Can we make a human being? That question has been asked for many centuries, and has produced recipes ranging from the homunculus of the medieval alchemists and the clay golem of Jewish legend to the cadaverous mosaic of Frankenstein's monster and the mass-produced test-tube babies of Brave New World's Hatcheries. All of these efforts to create artificial people are more or less fanciful, but they have taken deep root in Western culture. They all express fears about the allegedly treacherous, Faustian nature of technology, and they all question whether any artificially created person can be truly human. Legends of people-making are tainted by suspicions of impiety and hubris, and they are regarded as the ultimately 'unnatural' act, offering a revealing glimpse of changing attitudes to the relationship between nature and human art.
In Unnatural, I delve beneath the surface of the cultural history of 'anthropoesis' – the creation of artificial people - to explore what it tells us about our views on life, humanity, creativity and technology, and the soul.
I argue that to call something 'unnatural' is to make a moral judgement that has its origins in religious thought. Unnatural traces the threads that link the legendary inventor Daedalus to Goethe’s tragic Faust, the automata-making magicians of E. T. A. Hoffmann, the first robots, and of course to Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein. And it argues that these old tales and legends are alive and well, subtly manipulating the current debates about assisted conception, embryo research and human cloning, which have at last made the idea of 'making people' into some kind of reality.
Bodley Head, February 2011
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Now available in paperback: Vintage, 2012.