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Bioethics through the lenses of literature and film


Bioethics through the lenses of literature and film Dr Pat Brereton & Dr Brigitte Le Juez Current intra-faculty research project Enhancing Ethics though Literature ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Bioethics through the lenses of literature and film

Bioethics through the lenses of literature and
  • Dr Pat Brereton
  • Dr Brigitte Le Juez

Current intra-faculty research project
  • Enhancing Ethics though Literature and Film
  • Members Pat Brereton (Film Studies, SC), Bert
    Gordijn (Director of Ethics Institute), Brigitte
    Le Juez (Comparative Literature, SALIS) and
    Francesca Lorenzi (Philosophy of Education, SE)
  • Research Question How can Literature and Film be
    used to enhance Ethics Education?
  • One of our objectives creation of an
    intra-university module on ethics education (open
    to the Sciences).

  • Literature and Film part of the science of
    observation and of getting to know humanity based
    on critical investigation of human nature in all
    its representations and forms of expression.
  • Essential (moral) educational feature to explore
    ethical themes, develop self-awareness in terms
    of values and beliefs (incl. stereotypes), and
    offer new perceptions of the real in order to
    develop the autonomous, critical self.
  • Literature and Film may form a Moral Laboratory.

The perception of science
  • Mixture of awe, respect and suspicion re
    scientists embedded in culture, as shown in
    literature (from Frankenstein, The Strange Case
    of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, novels by Jules
    Verne and H.G. Wells, among the great classics)
    and film (from Fritz Lang early films to the
    James Bond villains and The Fly).
  • For Lewis Wolpert (UCL) confusion between
    science and the technological applications of
    science. Reliable scientific knowledge
    value-free, with no moral or ethical value
    (admits that a rare case of immoral science was
  • Obligation of scientists to make public both
    any social implications of their work and its
    technological applications.
  • For information we rely on institutions of
    democratic societies parliament, free and
    vigorous press, affected groups the scientists
  • Recognises difficulty in promoting public
    understanding of science.
  • Can literature and film help?

Teaching Bioethics from an Interdisciplinary
Perspective a previous experiment
  • Rivers Singleton and D. Heyward Brocks
    experience (both University of Delaware) started
    in 1982
  • Based on their Centre of Science and Cultures
    interdisciplinary courses on bioethics and
    related problems
  • Taught by teams of scientists, literary critics,
    historians and philosophers
  • Based on given issues which each member of the
    team approaches from his or her own perspective.

Theme Human experimentation
  • The scientists primary role is to keep the
    discussion as factually correct as possible.
  • The philosophers is to connect ethical and
    philosophical principles.
  • The literary critic with the help of the
    historian provides an exploration of how human
    beings experience the moral and ethical dimension
    of their lives in a more dynamic and perceptive
    way than can be obtained through sketchy case
    studies alone.
  • Films used as complements to literary texts.
  • None of the members operates in intellectual
  • Objectivity of overall discussion thanks to
    multiplicity of perspectives.

Literary Texts
  • Chosen for their strong moral component.
  • Leo Tolstoys novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych
    (allows to discuss how human beings react to
    dying and death)
  • Two films used here as well (Please let me die
    and Who Shall Survive?) on euthanasia.
  • Dürrenmatts play, The Physicists, and Nathaniel
    Hawthornes short stories, Dr Heideggers
    Experiment and Rappaccinis Daughter no
    resemblance to reality in current science but
    possible discussion on perceived deficiency of
    science re the dignity and worth of people
    (possible subjects of discussion DNA or
    abortion, for ex.).
  • Aldous Huxleys novel, Brave New World
    discussion on foetal research or genetic
    engineering, and the consequences of utilitarian

Positive reaction and outcome
  • Those involved in the programme felt both
    excited and enlightened by their
  • because of the new contexts and new perspectives
  • feeling of intellectual stimulation of working
    together with colleagues from different
    disciplines on questions of common interest.
  • Experiment brought to high-school level.

Brave New World (1932)
  • Why this choice of text?
  • News of Ridley Scotts adaptation to appear in
  • Huxleys novel still topical BNWs argument that
    man is genetically modifiable and psychologically
    conditionable still rings true.
  • Director Ridley Scott well known for films
    dealing with science fiction (Alien, Blade
    Runner), myth (Gladiator), ethics (American
  • Main actor (and possible producer), Leonardo di
    Caprio also significant involved in films
    dealing with human experimentation (mostly of a
    psychological nature, latest films Shutter Island
    and Inception) and ethics (Blood Diamonds and
    Body of Lies, the latter also by Scott).

