Foreword

The release of Artificial Womb by Henri Atlan in Brazil constitutes a moment of delight for the scientific community that seeks biological and philosophical references for the debate about the articulation between technological innovations and the issues concerning humanism. More than ever it is necessary to update this term, sometimes despised, other times vulgarized, reviving its significant density, through a smart and penetrating dialogue with science and technology. During the Renaissance, humanism meant the enfranchisement from the religious dogma empire. In the Illuminist period, it was the ambition of the universal Enlightenment and the establishment of the political and juridical Rule of law. In the XXI century, the challenge is that science and technology, especially in the biotechnological area, fully assume the privileges and tributes of their condition of human creations, rendering service, substantively, to the slow convergence of the evolutionary processes of the hominids species and those of humanization.

Historically, new technologies have been received with reservations and suspicions, even from the academic community itself. Being the fruit of a new thought, they impact on ingrained habits, because scientific activity is founded on repetition and it resists innovation. Nowadays, it is these discoveries and inventions, especially those that occur in the fields of biology and information technology sciences, that are impelling the changes of paradigms, not only in knowledge production but also in cultural transformations and imaginary representations. So, we have to add to the resistance of the academic ambiance that which is formed in the general public opinion, under the impact of frequent partial, mistaken or tendentious information.

As such, it is particularly welcome the contribution of the French biophysicist and Spinozist philosopher Henri Atlan, who introduces us to a controversial project (that which he himself refers to as "in construction") of reproductive biotechnology  – the artificial womb – allying thought-out descriptions of its scientific parameters with the analysis of the possible repercussions of its use in anthropological, social and psychological terms. It’s mandatory to point out that it is a "thought experiment" (gedankenexperiment), similar to that carried out by the author in his essay of 2002, La Science est-elle inhumaine? Essai sur la libre nécessité. However, the highly philosophical tone of the previous book is impregnated, now, with the iridescent nuance of a "speculative fiction",since the concrete implementation of this technique is still a long way from us at this time –  a probable period would be in about half to one century from now – so  the outlines that will define its actual applications are still hazy.

In the present essay, updating a leitmotif in his work, Atlan elucidates, in an accessible way to the lay reader, the scientific procedures related to the creation of an artificial womb while at the same time he reviews with rigour, the concepts that translate them; in parallel, he describes their mythical paths. He goes to the very roots of the word "ectogenesis" (i.e. "artificial womb"), whose ambivalent connotations goes back to the mid XX century, when Aldous Huxley presented the technique in his book Brave New World. There, the ectogenesis would integrate a program of the individual's integral conditioning, that would serve a “sweet” totalitarian system, or in other words, that would work (almost) without suffering. The concept had been imported from an analogous prospective intellectual exercise made by geneticist John B. S. Haldane, in 1923. Regardless of the cynicism and mechanicism of some of Haldane’s moral proposals (although he had always opposed the Nazi genetic selection propaganda, underlining the role of the polimorphism in human genetics), Haldane’s speculations maintain their main interest : the forecast of how the future biological discoveries would be associated with deep social transformations. The verification of the sharpness of Haldane’s  intuition will be the conductive thread of  Atlan’s  book.

Received with a great impact in France, Artificial Womb left room for several misunderstandings, which his author doesn't tire of rectifying, including in interviews on cable TV, such as, for instance, that he would be defending the implementation of this technique on a priori grounds in any circumstance. It seems to us pertinent to explain some possible reasons for these misunderstandings.

One of the differentials of Henri Atlan’s very original thought is the conjugation of his sophisticated intellectual posture, showing no inclination towards  precipitated "pros and cons", with an unhaunted approach to emerging controversial social and ethical impasses. Interconnecting these two issues, a consistent reflection takes place, concerning the problems originated by biotechnological innovations that have already been presented to us, with which we seem to be accustomed. For this reason we tend to forget to analyze the profound modifications in woman and man condition which have accompanied technological innovations in the XXth century, both seemingly trivial like the washing machine and spectacular like the contraceptive pill and reproductive technologies of different kinds.

On one hand, therefore, we must highlight the growing importance of an accurate philosophical elaboration on the interdisciplinary frontiers that have become more and more extensive, as an antidote to the frequently lame information published by the media in general and by the so called "scientific journalism" in particular. Compelled by the enthusiasm of sensational updating, these improvised commentators extrapolate their conjectures concerning the stimulating title of a book, forgetting the discerning analysis of its content...

