Monday, November 21, 2005

Index to The Tao of Monsters

October 22, 2005 – the definition of a monster.
October 23, 2005 – lack of foresight can result in a pandemic
October 24, 2005 – how government can react badly to a pandemic
October 25, 2005 – some of my experience in biotechnology
October 26, 2005 – Frankenstein as God
October 27, 2005 – Frankenstein and today’s scientists
October 28, 2005 – Mother Nature and the Bride of Frankenstein
October 29, 2005 – Can I have a clone of Jennifer Beals? Please?
October 29, 2005 – Curing rats with ED
October 31, 2005 – the hubris of monster-makers
November 1, 2005 – King Kong as metaphor for biotech
November 2, 2005 – monsters, man’s instincts, and self-sacrifice
November 4, 2005 – scientists can do dumb things
November 6, 2005 – Genetic engineering and Swamp Thing
November 7, 2005 – business, science and The Creature from the Black Lagoon
November 8, 2005 – when to kill monsters
November 9, 2005 – when brilliant ideas are kinda dumb
November 10, 2005 – Newton’s third law of motion (for every action, etc.)
November 11, 2005 – want a pet monster?
November 12, 2005 – are scientists acting responsibly?
November 15, 2005 – which rules not to break

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Following Rules

In Monkey Business (1952), Cary Grant is a chemist who thinks he may have found an elixir of youth. In order to test his theory, he wants to drink the formula himself. His assistant says, "Self-experimentation is against the rules of all good research," to which Cary responds, "The history of discovery is the history of people who didn’t follow rules." I wonder if this is true. Conventional wisdom tells me that in order to make any kind of breakthrough, unconventional thinking is sometimes needed. And often a genius makes his own rules. But I don’t think the history of discovery is the history of people acting irresponsibly, and Cary Grant acted irresponsibly in this film. He had no idea what the consequences would be, and indeed he was wrong in interpreting the results that did occur. In fact, people who don’t follow the rules often make monsters: Dr. Moreau, Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, often with disastrous results.

The results of Cary Grant’s actions in Monkey Business were comedic, and I really don’t want to detract from that, but comedy is supposed to help us see more clearly the truth about reality. In reality, scientists today do not know the consequences of many of their biotech experiments. They put transgenic crops in the field that can cross-pollinate with natural crops. They create transgenic animals, including insects, that could escape into the wild. Even their gene therapy and cloning experiments are fraught with problems. For these reasons and more we can’t have our scientists thinking they don’t need to follow the rules. What they do in their laboratories affects us in our homes.

Monday, November 14, 2005

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In The Monolith Monsters (1957) these gigantic, black silicon crystals come crashing toward the town, crushing everything in their path. Scientists devise a plan to halt their advance, but as one of them observes, it will rely heavily on luck for its success. In my studies I have noticed that luck often plays a part in ridding the world of monsters. In many ways, I think it would be better not to have monsters to begin with. Then we wouldn’t always have to depend on chance to intervene on our behalf. To be sure, there are monsters that are unavoidable, and for those no one is to blame. But we are purposely making monsters every day. Those are the ones I have reservations about, mainly because they’re the ones we can do something about. I’m just afraid something bad will happen with all these monsters around. If it does, will we be able to fix it? Maybe not. We may not always be as lucky in the future as we have been in the past.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Maturity and Responsibility

Four Sided Triangle (1952) is about two young British men who invent a Matter Duplicator. The idea is, if you can change matter into energy, as when you burn a piece of wood or detonate an atomic bomb, then you should be able to reverse the process and turn energy into matter. And they have a good point, I think. After all, if E = mc2 (Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared) then it only takes a little algebra to show that m = E/c2 (mass equals Energy divided by the speed of light squared). Thank you Mr. Einstein. And while that little algebra may require a giant leap, still it leads to a huge success in the film.

With a Matter Duplicator you can make an exact copy of anything you want. The implications of this are mind-boggling and enough, perhaps, to motivate me to try my hand at inventing one. Who wouldn’t want one of these contraptions? You could duplicate money, for example, and be a millionaire in a matter of days, if not hours. Of course, wouldn’t that be counterfeiting? Maybe. Well, you could duplicate diamonds and gold. Yeah, but where are you going to get the diamonds and gold, and where are you going to sell them, and wouldn’t that wreak havoc on the world markets, and couldn’t you get in trouble? Yeah, I guess so. You know a major difference between being an adult and being a child? As an adult I see more problems inherent in a dream like this than I did as a child. In some ways that’s regrettable.