Genetically modifiable and psychologically
  • Novel opens in Central London Hatching and
    Conditioning Centre, where we learn about the
    Bokanovsky and Podsnap Processes that allow the
    Hatchery to produce thousands of nearly identical
    human embryos.
  • During the gestation period embryos travel in
    bottles along a conveyor belt in a factory, and
    are conditioned to belong to 1 of 5 castes The
    Alpha embryos destined to become the leaders and
    thinkers of the World State, and each of the
    succeeding castes is conditioned to be less
    physically and intellectually able. The Epsilons,
    stunted and stupefied by oxygen deprivation and
    chemical treatments, destined to perform menial
  • Hypnopaedic (sleep-teaching) methods used to
    teach children morals of the State. While
    children nap, a whispering voice repeats lessons
    in Elementary Class Consciousness. To make them
    docile and eager consumers later on, infants can
    be programmed to dislike books and flowers.

Current view on BNW still relevant to current
debate on cloning
  • Patrick Hopkins argues that BNW is a stand-alone
    reference, image, and warning about
    dehumanization, totalitarianism, and
    technology-wrought misery epitomised and made
    possible by the technology of cloning.
  • He also argues that Huxleys work continues to
    influence the discourse on cloning in recent
    media coverage, for there has been no comparable
    book that speaks to the potential benefits of
  • Also appearing on school syllabi (example).
  • Library list on the cloning debate entitled BNW.
  • What will Ridley Scotts stance be ? (no
    interviews available yet)

Themes found in science fiction novels an films
inspired by BNW
  • Negative view
  • Eugenics as a means of controlling and selecting
    the population
  • Issues of differentiation and identity
  • The separation of sex from reproduction (and
    subsequent effects on love relationships)
  • The resulting disintegration of familiar family
  • Institution of laws for the production and
    regulation of clones and cloning in a
    totalitarian society.
  • Positive view
  • Gene therapy and the ability to clone organs for
  • In both cases, novels explore fear of effects of
    human cloning on people and future generations.

Synopsis of BNW
  • Novel
    takes place in 26th century (A.F. 632)
  • World united as The World State, eternally
    peaceful, stable and plentiful, where everyone
    thinks theyre happy.
  • Natural reproduction has been done away with and
    children are conceived, born and raised in
    Hatcheries and Conditioning Centres. Sexual
    competition and romantic relationships obsolete.
  • Society rigidly divided into 5 castes the
    Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons
    (further split into Plus and Minus members).
    Alphas and Betas top of society. No concept of
    family. Father, mother and love are considered
    dirty words.
  • All citizens conditioned to believe in the values
    idealised by the State. Everyone consumes soma,
    an anti-depressant hallucinogen. Everybody dies
    at 60. No sense of loss or mourning.
  • Two characters go to an island (margin of the
    State where savages still live according to old
    order). Discover one man born of a stray
    civilised woman, John. Bring him back to the
    mainland with devastating consequences for all

From a literary perspective
  • Examination of how the themes are tackled
  • Huxley clearly adopts negative view from first
    page, present scientists as either experienced
    and dangerously knowledgeable, or as meek
    students, discouraged from conceiving/expressing
    alternative views.
  • Dark picture of the future, reflecting both an
    amazing vision of what science can achieve and
    the dangers of such achievement (elimination of
    human qualities).
  • Use of stereotypes (need to question his apparent
    misogynistic and racist portrayals/remarks
  • Elements of humour, reflecting on current society
    God/the Lord has been replaced by Ford (i.e.
    a successful American business figure). Thank
  • Language neologisms and play with words (like

Contemporary issues of early 20th centuryHuxley
  • Although set in the future, the novel has
    contemporary references
  • The Industrial Revolution
  • Mass production
  • References to politics, Russian Revolution and
    WW1 (characters names Polly Trotsky, Benito
    Hoover, Lenina Crowne, Mustapha Mond, Helmholtz
    Watson and Bernard Marx)
  • Religion replaced by consumerism but ideas of
    opium of the people (Marx) perpetuated.
    Citizens indoctrinated by recorded voices
    repeating slogans
  • Also unhappiness resolved by antidepressant and
    hallucinogenic drug soma distributed by the
    Arch-Community Songster of Canterbury.
  • Expresses widely-held opinions fear of losing
    individual identity in the fast-paced world of
    the future (particularly fear of Americanisation)
    and/or in totalitarian conditions.

