MedHum Monday Book Review: From Eve to Evolution

DailyDose2Feminist and women’s rights activists, like queer activists, have long had an uneasy relationship with the male-dominated fields of scientific inquiry. Evolutionary theories, the science of sex difference, and more recently the field of evolutionary psychology, have all been wielded as proof positive of innate disparities between women and men, used to support arguments against women in higher education, in the workplace, in politics, and more. However, a less-examined parallel history also exists: one in which scientists — many of them women — have used scientific methods and evidence to advance the case for women’s rights. It is one chapter in this history that Kimberly Hamlin seeks to tell in From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America (University of Chicago, 2014).

9780226324777During the fifty years following the American civil war, there was an explosion of popular interest in scientific inquiry in America, including the popularization of Darwinian theories of evolution (Origin of Species was published in 1859). In Gilded Age America, evolutionary theories competed with, and at times displaced, the dominant Christian, Bible-based explanations of human nature and society. Racial and sexual differences were increasingly explained not through the language of God’s will but rather in terms of natural selection and species survival. Women’s rights advocates — who during the antebellum period may have argued about their capacity for virtue or turned to Biblical exegesis to bolster their case for equality — found, in the postwar period, that evolutionary biology was key front in the struggle for rights. Continue reading “MedHum Monday Book Review: From Eve to Evolution”

Friday Fiction Feature: Crimson Peak


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On this Friday before Halloween we thought it appropriate to highlight a work of Gothic romance: the recently-released Crimson Peak by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Once again we bring you a review conversation between book review editor Anna Clutterbuck-Cook and reviewer Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook.

Anna: Okay, so let’s start with some non-spoilery observations. When you’ve been talking to friends interested in this movie, what are some of the “If you liked…then you should absolutely see this film” you’ve compared Crimson Peak to? I told one colleague it was “something like The Turn of the Screw meets Angels & Insects with a touch of Lovecraft.

Hanna:Uh — other — good movies? If you like del Toro, you should see this, no question. *Don’t* see it if you’re not  into Gothic or at least willing to unhitch your brain a little from Hollywoodized expectation because otherwise you may end up saying stupid things about how it ‘doesn’t make sense’ (not true!) and looking a moron.

Anna: Yeah, we’ve talked a lot in the past ten days about ‘what was up’ with all the reviews that thought the story didn’t make sense. (?) It was an incredibly tight Gothic script — heir to Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights (only with more sense), Northanger Abbey, Dracula … and I’d also make a strong argument that like Jane Eyre the core narrative is Edith’s self-realization as an adult person — coming into her own adulthood and finding her voice (er, and other strengths).

Hanna: Castle of Otranto and Mysteries of Udolpho, too. About the only thing it didn’t directly reference was The Monk. Everything else was there pretty much. And then you can just go on listing all the horror movie references which are kind of endless because that’s how del Toro rolls.

Anna: It definitely gestured back toward del Toro’s canon, although it skittered away from the more fatalistic endings, I thought. It’s unfair probably to say, “This wasn’t Pan’s Labyrinth” because nothing can be but it wasn’t that … hard? cruel? I say this even though I’d argue Pan’s is also ultimately hopeful in the sense of human beings choosing to be courageous in the face of overwhelming cruelty. This wasn’t quite that. Although Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is required to draw on her inner resources, to find the strength of character we know as viewers she’s had all along.

Without giving too much away, we can also talk a little about the three main characters and the (rather spare!) supporting cast … what did we think about the troupe of players?

Hanna: Nothing is as cruel as Labyrinth. This wasn’t meant to be — Gothic isn’t harsh like that; only realism is. I can’t help thinking it would’ve been stronger if they’d recast Jessica Chastain. I’ve never been a fan of hers. This is about as good as I’ve seen her be but if she could’ve stepped up her game a tad, it would have been incredible instead of merely quite amazing. I’m not sure who I’d replace her with, though, so there’s that. Possibly Carey Mulligan. But I’d replace almost everyone with her so I’m not sure it counts. Mia Wasikowska was incredibly strong, much better than I expected. And Tom Hiddleston effaced himself quite nicely without making a huge show of it.

Anna: I can’t recall seeing Chastain in anything before this, so I went in with no real expectation either way for her character. I appreciated that she didn’t overdramatize the part, which could have easily been a problem. You felt something was off, obviously, but she built to a crescendo at a pace that worked well in the overall story arc (I thought the pacing of the narrative, overall, was pretty strong).

People have compared Wasikowska’s role in this to her turn as Jane Eyre, which makes sense given the genre, but I actually found myself thinking more strongly of her portrayal of Alice? Something about the look in her eye (spoiler!) when she realized she’d battled her way through to survival. Hiddleston, I feel, figured out that his task — harder than it looks! — was to play Thomas in such a way as to make him present (and desired by Edith) yet rarely an agent of action. He’s almost entirely a conduit of the narrative from beginning to end.

[Mild spoilers after the jump] Continue reading “Friday Fiction Feature: Crimson Peak”

Early Ectogenesis: Artificial Wombs in 1920s Literature

DailyDose_PosterToday we re-post a favorite (and very unusual) theme: ectogenesis–artificial wombs! Surely a science fiction idea? Certainly! And yet, there are strange affinities with science fact! In celebration of the first CONVERSATION series lecture (“Hard Labor” birth in the 19th century and today), we give Dr. Yuko’s blog post! Interested in joining us for the inaugural lecture? Register today (space is limited!)

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Tab IIII Casserius Tables, 1627

While the concept of artificial wombs may seem futuristic, the idea of creating a human being outside of a woman’s body is hardly novel.