The two guys in the movie have altruistic ideas for putting their invention to use. They want to duplicate things like radium (useful in hospitals at the time), rare medicines, and even great works of art, which they would then distribute to the disadvantaged, art-deprived people of the world. How nice. All this goes along well enough until one of the guys has the brilliant idea that he wants to make a duplicate of his partner’s wife, one that he can keep for himself. (Hence the title, Four Sided Triangle: i.e., two guys plus two versions of the same woman.) Needless to say, such an idea is fraught with problems. A more mature, more stable mind would realize this and avoid it. The guy in the story doesn’t, and has to pay the price.

I guess one point is, don’t give a guy with emotional and psychological problems the keys to the lab. Of course the conventional wisdom is that there is a fine line between genius and madness. Must we accept the latter in order to have the former? I don’t think so. Besides, the guy in the story is aided and abetted by several other people. So the creation of monsters and the ensuing tragedy is often a collaborative act. If we don’t help, they won’t get made. But that doesn’t mean we can just sit around doing nothing either. That’s often tantamount to providing aid. No, we must display knowledge and courage. We must first know what is going on and then have the courage to speak when we feel something is wrong. As private citizens this may be the best way for us to join the struggle against the monsters.

Friday, November 11, 2005

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Am I My Monster's Keeper?

The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1958) is funny. An old man works as a lighthouse keeper on a lonely stretch of coast. Oddly, he provides food regularly for the local, neighborhood monster. He leaves the food, mainly meat scraps and fish, out on the rocks near the cave where the monster lives. Maybe he’s never actually seen him, but he treats the creature almost like a pet. He doesn’t tell anyone about his rituals, least of all the police. Besides, as long as he’s able to placate the monster, everyone is safe and there’s no cause for alarm. It doesn’t take much reflection to detect some psycho-sexual elements in his situation (Feed the beast, keep it calm, don’t let it go berserk) especially since all this started when his wife died, and he was obviously wracked with guilt over not being able to do more for her during her illness. Also, having something to care for, even a monster, helps him in his loneliness. Isn’t that a little perverse?

The monster is funny too. I guess you can only keep a monster quiet for so long, because eventually this one goes on a killing spree. He decapitates all his victims, but when it comes to the girl Lucy, he is very different. One night she is swimming naked in the ocean. The monster comes over to the rocks where her clothes are, messes with her underwear, and is heard breathing heavily. Much later in the film he encounters Lucy again. This time she faints, so he picks her up and carries her away. We all know what’s on his mind, don’t we?

The lighthouse keeper’s behavior in this film is bizarre. So is the story. A lot of films rely on a sensational title and a few sensational images for their success. This film is one of them. But the message is, don’t keep a monster around, even if he’s not causing any immediate harm. We all know where that can lead.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


In The Deadly Mantis (1957), the creature is flying over Northern New Jersey while the Air Force is trying to shoot it down. Some of the rockets fired miss their target. Then one of the pilots has to eject himself before his jet collides with the mantis and crashes to the ground below. I wonder what the people in Jersey would think about these carryings-on. I doubt they would like it very much: an out of control jet plane perhaps smashing into some Italian neighborhood; errant rockets exploding who knows where? I know they had this monster flying over their rooftops, but please! Sometimes the cure can be worse than the problem to begin with. Talk about friendly fire. And World War II hadn’t been over that long. I bet the guys at the VFW would have a thing or two to say over their beers about the military action going on in the skies above their families’ heads, endangering their children and their homes.