On the other hand, a thinker of Atlan’s stature has his own strong and innovative epistemological and methodological background that, if ignored, induces the mistake in the appreciation of his intellectual style. Actually, since 1986 (in his book, À tort ou à  raison. Intercritique de la science et du mythe), Atlan has defended an "inter-critical" point of view when approaching two topics not through their similarities, but through their differences. Facing up to the current tendency to make everything homogenized or polarized, his unusual intellectual attitude facilitates imprecise interpretations.

An example of the importance of the inter-criticism of Atlan’s work would be the form in which he focuses on “the relationships between the artificial womb and cloning that are reinforced by each other, as much as in the technical plan as in the dramatization of their social and ethical repercussions (…)" (page 27).  In 1999 he was co-author of a book on cloning (Le Clonage Humain) and Artificial Womb provides us with the most recent information of this issue. But by putting the two biotechnologies vis-à-vis (specially in the chapter V), his objective is to emphasize how much they differ, not only in technical terms and the research progress, but also in the motivation and ethical judgments that they carry. As such, under some circumstances, there would be no contradiction in being radically against reproductive cloning and in favor of the artificial womb, since the latter could be used, in addition, to receive embryos that would otherwise be predestined to be aborted.

Juxtaposing the scientific expertise to his philosophical vocation, Atlan begins by detailing what is understood as the artificial womb, starting from the first tests made during the 1950s, until more recent experiments, in 2002, made by the teams of Helen Liu, in USA and Yoshinori Kuwabara, in Japan. Then he continues, by scrutinising the concepts of genes, embryos and pseudo-embryos, since these terms interrelate, within the context of the new experimental biology, questions concerning  individuals' personal identity and the nature of the human species. He adapts, therefore, to the 'state of the art' of molecular biology, his constant concern with what he considers the largest source of misunderstandings within and on the borders of the discipline, from the unhappy metaphor of the " genetic program (and not code!)": language inadequacies, due to the fact that the words used to name the new discoveries and production techniques are imported, inappropriately, from their old representations.

The author extends the analysis to its juridical and political dimension and asks – always open to multiple possible answers – who would be responsible for the task of giving birth and educating the child: the individual, the society or the human species in which the children would be members and that would be affected as a whole by the various alterations in the “natural order” provoked by reproduction technologies He goes on, introducing a heated argument, by explicitly stating a doubt that is already present in the contemporary mentality concerning the identity of a child created by ectogenesis. Actually, "the maternity under the conditions of ectogenesis would become very close to paternity (page 123); as a consequence, “the difference between the sexes in procreation and in parentage as an immediate natural data will have disappeared” (page 124), provoking a turnabout of the differences between the sexes regarding their respective roles in procreation, which does not necessarily entails the disappearance of these differences as such.

Atlan also raises issues for cultural discussions when he introduces redefinitions of the “feminine condition", not only in the light of contraception but also in that of medically assisted procreation (with the resource of the artificial womb included), which could implicate the complete separation between sexuality and procreation. This topic, developed mainly in the chapters IX and X, gives us, on one side, a full frame of references concerning the most recent controversies between various feminist trends and the reproductive biotechnology; on the other, it incites us, because its universe of references is confined between two extremes, the two cultures of the French and North Americans, to make a future original contribution, essentially Brazilian – a culture where the male and female roles are not so polarized – to the discussion of the theme perhaps ending in the eventual redefinition of an ‘androgynous autonomous disposition’ in human beings, offering new elements to the stimulating Atlanian comments in chapter XI.

Atlan attributes the development of decisive changes in the organization of families and in the emergence of a new masculine and paternal role to the continuation of the “feminine revolution” thanks to technology – as we have seen before initiated not only by the birth-control pill but also by the washing machine and which in the future will reach a peak with the artificial womb. Such turnabouts would correspond to radical alterations in the biological and symbolic roles  –  related to the sexual act that generates life and to the uterine pregnancy that preserves it and allows it to progress – of men and women, in their pursuit of equality as individuals, affecting as much the male and female sense of identity as the wider cultural and social order. Throughout this trajectory, Atlan refers, in consonance with his anthological work Les Étincelles de Hasard (tomes I and II),  to Greek mythology – in his view as important to the European identity as the Christian inheritance – and to that Hebraic one, because the trials and tribulations of Adam and Eva’s creation are taken frequently as examples of those due to a criteria of precedence between men and women. However, the same myth admits another interpretation, according to which, the primordial pair would be understood as a timeless matrix of an ecstatic reunion of which in each man and woman is untransferable and shared.

In the approach to all these themes, Atlan sticks to the imperative of taking into account the multiplicity of combinations and possible effects in the" risky game" of making extrapolations of future biological performances and their anthropological and psychological consequences. Being a "relative relativist", he contemplates with exemption several virtual scenarios that would compose, maybe, the “Brave New World” or the "Eden revisited", both informed substantially by biotechnologies. But it is with warm sympathy that he approaches the most subtle variations that interlace body and soul: the infinity of loving nuances between men and women, the indispensable care and affection during a child's creation, independent of a natural or artificial birth, the longing for true solidarity between individuals and social groups.