In the sixteenth century, Paracelsus provided a formula with which to create a “homunculus” – an artificial man with no soul – in womb outside of a woman’s body.[1] This formula involves sealing a man’s semen in the womb of a horse for 40 days (or until it begins to live, move and can easily be seen), and then nourishing it daily with human blood for 40 weeks until it becomes a human infant resembling those born of a woman, only significantly smaller.[2]

The term “ectogenesis” – the gestation of human embryos in artificial circumstances outside a human uterus – was coined in 1923 by J.B.S. Haldane in his essay entitled Daedalus, or Science and the Future.[3] In his work, Haldane lists what he believes to be the six most important biological discoveries ever made. The list includes four discoveries “made before the dawn of history”: (1) the domestication of animals, (2) the domestication of plants, (3) the domestication of fungi for the production of alcohol, and (4) the altered path of sexual selection (that is, the shift to women’s faces and breasts as objects of men’s attention and attraction).[4] The remaining two biological discoveries cited by Haldane did not yet exist: bactericide, and the artificial control of conception.[5]

Haldane proceeds to provide a fictional essay written by an undergraduate student 150 years in the future (the year 2073), in which the student describes the birth of the first ectogenic child, which Haldane envisions would take place in 1951.[6] He then states that ectogenesis is “now universal,” and that in England, more than 70% of babies are born via artificial wombs.[7] Though he laments the demise of the “former instinctive cycle” of reproduction due to ectogenesis, he concedes that “it is generally admitted that the effects of selection have more than counterbalanced these evils.”[8]

Following Haldane’s publication, five additional works were published over a six-year period specifically responding to concepts found in Daedalus on topics such as ectogenesis and the separation of sexuality from reproduction; the benefits for society and the individual of scientific control of human nature; and the notion that humans’ biological and social behaviours were not natural, but naturalized.[9]

In Lysistrata, or Women’s Future and Future Women (1924), Nietzsche scholar Anthony Ludovici argues that ectogenesis is a feminist plot to escape not only pregnancy and reproduction, but also women’s domestic role, and potentially men themselves.[10] On the contrary, in his book entitled Hymen, or the Future of Marriage (1927), sexologist Norman Haire accepted ectogenesis as a way to liberate women from pregnancy, and to assist those who are unable to gestate.[11]

Despite his call to eliminate the biological family, socialist physician Eden Paul rejected ectogenesis in his essay entitled Chronos, or the Future of the Family (1930), insisting that women cannot be freed from pregnancy, at least in the foreseeable future, and considers the interuterine stage of gestation to be crucial for both the mother and child.[12] Likewise, in Halcyon, or the Future of Monogamy (1929) pacifist novelist Vera Brittain rejected ectogenesis, except as a last resort, claiming that the use of artificial wombs would jeopardize the welfare of the ectogenic children.[13]

Finally, in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (1929) X-ray crystallographer and molecular biologist J.D. Bernal contended that ectogenesis would be beneficial as it would replace imperfect human bodies with machines.[14] (Machines and human bodies had been linked at least since Rene Descartes and materialist Le Mettrie in the 17th century).

This literary debate took place primarily in the To-day and To-morrow book series – which includes the six aforementioned publications – and occurred within the context of some of the most prominent social concerns and fascinations of the 1920s: feminism and the role of women, and the movement for sexual reform.[15] Several works of popular fiction followed – most notably, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) – that predict utopian or dystopian worlds of the future that include ectogenesis.

Our greater understanding of the complexities of the human gestation process has, in a way, only made the development and clinical use of artificial wombs seem even more futuristic than they seemed in Haldane’s time, and are likely to remain in the imagination and consciousness of the public as they have for nearly 100 years.

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As Dr. Yuko’s post makes clear, the thought of reproduction outside the human body continues to influence culture, literature, and even practice. My own work looks at the birthing machines of the 18th century, and the fears of human replacement that resonated through the industrial revolution, and still today. From an article on the Japanese artificial womb appeared just this past October, to the recent movie Ex Machina to be released in April 2015, we continue to query the possibilities (and ethics) of man, mother, and machine.

ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist at the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education and is the founding and senior editor of Ethics & Society.

REFERENCES

[1] Scott Gelfand, “Introduction” in Ectogenesis: Artificial Womb Technology and the Future of Human Reproduction, ed. Scott Gelfand (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), 3.

[2] Auroleus Phillipus Theophrastus Bombastus von Honenheim, aka Paracelsus, “Concerning the Nature of Things” in The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus, Vol. 1, ed. Arthur E. Waite (New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1967), 124.

[3] J.B.S. Haldane, Daedalus, or Science and the Future (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1924).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Susan Merrill Squier, Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technology (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 66.

[10] Anthony Ludovici, Lysistrata, or Women’s Future and Future Women (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1924). See also Rosemarie Tong, “Out of Body Gestation: In Whose Best Interests?,” in Ectogenesis: Artificial Womb Technology and the Future of Human Reproduction, ed. Scott Gelfand and John R. Shook (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), 62-63.

[11] Norman Haire, Hymen, or the Future of Marriage (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1927). See also Tong, “Out of Body Gestation,” 62-63.

[12] Eden Paul, Chronos, or the Future of the Family (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1930). See also Aline Ferreira, “The Sexual Politics of Ectogenesis in the To-day and To-morrow Series,” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 34 (2009): 42; Tong, “Out of Body Gestation,” 62-63.

[13] Vera Brittain, Halcyon, or the Future of Monogamy (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1929). See also Tong, “Out of Body Gestation,” 62-63.

[14] J.D. Bernal, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1930). See also Tong, “Out of Body Gestation,” 62-63.

[15] Ferreira, “Sexual Politics,” 33; Squier, Babies in Bottles, 68.