The opening line of The Deadly Mantis is "For every action there is an equal but opposite reaction." I remember this principle from my childhood, when science was even presented in the cartoons I watched. It’s Newton’s Third Law of Motion. Science was so full of promise in the 1950s. They all talked optimistically about the year 2000. That seemed so far away then. And of course there was no Silent Spring, no Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, or Challenger disasters yet; just dreams and promises. Things have not turned out exactly as I expected, and I guess I am a little disappointed. Farmers today have planted many transgenic crops. Scientists have made many monsters. Where is the equal but opposite reaction that should occur in response to these actions? What would it be like if it did occur? Have we grown so clever in breaking the laws of nature that they no longer apply to us? I doubt it. If the consequences of genetic engineering have not become evident yet, they will, sooner or later.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Brilliant Ideas

When I was a kid I had the brilliant idea that I could boost my brain power by attaching electrodes to my head and by plugging them into an electrical outlet. Maybe I got the idea from Forbidden Planet, I’m not sure. Thank God I didn’t actually do it. I wouldn’t be here today to write this. The best way to nurture your brain power, I think, is to leave it alone. Like Woody Allen says in Sleeper, the brain is my second favorite organ.

Scientists are often subject to what I call the Brilliant Idea Syndrome. Walter Pidgeon, in Forbidden Planet (1956), is one such scientist. He has the brilliant idea that he can boost his brain power and learn the secrets of an ancient, superior civilization by attaching electrodes from a certain machine to his head. He screws up big time. Not that anything bad happens right away, like his head exploding, or his ending up selling pencils in Times Square. But he hasn’t reckoned with mankind’s violent past, and his own unconscious urges. The machine boosts his brain power, but it also boosts his inner demons, giving them substance and power. These are his "Monsters from the Id," and they end up destroying everything. So much for scientific curiosity.

One reason I call it the Brilliant Idea Syndrome is that, like the Sun, which is so bright that it blots out the daytime stars, a scientist’s idea is often so brilliant that the fact that he can do something often blots out the reasons why he should not: "Can I?" often blots out "Should I?" I think most of biotechnology falls into this category, or at least the parts where they have the brilliant idea to create transgenic organisms (monsters). And we’re creating monsters today. Where are they coming from? The Id? Let us hope not.
July 2001

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Breaking the Rules

In It Came From Outer Space (1953), a young man sees a space ship, complete with alien beings. When he tells authorities, they don’t believe him. One person even describes him as, "An intense young man . . . odd. Individual and lonely. A man who thinks for himself." Boy, that’s quite a description. All he wanted was to report a space ship sighting, to do his civic duty as it were. It almost sounds like they’re profiling John Wilkes Booth. In any event, the young man is clearly outside the establishment, and an unconventional thinker. The scientists and law enforcement officials continue to deny there is a problem. Sound familiar? It’s funny how often the authorities think they know more than the public; and it’s funny how often they are wrong.

Eventually everyone must face the fact that they’re dealing with aliens. The sheriff’s solution is to round up a posse, to go out and try to kill them, even though no one has been hurt. Boy, the authorities just don’t get it, do they? You don’t kill emissaries from other planets without some provocation. You do kill monsters, preferably before they escape and go rampaging through the countryside. Somebody ought to write a rule book for dealing with monsters.
July 2001

Monday, November 07, 2005

Business, Science, and Nature

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) is one of the best science fiction films ever, and it relates well to my discussion. It starts with the Big Bang, continues through Earth’s primordial, ocean-filling rains, and takes us over the upper reaches of the Amazon, where nothing has changed for millions of years. The characters engage in many small scientific discussions, and when an expedition is put together to travel up the Amazon in search of fossils, it is composed mainly of scientists (and one chick in a bathing suit), no workers. Besides being highly entertaining, I think it is the ultimate science film, and embodies most of the hopes and fears of the 1950s.

When they discover that the Creature exists, Richard Denning, who runs a scientific institute, wants to capture him and bring him back to civilization. Denning knows that such a catch would bring him fame and fortune. Richard Carlson, who works for him, is a dedicated scientist who doesn’t care about money and only wants to study the Creature. When the Creature kills several people and seems on the verge of completely wiping out the expedition, Carlson only wants to escape with his life and the lives of his companions, while Denning still only wants to capture the Creature for profit.

It is a classic confrontation, really, between Business, Science and Nature. Business tries to exploit the Creature, in much the same way as King Kong was exploited. Science struggles against Business to protect the Creature. Anybody see any parallels between the film and biotechnology today? Me neither. (Well, maybe some.) Instead of being adversaries, as in the film, Business, Science and Academe today have all formed alliances to subjugate and patent nature, largely for profit. The only voices speaking out on nature’s behalf are few and relatively weak. What’s to become of all this? Who knows? But I’m not optimistic. Can anything be done about the situation today? I doubt it. Business is more persistent than were Denning and Carlson. There’s a lot more money at stake now than there was then.