In his previous works, Atlan repeatedly alerted us to consider with prudence the promises and threats printed in the social imaginary concerning the new biological discoveries and inventions. He insisted on the need to preserve the integrity of scientific speech, disqualifying its assumed messianic or catastrophic heralds that would improperly manipulate the power of its word in their political and/or media speeches. Now, however, it seems to us that he permits himself the hope – always cautiously (because as we see ahead, invariably this optimistic approach is put to the test) – that scientific and mythical rationalities, when dealing with these themes, will finally reconcile themselves, thanks to our inborn power for critical and creative understanding.

In the beautiful final chapter, he delineates, therefore, a promising alternative: that, in the future, the affectionate and social relationships between men, women and children and of all three of them with nature will be built on a higher cultural level. The intrusion of technology in human reproduction would be a step more towards the exit of our species from bestiality, since the constitution, for election of affinities, of affectionate bonds would tend to overcome those, necessarily molded in biological bases, of  present-day families. This advanced step in the order of cultural and moral relationships could mean an opening for larger interactions between different groups and societies in harmony with the environment, which would have been transformed and humanized by technology.

Although we reiterate here the character of the "thought experience" of the essay, may we suggest that the revolutionary potency of bold ideas should not be underestimated – and, on this aspect, Atlan would be re-editing, with emphasis on the positive aspects of the possible scenarios presented and under a sign of ethical integrity, a prospective exercise of the type made by Haldane, of great heuristic value. As, furthermore, the political philosopher Renato Lessa explicitly states, the political modifications emerge, from the sinuous roads that link the private and the public, from imagination acts. As happened, for instance, with the concept of equality, brilliant Illuminist reinvention, extracted by forceps from a social reality fragmented into irreconcilable differences, that would become one of the pillars of modern democracy.

Artificial Womb enrolls itself in the privileged category of "seminal production", or in other words, that with the potential to be interpreted – “à tort et à raison” –  in a way to engender bold intellectual hypotheses. In our case, in the present foreword, we take into consideration what can be happening, from the point of view not only of the techniques, but, specially, from that concerning the radical alterations in the habits and human conditions for the next hundred years. The mere observation of the changes that have happened in human, material and social conditions, between the beginning and the end of the XX century, stimulates us to deepen our own speculations, which, nevertheless, stretch themselves beyond unforeseable time...

We allow ourselves, therefore, to sketch one of these long-view questions, reviving the crucial inquiry that crosses philosophy, anthropology, social and cultural studies, psychology and psychoanalysis: would “human nature” be susceptible to a qualitative jump comparable to that which it experienced at the time of the "Greek miracle" (whether this is considered a "rupture" or an icon that crystallizes a broad gradual movement of transformations), even if this jump is to be evaluated in the sense of extending to the community the level of the understanding of being that throughout History such few individuals have been able to reach? We question (à la Bachelard, so inscribed in a rigorous rationalism): if this radical "epistemological and existential cut” is viable, “would science be instructing reason"? We explain, further, that the reason mentioned, here, is that of Spinoza, deeply interlaced, in its “adequate” (also in the Spinozist meaning of this term) expression, with the power of positive affections.

Actually, it is an irresistible temptation, for an anthropologist and a psychoanalyst, to explore the various possibilities by which Atlanian’s text allows us to approach this subject. We do so as follows, emphasizing the embryonic character of our speculations, as a contribution to a movement to draw convergences and divergences between Atlanian thinking and that of those who study his work. We limit ourselves, also, to a more general and philosophical focus, centered on the dialogue between natural and human-social sciences but already in a way to give epistemological support to the endless and always inconclusive – for this alone fascinating - discussions on the male and female future.

In times (persistent although already retrograde!) of "strong epistemic and moral relativisms", it almost sounds as naive and uninformed the mere proposition –even if it was submitted to a rigorous philosophical and logical scrutiny – that technological progresses, from a certain point of view and in certain contexts could correspond to an evolution in course (stained and corrected by residual involutions) in a given measure similar in the “human nature”. The simple mention that we can develop psychic and social mechanisms that allow us to access new mental and cultural levels – such as those which would overcome dichotomies of the type "autonomy x responsibility" – provoke a roar of rejection, as if a statute of right to our "animal nature" (exceptions made, naturally, to meet the satisfaction of basic needs of survival) should be preserved at all costs. The suggestion that, if neglected man's “rational nature" all that remains is the retreat to a "bestial nature", seriously runs the risk of being summarily discarded academically, branded as "religious", "mystical", "moralistic" or – last but not least – ‘essentialist". The current mistrust of the intellectual integrity of the “Humanities” gives raise to the fact that any draft of the possible means for expansion of the rationality – in principle, accessible to all men and women, so ‘universal’ – is suspect of messianic opportunism or ideological totalitarianism. (concomitantly, the cross-eyed authoritarianism of the 'politically correct' prospers…)

