Science & Technology

Birthmarks and Bioethics

Why is the head of the President's Council on Bioethics forcing its members to read Nathaniel Hawthorne?


Only with its first official meeting on January 17 have we learned the full roster of the 18 experts on the President's Council on Bioethics. This is the panel charged with advising George W. Bush on thorny issues related to stem cell research, human cloning, and the like. The team's makeup is not particularly surprising, including as it does a slugger's row of prominent critics of much that is cutting-edge in human biotechnology: Johns Hopkins' Francis Fukuyama, UCLA's James Q. Wilson, Princeton's Robert P. George, and journalist Charles Krauthammer (who holds a medical degree) are all in the starting lineup.

Such selections were virtually a lock back in August, when the president announced the formation of the council and named as its leader the University of Chicago's Leon Kass. Kass not only openly opposes cloning human embryos for therapeutic purposes but has serious issues with in vitro fertilization and other "unnatural" reproductive techniques. In his own defense, the Washington Post reports, "Kass has vowed that the council will transcend preconceptions and politics, and will uphold its mission to study the issues thoroughly."

Which makes one wonder all the more about the first homework assignment Professor Kass gave his council members. He asked the group to be ready to discuss Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1843 short story, "The Birthmark," during their first confab. A quick refresher for those who dozed off in high school English: "The Birthmark" is about a scientist married to a stunningly beautiful woman whose only flaw is a tiny, hand-shaped birthmark on her cheek. The scientist devises a treatment to get rid of the imperfection. The treatment works, but–alas!–kills the wife in the process.

The tale is one of several by Hawthorne portraying what might charitably be called "scientific hubris." In "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" (1837), for instance, readers encounter an ethically ambivalent scientist who conjures up a potion that promises to make old people young again. A quartet of misguided, desperate oafs who loath being old quaff the stuff down and enjoy a few brief moments of vitality. But–alas!–the process reverses itself and they end up even more shriveled (and even more bitter at growing old) than ever. Watching the experiment, Heidegger learns a moral lost on his friends: "If the fountain of youth gushed at my very doorstep, I would not stoop to bathe my lips in it…Such is the lesson ye have taught me!" One only wonders why Kass, who has argued that human beings are "defined by their mortality," failed to assign this story as well.

Or, for that matter, the other great Hawthorne variation on this theme, "Rappaccini's Daughter" (1844). This story features yet another beautiful woman done in by science run amok–creating in the process what is surely the first literary depiction of truly chronic halitosis. Dr. Rappaccini is a cold, ultra-rationalist who has cultivated an "Eden of poisonous flowers" and made his own daughter live among his plants, in the hopes of creating a human being "with marvelous gifts against which no power nor strength could avail an enemy." Rappaccini's daughter is bred to be literally toxic; she's even able to kill bugs with her breath. A would-be lover, in concert with a friendly scientist sickened by Rappaccini's contra naturam experiment, gives the daughter an antidote which–alas!–proves fatal: "As poison had been life, so the powerful antidote was death; and thus the poor victim of man's ingenuity and of thwarted nature, and of the fatality that attends all such efforts of perverted wisdom, perished there, at the feet of her father."

There's not much subtlety or wiggle room in interpreting the point of these rather turgid tales. Given the flatness of Hawthorne's moral universe in "The Birthmark" and his other mad scientist stories, it's hard not to conclude that Kass will similarly work hard to reduce complex issues to their starkest antinomies. Certainly, the council's conversations would have been far more interesting had Hawthorne written a trio of tales called, say, "The Harelip," "The Club Foot," and "The Juvenile Diabetic" and had the author focused on the incremental ways in which science has tended to improved human life. Hawthorne didn't, of course, and Kass' invocation of "The Birthmark" at the outset of the council's activities hardly inspires a sense of fair play and open debate.

"Washington," Kass told the Post, "likes fights and polarization and opposition. But my habit is to make sure the questions that are neglected will be thought about." But had Kass really meant that, he would have assigned a very different Hawthorne text, one that is an extended meditation on the limits of social consensus and moral truths. Published in 1852, The Blithedale Romance is set at a utopian community that quickly falls apart because the main characters cannot bring themselves to compromise on the aims and goals of the group. Like "The Birthmark," it too fixes on the limits of human perfectibility, but its setting is social rather than scientific. Which, ironically enough, is far more relevant to a politically appointed panel charged with hammering out policies on cloning and stem cells.