In the film, nature wins, this time. The only victory for Business? The Creature is undefeated, both in the film and at the box office, which prompted two successful sequels. Now that’s a happy ending.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Evil Geniuses

In Swamp Thing (1982), the villain played by Louis Jourdan is amazed at the experiments taking place to combine plants and animals. This might give us a clue as to what is wrong with this idea in the first place. If an evil villain thinks it’s a good idea, then you know something must be wrong. Villains have no morals. They view everything and everyone as objects to be exploited for their own selfish ends. And they don’t do anything for the good of mankind. Sound like any corporations you know about?

Combining plants and animals was once unthinkable, of course. It’s funny when you look at the nefarious schemings of the bad guy and you say, "Gee, what’s the big deal? That’s fairly routine today." This is a technique that Mike Meyers has used effectively in his Austin Powers movies, where Dr. Evil’s schemings are continually anachronistic.

In Return of Swamp Thing (1989) the gene splicing experiments of Louis Jourdan et al. have produced a number of horrible monsters. While there is the giant leech man who has escaped and is terrorizing the swamp, most of the other monsters are kept out of sight, behind bars. When an evil genius creates men with elephants’ trunks, or creatures that go on rampages killing people, the sheriff comes knocking on his door to haul him off to jail. When today’s scientists create fish with human genes or transgenic crops that escape and contaminate organic crops, people come knocking on their doors to hand them more money for research. I don’t see people being fearful or appalled. Shouldn’t they be? Even a little?

Swamp Thing is entertainment. Some people treat biotechnology issues in much the same way, like fodder for tabloid newspapers or tabloid television. Unlike most tabloid subject matter however, from which we can remain detached, biotechnology enters our lives in the most intimate ways, in the food we eat. If you’re content to let someone else decide what you eat, and what kinds of novel genes it contains, fine. If you want to do most of that deciding yourself, then you probably should take a closer, more serious look at biotechnology. And you might want to eat organic, at least while it’s still around.
June 2001

Friday, November 04, 2005

Scientific Method

In Frankenstein Conquers the World (1964), scientists find a young boy who they suspect of being related to the Frankenstein monster. If this is true, so the premise goes, then the boy should be indestructible and able to regrow any limb that might be severed from his body. Of course they don’t know if he is authentic, so one of the scientists suggests a method for finding out: they can cut off the boy’s arms and legs, and if he is the monster, then they will grow back. Yeah . . . and what happens if he’s not the monster? He ends up with no arms or legs? What a bonehead idea! But I get the feeling that this kind of approach is not that unusual for scientists. They become so focused on solving a problem that they often ignore the consequences of the solution. I guess they leave that assessment to others.

Though perhaps not exactly like the above example, there are many instances where scientists have seemingly ignored the consequences of their innovations. I have talked about some of them before. Also there is a book I ran across, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (1996) by Edward Tenner. He seems to have done a good, thorough job of collecting and describing a multitude of technological backfires.

Several obvious things leap to my mind: the atom bomb was supposed to end a war and save lives, but it started the Cold War and spread deadly fallout around the globe; DDT was supposed to get rid of pesky insects, but it also killed birds and people; a new kind of feed was supposed to help cattle grow larger, faster, but it may have caused the spread of mad cow disease.

As far as I know, scientists do not have a wonderful track record anticipating problems with their inventions. They really need to work on that. They would do well to incorporate risk assessment into their invention process. Let’s hope they do. All of them. It wouldn’t hurt for them to be more deliberate in their deliberations. People trust them with their lives. And now, with advances in biotechnology, they literally have the fate of the world in their test tubes.
June 2001

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Nostalgia and Philosophy

I loved Monster on the Campus (1958). They really knew how to make cars back then. The fins on one of the DeSotos are huge, bigger than the fins on the fish that is at the center of all the horror. The girls really knew how to dress, too. Joanna Moore, who later became the mother of Tatum O’Neal, wore knee-length dresses and high heels. She could also be seen wearing white gloves that buttoned at the wrists. The 1950s are really precious and quaint in retrospect, but dangerous too. Let’s not forget the H-bomb.

