On a swelteringly hot day during the summer of 2017, Philip Ball had a piece of his arm removed and turned into a rudimentary miniature brain. This book is his attempt to make sense of that strange experience and to understand the implications of our new-found power to transform cells. If any type of cell in your body can become any other, is it possible to grow not just a mini-brain but an entire human being in a lab, from a scrap of skin? Ball recounts the macabre history of human tissue culture, and scrutinizes the narratives that frame our understanding of our cells and our genesis. At the cellular level, the unlikely process from which a clump of cells becomes a human offers much to marvel at.
But now we can intervene in that process in unprecedented ways. With the cutting-edge scientific advances of today, Ball considers the likelihood of designer babies, gene-editing and cloning within our lifetimes, and of unlocking the true potential of the cell so that we might grow new organs, limbs, even whole humans. The possibilities are as amazing as they are terrifying.
Running through this story of development and discovery is an examination of the profound sense of unease that humans feel about our own flesh – our carnal selves. In an age when we are increasingly encouraged to regard the ‘self’ as an abstract sequence of genetic information or neural activity, Ball anchors a conception of personhood in the flesh and blood of the body.
How to Build a Human brings us back to ourselves – but in doing so, it challenges old preconceptions and values. It asks us to rethink how we exist in the world and what it means to be human.
Published by HarperCollins/University of Chicago Press (2019) ISBN 0-008-33177-4