Huxley Scientific Credentials
  • Huxley wrote BNW before structure of DNA known,
    but Gregor Mendels work with inheritance
    patterns in peas re-discovered in 1900, and
    eugenics movement well established.
  • Huxley's family included prominent biologists
    Thomas Huxley (grand-father, supporter of
    Darwin), half-brother and Nobel Laureate Andrew
    Huxley (in the Physiology or Medicine category in
    1963), and brother Julian Huxley (first Director
    of UNESCO and notable evolutionary biologist and
  • Peter Firchow before partial blindness, Huxley
    prepared for career in biology. Literary work,
    whether fiction or essays, full scientific
    references. (Science and Conscience in Huxley's

Huxley Scientific Influences and Vision
  • JBS Haldane (Marxist pioneer geneticist) a friend
    of AH. His essay, Daedalus or, Science and the
    Future (1924), predicted many scientific advances
    but criticised for presenting idealistic view of
    scientific progress. Showed effect of separation
    between sexual life and pregnancy as satisfactory
    on human psychology and social life. Book
    regarded as shocking science fiction, being the
    first book about ectogenesis.
  • Selective breeding (Pavlov, J. B. Watson Nazi
    experiments come to mind).
  • Finally, Freuds ideas about happiness and how
    suffering can be regulated by chemical means
    (Civilisation and its Discontents).

Reception of BNW in Ireland
  • Book banned in 1932 for centring around
    negative activity, for its bad language, and for
    being anti-family and anti-Christian (no explicit
    mention of sexual liberty).

Reading film based on literary and other models
of analysis
  • Film grammar camera, editing, composition,
    lighting, music, acting etc.
  • Generic Conventions
  • Narrative Structure
  • Auteuristic preoccupations
  • Realistic Representation
  • Reflection theory and thematic concerns

Science Fiction film and Science Communication
  • Science and the mediation of science,
    including bioethics in film.
  • Stephen Mulhall films might themselves be seen
    as themselves reflecting seriously and
    systematically about them in just the ways that
    philosophers do?
  • Christopher Falzon just as images in philosophy
    can go beyond illustration and play a role in the
    argument itself, the kinds of concrete scenarios
    that are portrayed in a film may be used to
    explicitly raise questions within the films
    narrative about the adequacy of sense experience
    for giving us knowledge of reality. (2007 7)
  • Film as teacherly text for exploring/explaining

Cloning on film
  • Staple metaphor in many sci-fi films from
    Frankenstein, Invasion of the Body Snatchers,
    through Jurassic Park, I Robot, The Island and
    many others.
  • Sci-fi exemplifies/simplifies complex
    scientific and ethical issues.
  • Long history of film analysis as a means of
    explaining ethics/science.

Film Theory Debates include
  • Address how does a film/media product address
    its audience gender, age, ethnicity etc..
  • Semiotics encoding/decoding how to read image
  • Ideology what is film trying to say
    politics/mystification, etc..
  • Reality and Representation diegesis of film?.
  • Intertextual how films link to other texts.

Brave New World
  • 1980
  • 1998
  • What is the film saying about ethics?
  • Opening exposition
  • Form v content debate
  • The power of the visual
  • Leaving a lasting impression
  • What questions does it present to the viewer?

Related novels and films
  • The Boys from Brazil (a novel by Ira Levin, 1976,
    first film version, 1978) sci-fi thriller whose
    premise is based on a Nazi death-camp Dr Joseph
    Mengeles endeavour to resurrect Adolf Hitler
    through cloning (having acquired skin and blood
    samples from Hitler to use as DNA).
  • A remake is planned for 2012.

  • Firchow, Peter, 1975. Science and Conscience in
    Huxleys Brave New World. Contemporary
    Literature, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Summer), pp.301-316
  • Hopkins, Patrick, 2001. The News Media and the
    Human Cloning Debate. In The Ethics of Human
    Cloning. Ed. William Dudley. San Diego
    Greenhaven pp.15-27
  • Singleton, Rivers Brock, D. Heyward, 1982.
    Teaching Bioethics from an Interdisciplinary
    Perspective. The American Biology Teacher, Vol.
    44, No. 5, May, pp.280-285313
  • Wolpert, Lewis, 2005. The Medawar Lecture 1998
    Is Science Dangerous? Philosophical
    Transactions Biological Sciences, Vol. 360, No.
    1458 (Jun. 29), pp.1253-1258