In many ways Monster on the Campus could serve as an analogue to much of my discussion. Scientists tinker with things they don’t understand, and the consequences are catastrophic. They subject a primordial fish to Gamma radiation in order to kill bacteria and keep the fish from spoiling. The radiation, however, causes the bacteria to mutate and turn anyone who comes in contact with it into a monster, at least temporarily.

Scientists routinely do a lot of things to the food we eat. That’s why much of it is known as "processed." They irradiate it, put hormones, antibiotics and chemicals in it. Many people don’t consider any of this to be dangerous or undesirable. Many people do. Now they are adding things to the food that have never been added before, and they don’t even want to label it so that we will know what we are buying. And if we want to buy organic food instead of what they are offering us, that’s OK for now, but eventually there won’t be a crop available that doesn’t contain genetically modified organisms, or that hasn’t been tinkered with by some scientist or CEO. These guys are like big kids with chemistry sets. I had chemistry sets as a child. Some of my experiments ended up on my bedroom ceiling. Well these guys are experimenting too. They don’t know the real consequences of all their tinkering. The problem is, they’re experimenting with the fragile web of life on Earth. And when their experiments go wrong, you have a little more than a bedroom ceiling to clean up.

There is a major discussion in Monster on the Campus about the future of humanity. The professor says, "Unless we learn to control the instincts we’ve inherited from our ape-like ancestors, the race is doomed." Of course he’s talking about war and aggression and The Bomb, but his statement applies to other things as well, and it is also pertinent to our discussion here. Besides being the most prolific, efficient destroyer in history, man is also the most prolific creator, an attribute which we also inherited from our ancestors. Our creations have run the gamut from good to bad to indifferent. This is also true of our scientific creations. Thing is, when a scientist creates something bad, whether by accident or on purpose, his creation can sometimes destroy all life on Earth. The results can be sudden, as with a nuclear holocaust or an escaped Doomsday virus; or they can be gradual, as with the AIDS epidemic or a global mad cow epidemic. We need to control our instinct to create just as we need to control our instinct to destroy. The key word here is "control." We need to control our inclination to rush headlong into things before we know the consequences. We need to be motivated more by discovery than by profit. We need to respect the Earth from which we came, and to which we all someday return.

All the horror and mayhem in Monster on the Campus was really accidental, caused by scientists who didn’t know what they were doing. It’s no crime to be ignorant, and it’s no crime to make mistakes. Ignorance should, however, make one more cautious. In the case of scientists, at least in films, and many times in real life, ignorance seems to make them more brash. When a scientist makes a mistake in a film, that’s entertainment, and often a lesson to the wise. When a scientist makes a mistake in real life, the effects can ripple through the world for generations.

One more thing about Monster on the Campus. (I guess you can tell I really liked this film.) The professor in the story undergoes a sort of Jekyll-Hyde transformation. While he is in his Mr. Hyde self, he murders and pillages. He doesn’t realize it is he who has done these things. He thinks he is a victim. When he does come to realize his guilt, he prays for the courage to destroy the monster that is within him. I thought that was very unusual. How many people today, in real life or in film, would destroy themselves because it was the right thing to do? OK, Bruce Willis in Armageddon did let himself be blown up at the end, didn’t he? But in a society where it’s every man for himself, I thought Bruce’s self-sacrifice was unusual too. In Monster on the Campus it was interesting to watch a man with a firm moral compass, even though I considered it to be a little misguided. But I can’t fault him too much. From our ancestors we inherited greed and we inherited altruism. The world would be a better place if we had a little more of the latter.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Commerce in Monsters

King Kong was minding his own business, living something of an idyllic existence in the 1933 horror classic, when white men arrived on his island. They intended to exploit him for money, so they captured him and took him back to civilization. Of course he escaped. Men can be such fools.

These days the monsters are found not on remote, uncharted islands, but in laboratories in the United States. Scientists go looking for them to exploit for money. The field of biotechnology was once as uncharted as the vast ocean expanses of King Kong’s time. Today, after decades of experimentation and fortunes in spent grant money, scientists have become quite good at making more and more subtle monsters. Some of the rituals used to invoke them are as strange as the native dances on Kong’s island, as are some of the results: sheep with the heads of goats, frogs with no heads, fish with human genes. All this would have been the stuff of science fiction fifty years ago, that is, solely the product of a writer’s imagination. Today it is the subject of scholarly articles, news reports, corporate annual reports and the occasional sci-fi film. Writers now have a lot more fact upon which to base their fictions.