To invite science to lead such a debate maybe is a skilled strategy to take a possible product of technical human ingeniousness (the artificial womb) for the probable cause of human cultural evolution (in the case described in terms of the positive social reverberations of overcoming the inequalities that provoke suffering between the sexes). We support ourselves on the growing irrefutability as a scientific hypothesis, that is becoming increasingly more viable operationally, of the artificial womb, to postulate that this technique would be anticipating in time one of the processes, in the order of the reason, that really, would be engendering it, under the carpet: the undeniable need, for humanity's own survival, to go beyond belligerent factions, dramatic consequence of society’s scissions. These disputes, in turn, are based on badly resolved libidinal family dynamics, or – in specific pockets of poverty and ignorance – on even more primitive inner behaviors, in comparison with the minimum civilized standards with which, sooner or later, all of the cultural constellations end up bumping into, in an ever more globalized world. We quote as examples the extreme conditions of the cruel interdictions still imposed on women in some countries today, with their also sinister – although less evident – handicaps expressed in affectionate and intellectual limitations by the men. The tragic social and political consequences of these inner disarrays are exceedingly well known.

On the same line of thought, in response to the statement made by Bachelard, we propose that there would be a kind of apparent "asymmetrical parallelism" between accelerated, public and evident scientific progress, and the private mechanisms, almost indescribable in their dodecaphonic non-lineal steps, of the evolution of human nature, expressed in the acquisition and exercise of a bigger and better directed intellective and emotional sharpness (in relation to their “animalized” versions) by a growing number of people. The persistence (no worse than in other times!) of chronic barbarisms and their violent seasonal convulsions – such as man's indiscriminate exploration of man and their terrorist irruptions – would be part of an agonistic movement that, since everything now reverberates at a global level for better or worse, might end up provoking the emergence of new levels of consciousness for ever growing portions of the human community.

  On the other hand, through the prism of Spinozist absolute determinism, it is curious to think that, that which we judge our decision to be, following or not this evolutionary direction, is already a part of the vicissitudes or benefits of a process in a relentless march – although we have, evidently, no condition to previously classify what would be "for the better" or "the worse" except – and this is an important ‘except’! – in terms of the avoidance of inflicting meaningless suffering on human beings and to propitiate to them, when not hurting another person, a creative and liberating  evolution.

Bearing this clearly in mind, we believe that it is the function of philosophy, in its dialogue not only with the so-called human and social sciences but also with those of Nature, to actively go ahead with these inquiries. It is necessary to remake the paths of individual and collective existential dynamics, discovering unlikely valleys and building interdisciplinary bridges always flexible, eventually temporary. It urges the development of a deeper and more effective understanding, for instance, about the roots of the various distorted emotional attachments and unacceptable inter-society intolerances – that pledge their mistaken loyalty to categories such as the "family" and "nation" in furious detriment of their own priority to insert themselves in humanity – based on the principle (philosophical to its core) and the judgment of value (assumed without disguises and committed with an ethical position) that this can and should be done.

Let us return from this "Utopian interlude" to the solid sobriety of Atlan’s reflection. We hope that the new reproductive technologies, created in favor of humanity, have come to propitiate the “fraternal Utopia” as sketched by Atlan. Together with the author, we want them to favor men and women’s evolution in the direction of an “igneous” warm and illuminated human nature, through the active search for a true political, but also internal freedom.

Ana Maria Coutinho Aleksandrowicz
Maria Cecília de Souza Minayo

Rio de Janeiro, april  2006

The authors thank Prof. Henri Atlan  for his critical review of this foreword  translated to English from the Brazilian original “Prefácio” by Roger Stanley Wilkinson and Ana Maria Coutinho Aleksandrowicz.

Saiba Mais

- De sua opinião sobre a polêmica do útero artificial clique aqui

- Prefácio do livro "O Útero Artificial"
    Em português clique aqui

- Resenha do livro "O Útero Artificial" clique aqui

- Útero Artificial: O atual desafio científico da Reprodução Assistida clique aqui

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    25/06/2005 - El "útero artificial"
    11/02/2002 - Ciência Internacional insurge-se contra a notícia da criação de útero artificial

- Bibliografia clique aqui