Department of History
University of California, Irvine
Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker

Lecture 19.  Life and Death.

Developments in the Life Sciences
1677 Anton von Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) observed "animalcules" under a microscope
1694 Homunculus drawn by Nicholas Hartsoeker (1656-1725)
1784 Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799) artificially inseminated a dog which gave birth to 3 healthy pups 62 days later.
1785 child born following the first attempts at artificial insemination on a human subject by Scottish surgeon, John Hunter (1728-1793) 
1827 Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876) identified the mammalian ovum; like many of his predecessors, he regarded sperm cells as parasites; named them "spermatozoa"
1866 American gynecologist, Marion Sims (1813-1883), performed 55 artificial inseminations on 6 women with cervical abnormalities; one pregnancy occurred
1884 William Pancoast of Philadelphia performed the first confirmed artificial insemination using donor sperm; while under anesthesia, the wife of one of Pancoast's patients was successfully impregnated before an audience of medical students using semen obtained from "the best-looking member of the class"
1897 British biologist Walter Heape (1855-1929) recovered rabbit embryo after flushing oviduct;  transferred it to foster-mother, in which normal development continued; work encouraged others to look at possibility of culturing embryos in the laboratory
excerpts from

Science and the Future

A paper read to the Heretics, Cambridge, on February 4, 1923
J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964)

...It is a fairly safe prophecy that in 50 years light will cost about a fiftieth of its present price, and there will be no more night in our cities.  The alternation of day and night is a check on the freedom of human activity which must go the way of other spatial and temporal checks.  In the long run I think that all that applied physics can do for us is abolish these checks.  It enables us to possess more, travel more, and communicate more.  I shall not attempt to predict in detail the future developments of transport and communication.  They are only limited by the velocity of light.  We are working towards a condition when any two persons on earth will be able to be completely present to one another in not more than 1/24 of a second.  We shall never reach it, but that is the limit which we shall approach indefinitely.

Developments in this direction are tending to bring mankind more and more together, to render life more and more complex, artificial, and rich in possibilities--to increase indefinitely man's powers for good and evil....

As for the supplies of mechanical power, it is axiomatic that the exhaustion of our coal and oil-fields is a matter of centuries only.  As it has often been assumed that their exhaustion would lead to the collapse of industrial civilization, I may perhaps be pardoned if I give some of the reasons which lead me to doubt this proposition.

Water-power is not, I think, a probable substitute, on account of its small quantity, seasonal fluctuation, and sporadic distribution.  It may perhaps, however, shift the centre of industrial gravity to well-watered mountainous tracts such as the Himalayan foothills, British Columbia, and Armenia.  Ultimately we shall have to tap those intermittent but inexhaustible sources of power, the wind and the sunlight.  The problem is simply one of storing their energy in a form as convenient as coal or petrol.  If a windmill in one's back garden could produce a hundredweight of coal daily (and it can produce its equivalent in energy), our coalmines would be shut down to-morrow.  Even to-morrow a cheap, foolproof, and durable storage battery may be invented, which will enable us to transform the intermittent energy of the wind into continuous electric power.

Personally, I think that four hundred years hence the power question in England may be solved somewhat as follows:  The country will be covered with rows of metallic windmills working electric motors which in their turn supply current at a very high voltage to great electric mains.  At suitable distances, there will be great power stations where during windy weather the surplus power will be used for the electrolytic decomposition of water into oxygen and hydrogen.  These gasses will be liquefied, and stored in vast vacuum jacketed reservoirs, probably sunk in the ground.  If these reservoirs are sufficiently large, the loss of liquid due to leakage inwards of heat will not be great; thus the proportion evaporating daily from a reservoir 100 yards square by 60 feet deep would not be 1/1000 of that lost from a tank measuring two feet each way.  In times of calm, the gasses will be recombined in explosion motors working dynamos which produce electrical energy once more, or more probably in oxidation cells.  Liquid hydrogen is weight for weight the most efficient known method of storing energy, as it gives about three times as much heat per pound as petrol.  On the other hand it is very light, and bulk for bulk has only one third of the efficiency of petrol.  This will not, however, detract from its use in aeroplanes, where weight is more important than bulk.  These huge reservoirs of liquified gasses will enable wind energy to be stored, so that it can be expended for industry, transportation, heating and lighting, as desired.  The initial costs will be very considerable, but the running expenses less than those of our present system.  Among its more obvious advantages will be the fact that energy will be as cheap in one part of the country as another, so that industry will be greatly decentralized; and that no smoke or ash will be produced....