An entire industry has sprung up, the influence of which reaches into every part of our society and its institutions. Monster making has been legitimatized. It’s traded on the stock exchanges. Very different in many respects from the maverick actions of the kind of lone wolf entertainment promoter depicted in King Kong. But there is one more similarity, if I might point that out: men are no more capable of controlling and containing today’s monsters than they were capable of controlling and containing King Kong. Let’s just hope the outcome of playing with these things is better today than it was in that film.
June 2001

Monday, October 31, 2005


Dark, hairy, hulking creatures roam freely in Island of Lost Souls (1933), standing upright on two legs, staring out from behind feral eyes. Most of them resemble the animals they once were. By their presence they seem constantly menacing. Doctor Moreau carries a bullwhip with which he holds them at bay. And of course there is the House of Pain, to which no one wants to return. Doctor Moreau is trying to turn animals into men. He really only succeeds in making monsters.

Bela Lugosi is marvelous in this film as the most articulate of Moreau’s creations. And he looks marvelous. His recitation of The Law reminds one of Moses reciting the Ten Commandments. Lugosi’s recitation ends always in the question "Are we not men?" And of course the answer is "no." They are not men; nor are they animals. In some ways it is as if they have inherited the worst attributes of both species.

Doctor Moreau displays a huge sense of arrogance in this film. He creates monsters, grants them equal access to the jungle and to his home, and believes he can control them, like tame animals. Well they are not tame animals, they are part man. In the end they have a kind of revenge for all their suffering. In an ironic triumph for Moreau, even in the midst of his downfall, it is the sort of revenge of which only man is capable.

It is foolish for anyone to think he can create monsters with impunity. This sort of hubris has been known for millennia. Wise men have avoided it. Unwise men haven’t, and have paid a heavy price. With today’s monsters it is not only their creators who will be affected, but all mankind; and all mankind should have a choice in advance to accept or reject them.
June 2001

Saturday, October 29, 2005

No Genetically Modified Chickens

So we’re going to replace Nature’s chickens with genetically modified ones? Don’t you think that is a little extreme? I don’t think the chicken is the problem. Why do we have to change it? I don’t like genetic engineering anyway, especially when they modify stuff we have to eat, so I am against replacing one whole species of animal on this planet with a genetically modified version. We’ve been eating chickens for millennia. Who’s to say that the scientists can get it better than Nature did? Who’s to say we won’t end up with something worse than we have now? Besides, the scientists have a lousy track record. Just read Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, by Edward Tenner.

I think somebody is trying to make some money here, because whoever modifies the chickens would own the patent on them, worldwide. And I also think there are perfectly adequate measures that we can take to reduce the risk of bird flu now without making Frankenchickens that would take years to develop anyway, without any assurance that they would protect against future unknown strains. Let’s use, really use, the methods we have at hand, instead of possibly creating another huge problem.

The Rat Penis

Who likes to watch those Viagra commercials on TV? I always change the channel. I figure, if I ever need any help in that area, I can always ask for it. Until then, the least attention paid to that the better. Thinking about some things can cause more harm than good.

There was a story on the evening news recently about a product from Sweden called Niagara, a bottled drink that many people consider to be an aphrodisiac. A company in Little Rock, Arkansas has obtained exclusive rights to distribute the drink in this country. Women are the main customers who buy the product. Well, as they said in the 60s, whatever turns you on . . . .

Scientists continue working on therapies to eliminate Erectile Dysfunction (ED) in men. I guess Viagra isn’t good enough, so they have to keep looking. Maybe they have to use up grant money. Maybe the companies that don’t have a product to treat ED are envious. I’m sure there’s a lot of money to be made in this field.

A major study involving ED uses rats as their test subjects. They have discovered a gene that opens blood vessels. Of course, good blood flow means healthy erections, right? They inject this gene into the penis of an older rat (I can’t believe I’m writing about this) and voila, he gets a normal erection. Also, the treatment seems to last for thirty days.

Now hold on. First, I can’t believe there are people out there who are handling rat penises all day, testing them to see if they’re hard enough, comparing data. There must be a lot of money in this because you couldn’t pay me enough to do this day in and day out. Furthermore, what kind of person enjoys sticking needles in rat penises all day anyway?

