like CRISPR, with the potential to change an embryo’s genetic code as easily as modifying a Word document.
In this regard, writers of much more recent times, such as those who wrote the screenplay for the 1997 film Gattaca, were in a better position to get science fundamentally right, envisioning a bleak future in which, as a film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review, the genetic engineering of embryos is becoming as commonplace as a kind of “preventive plastic surgery”.
Even as early as 1923, however, Haldane was able to offer an unusually provocative prediction: “We can already modify animal species enormously, and it seems to be only a matter of time before we can apply them. same principles to our own. “