The chemical or physical inventor is always a Prometheus.  There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god.  But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion.  There is hardly one which, on first being brought to the notice of an observer from any nation which has not previously heard of their existence, would not appear to him as indecent and unnatural....

...I am going to suggest a few obvious developments which seem probable in the present state of biological science, without assuming any great new generalizations of the type of Darwinism.  I have the very best precedents for introducing a myth at this point, so perhaps I may be excused if I reproduce some extracts from an essay on the influence of biology on history during the 20th century which will (it is hoped) be read by a rather stupid undergraduate member of this university to his supervisor during his first term 150 years hence.

"As early as the first decade of the twentieth century we find a conscious attempt at the application of biology to politics in the so-called eugenic movement.  A number of earnest persons, having discovered the existence of biology, attempted to apply it in its then very crude condition to the production of a race of super-men, and in certain countries managed to carry a good deal of legislation.  They appear to have managed to prevent the transmission of a good deal of syphilis, insanity, and the like, and they certainly succeeded in producing the most violent opposition and hatred amongst the classes whom they somewhat gratuitously regarded as undesirable parents.  (There was even a rebellion in Nebraska).  However, they undoubtably prepared public opinion for what was to come, and so far served a useful purpose.  Far more important was the progress in medicine which practically abolished infectious diseases in those countries which were prepared to tolerate the requisite amount of state interference in private life, and finally, after the [League of Nations'] ordinance of 1958, all over the world; though owing to Hindu opposition, parts of India were still quite unhealthy up to 1980 or so.

But from a wider point of view the most important biological work in the first third of the century was in experimental zoology and botany.  When we consider that in 1912 Morgan had located several Mendelian factors in the nucleus of Drosophila, and modified its sex-ratio, while Marmorek had taught a harmless bacillus to kill guinea-pigs, and finally in 1913 Brachet had grown rabbit embryos in serum for some days, it is remarkable how little the scientific workers of that time, and a fortiori the general public, seem to have foreseen the practical bearing of such results.

As a matter of fact it was not until 1940 that Selkovski invented the purple alga Porphyrococcus fixator which was to have so great an effect on the world's history.  In the 50 years before this date the world's average wheat yield per hectare had been approximately doubled, partly by the application of various chemical manures, but most of all by the results of systematic crossing work with different races; there was however little prospect of further advance on any of these lines. Porphyrococcus is an enormously efficient nitrogen-fixer and will grow in almost any climate where there are water and traces of potash and phosphates in the soil, obtaining its nitrogen from the air.  It has about the effect in four days that a crop of vetches would have had in a year.  It could not, of course, have been produced in the course of nature, as its immediate ancestors would only grow in artificial media and could not have survived outside a laboratory.  Wherever nitrogen was the principal limiting factor to plant growth it doubled the yield of wheat, and quadrupled the value of grass land for grazing purposes.  The enormous fall in food prices and the ruin of purely agricultural states was of course one of the chief causes of the disastrous events of 1943 and 1944.  The food glut was also greatly accentuated when in 1942 the Q strain of Porphyrococcus escaped into the sea and multiplied with enormous rapidity.  Indeed for two months the surface of the tropical Atlantic set to a jelly, with disastrous results to the weather of Europe.  When certain of the plankton organisms developed ferments capable of digesting it the increase of the fish population of the seas was so great as to make fish the universal food that it is now, and to render even England self-supporting in respect of food....

It was of course as a result of its invasion by Porphyrococcus that the sea assumed the intense purple colour which seems so natural to us, but which so distressed the more aesthetically minded of our great grand-parents who witnessed the change.  It is certainly curious to us to read of the sea as having been green or blue....

It was in 1951 that Dupont and Schwarz produced the first ectogenetic child.  As early as 1901 Heape had transferred embryo rabbits from one female to another, in 1925 Haldane had grown embryonic rats in serum for ten days, but had failed to carry the process to its conclusion, and it was not till 1946 that Clark succeeded with the pig, using Kehlmann's solution as medium.  Dupont and Schwarz obtained a fresh ovary from a woman who was the victim of an aeroplane accident, and kept it living in their medium for five years.  They obtained several eggs from it and fertilized them successfully, but the problem of nutrition and support of the embryo was more difficult, and was only solved in the fourth year.  Now that the technique is fully developed, we can take an ovary from a woman, and keep it growing in a suitable fluid for as long as twenty years, producing a fresh ovum each month, of which 90 per cent can be fertilized, and the embryos grown successfully for nine months, and then brought out into the air.  Schwarz never got such good results, but the news of his first success caused an unprecedented sensation throughout the entire world, for the birthrate was already less than the death rate in most civilised countries.  France was the first country to adopt ectogenesis officially, and by 1968 was producing 60,000 children annually by this method....

