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Children in a Petrie dish

By Obi Nwakanma

Scientists in Japan have distilled a process that can use stem-cells to produce sperms which can be introduced to female eggs to make babies in laboratory conditions. The implication of this heady, mind-blowing development is powerful, dangerous and disturbing.

Among some of its implications, particularly in the distracted and alienated human communities of the western world, is that in the next fifty years, by some predictions, a quarter of the babies and the human beings on earth, will no longer be conceived “on a bed or behind the back seats of cars” as a commentator on the American National Public Radio (NPR) puts it, but be made in Petrie dishes under laboratory conditions.

This is a development that must alert us all to the potential extremes that science and new scientific development may lead us to in this era. There are touted benefits to this development: for example, gay couples may now have the opportunity to use this process to have children in the non-traditional ways, as would hetero couples who may be unable to conceive and make babies in the so-called “traditional” ways. But this is by far the most unnecessary and ill-thought reason to explore this potentially limitless process. Human beings are not toys. Making babies is not a natural entitlement. The body either does or does not.

There might be a reason why the natural process of selection makes it possible for two gender types to attract against the wider nature of oppositional attraction. Perhaps nature itself does not permit certain human types, endowed in other ways to reproduce as a means of containing and balancing the natural human weight of the world.

Not every human reproduces and that should be alright. It is therefore not necessary to design a system or process that begins to seem like an inverted form of the reward system, by which new, dangerous reproductive technology using  stem-cell research would “compensate” a natural lack, and in so doing formalize a process that cheapens and dehumanizes life.

The product of life becomes mechanized and thus subject to profound renegotiations about its meaning and its value when we make human babies no more or less than toys produced in factories. Just imagine the consequence: two busy professionals in New York or London or Lagos with a busy life.

They are so busy with their life, they no longer have time to hump; besides, well for the woman, a pregnancy might reshape the architecture of her highly valued body; no more post-coital worry about “unwanted pregnancy;” no more post-natal worry about baby fat; post-natal depression; a depression of the mammary firmness; an all-round gain of body autonomy by eliminating the natural or traditional process of conception and birth; in fact, the elimination of the mediatory place of the male factor in that process itself because the “sperm” and even the “ovary” is cheap and can now be produced or created by laboratory means, to have the sort of baby they want.

You want an athlete, then you get an athlete. You want a blue-eyed, ginger-haired, black-skinned baby, and that can be arranged. All you need is the menu of types and there to choose from. You now buy your baby in the market and as in such developments, we will let the market forces regulate that too. That is the logic of capitalism, that all things, including the most sacred become subject to market forces, and be subject to purchase, including life. This is the most dangerous development in the annals of man.

Science is a great thing, and scientific development has made human life easier and in many situations, very pleasurable. But I’m afraid we are moving gingerly into its darker side, that part that the sages over time have warned us from entering. I speak right now, with two examples, one from the Igbo story of the figure called “Amadioha” whose real name was Kamalu, and from the Western tale of Mephistopheles in German folklore.

Goethe’s Faust or even the English Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, place before us, the tragic consequence of losing our souls to the “devil” of ambition and overreach, and creating a catastrophe far larger and far more consequential than we can control.

The current scientists, working to unravel the sealed “mysteries” of life are exactly the examples of the tragic Dr. Faustus, and we must be wary of what they do now. After Amadioha’s experiments with fissile energy destroyed the world in the bronze age, in his search for what the Igbo “Dibia Afa” calls “Orisha-Akalam” – basically the mystery of divine agency and power, the ancient Igbo sealed, through very secret codes, the knowledge of iron, the engineering of rocketry, and the science of energy production because of its dangerous uses as exemplified in Amadioha’s tragic experiments.

They understood that nature is limitless in its propensities and the human mind can fathom aspects of it by forms of reproduction, thus the Igbo design theory – “Di uzu n’amaghi akpu ogene, lee egbe anya n’odu” – basically what European renaissance scientists and philosophers later conceived as putting a mirror before nature to reproduce it. It is thus possible to recreate man – to produce human beings in a Petrie dish, but it is of no use, for man to move in that direction.

Governments across the world must, as a matter of urgency, close down this misuse of science and stem-cell research that pose unanswerable ethical questions before man enters fully and permanently into the Mephistophelean age.

When that day comes when we begin to design and make human beings in factory-like conditions, just like Tyson foods produce chicken that hatch as egg today, and become full-blownmeat only two days later, then we would have crossed the last frontier into the destruction of humanity. I do like to think of myself as liberal and tolerant of new ideas and exciting developments in science, but this possibility makes me shiver and recoil with instinctive horror.

In the backdrop of this development is an earth, which by many accounts, is currently over-populated. The earth is brimming with people. It does not lack real humans. The last thing it wants now are synthetic humans created in Petrie dishes, like worms squeezing out of chemicals, under conditions that might, among other worries, challenge us to the question of whether they too share in the kinship of our humanity.


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