As we know ectogenesis is now universal, and in this country less than 30 per cent of children are now born of woman.  The effect on human psychology and social life of the separation of sexual love and reproduction which was begun in the 19th century and completed in the 20th is by no means wholly satisfactory.  The old family life had certainly a good deal to commend it, and although nowadays we bring on lactation in women by injection of placentin as a routine, and thus conserve much of what was best in the former instinctive cycle, we must admit that in certain respects our great grandparents had the advantage of us.  On the other hand it is generally admitted that the effects of selection have more than counterbalanced these evils.  The small proportion of men and women who are selected as ancestors for the next generation are so undoubtedly superior to the average that the advance in each generation in any single respect, from the increased output of first-class music to the decreased convictions for theft, is very startling.  Had it not been for ectogenesis there can be little doubt that civilisation would have collapsed within a measurable time owing to the greater fertility of the less desirable members of the population in almost all countries.

It is perhaps fortunate that the process of becoming an ectogenetic mother of the next generation involves an operation which is somewhat unpleasant, though now no longer disfiguring or dangerous, and never physiologically injurious, and is therefore an honour but by no means a pleasure.  Had this not been the case, it is perfectly possible that popular opposition would have proved too strong for the selectionist movement.  As it was the opposition was very fierce, and characteristically enough this country only adopted its present rather stringent standard of selection a generation late than Germany, though it is now perhaps more advanced than any other country in this respect.  The advantages of thorough-going selection, have, however, proved to be enormous.  The question of the ideal sex ratio is still a matter of violent discussion, but the modern reaction towards equality is certainly strong."

Our essayist would then perhaps go on to discuss some far more radical advances made about 1990, but I have only quoted his account of the earlier applications of biology.  The second appears to me to be neither impossible nor improbable, but it has those features which we saw above to be characteristic of biological inventions.  If reproduction is once completely separated from sexual love mankind will be free in an altogether new sense.  At present the national character is changing slowly according to quite unknown laws.  The problem of politics is to find institutions suitable to it.  In the future perhaps it may be possible by selective breeding to change character as quickly as institutions.  I can foresee the election placards of 300 years hence, if such quaint political methods survive, which is perhaps improbable, "Vote for Smith and more musicians", "Vote for O'Leary and more girls", or perhaps finally "Vote for Macpherson and a prehensile tail for your great-grandchildren''.  We can already alter animal species to an enormous extent, and it seems only a question of time before we shall be able to apply the same principles to our own....

Amniocentesis allows fetus to be checked for abnormalities

1953 Structure of DNA described
1955 Ultrasound introduced in obstetrics
1960 Oral contraceptive introduced
1963 J.B.S. Haldane coins "clone", from Greek word klon, meaning "twig"
1968 New fertility drugs cause British woman to give birth to sextuplets
1969 Single gene isolated for first time

Recombinant DNA technique developed (start of genetic engineering)

Louise Brown
born:   25 July 1978

Over three million IVF infants born (1978-2006)

1981 Embryonic stem cells first isolated in mice
1988 RU486 marketed
1990 First surgery on baby in its mother's womb
Human Genome Project begun
1995 Embryonic stem cells first isolated in primates
1996 First mammal cloned -- Dolly, the sheep
2001 Limitations placed on funding for stem cell research
Researchers claim to have cloned first human embryo -- results questioned

First cloned mammal dies
Human Genome Project completed

2004 Hwang Woo Suk announces successful cloning of human embryo for use as non-controversial stem cell source
2005 May -- Hwang announces streamlined cloning procedure
  November -- discoveries found to have been based on false claims
2007 June -- Japanese scientists reprogram mouse skin cells to behave like embryonic stem cells
  July -- first IVM* baby born in Canada (*in vitro maturation -- fertilized egg is developed in lab, then frozen before implantation)
  November -- scientists in Madison WI reprogram human skin cells to behave like embryonic stem cells

With a little marketing . . . traditional reproduction may begin to seem antiquated, if not downright irresponsible.  One day, people may view sex as essentially recreational, and conception as something best done in the laboratory.

--Gregory Stock (Redesigning Humans, 2002)

In Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein (1816), Victor Frankenstein warns Robert Walton:

Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge...

Is knowledge inherently dangerous?

Can we learn to distinguish between wisdom and cleverness?

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