If this works in rats, then the next step, I suppose, is to start giving these injections to humans. I, for one, do not want anyone sticking a needle in my penis. And once a month would be too often to suit me. Also, it looks like this therapy involves injecting a genetically engineered cold virus containing the desired gene. Are they serious? I love the way these scientists play around with all these viruses and assume that there will be no consequences. Also, I love the way they design these procedures to perform on other people. Anyone want to volunteer to have a genetically engineered cold virus injected into their penis with a needle? I can’t get over it.

I’m glad they’ve solved the burning question of how to cure ED in rats. If they don’t get to use this on people, at least some lucky rodents can benefit from all this research. They can’t even refuse treatment, and they can’t sue you if something goes wrong.
April 2001

Learning to Love Clones

In The Bride (1985), Dr. Frankenstein once again creates a wife for his monster. This time the bride is Jennifer Beals. It doesn’t take long for Frankie to decide to keep her for himself. Forget about the monster. Well, I’ve been thinking, maybe I’ve been too critical of genetic engineering. If they could make a clone of Jennifer Beals or Cheryl Tiegs or Kathy Ireland, and if they could make them to order, now that would be a technology I could support. I would write letters to my congressman and to the FDA urging them to pass this sort of cloning legislation. I would sign petitions, write newsletters, start websites. I think this is where the focus of our research should be. Cloning infants for childless couples is OK, but just think about the money you could shake loose from some rich old men if you could offer them a clone of Heather Graham. Talk about redistributing the wealth, why this might be better than the death tax, and it might even hasten the departure of some of those old geezers. Why clone Dolly the sheep when you could clone Dolly Parton?

But who knows, maybe that’s where the research is headed anyway. And who knows, maybe they have to stick needles in rat penises in order to develop the technology to clone Heather Graham. Maybe all this biotechnology is a matter of the ends justifying the means. If that’s the case, then I probably need to change my attitude. My only regret is that this didn’t come along sooner. Like any new technology it’s going to take awhile for the price to come down. Furthermore, if they were to clone Heather Graham tomorrow, I’d have to wait at least eighteen years for her to grow up. By that time she’d always think of me as a grandfather type, and I’d be too old to fully enjoy my investment.

Oh well, as Gilda Radner used to say, it’s always something.
May 2001

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Bride of Frankenstein

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) was interesting. If the monster was pathetic in the original, he was even more so in the sequel. Woody Allen could have almost done this one. Talk about a guy having trouble getting a date, the monster gets to special-order a monster mate just for himself and even she doesn’t want him. A lot of men know how he feels. Besides, since when does she get a choice? It’s as if Eve didn’t want Adam. Look, you’re the only two monsters in the laboratory. You’ve got to get along. Maybe Elsa Lanchester was playing hard to get. I know Karloff was coming on a little strong, but don’t be so dainty. After all, you’re a monster too. Of course Karloff is doomed to be frustrated to the very end. His only recourse is to blow the laboratory to kingdom come, killing himself and his bride. A natural resolution to a very unnatural situation, I suppose.

I’m afraid we are taking Mother Nature and turning her into the bride of Frankenstein. Nature, in her most natural form, consists of many elements, among which are wind, rain, birds in the sky, plants in the fields. Now we are taking transgenic crops, monsters, and putting them into the fields. Nature, in many ways, cannot reject these crops. Many of her processes are automatic, indiscriminate, and so the wind and the rain and the birds all help spread these monsters across the face of the land. And wherever a monster treads there are monsters left behind. Nothing can withstand monsters, especially when ignorance and apathy reign. And so one day there will be only monsters, and no one around who remembers how things used to be.
April 2001

Thursday, October 27, 2005

A Frankenstein Solution

Dr. Frankenstein and his assistant Fritz are skulking around a graveyard in the opening sequence of the movie Frankenstein (1931). They are waiting to steal (i.e., dig up and take away) the body of a man who is being buried. If these two guys are behaving as if they are doing something wrong it’s because they are. It is highly illegal (not to mention immoral) to rob a grave, and you can get in big trouble for doing so.

After the graveyard scene, they proceed to steal the body of a man who is hanging from a noose by the side of the road. Then later Fritz steals a brain from the Medical School lecture hall. Of course this is not all these two guys do. They take their ill-gotten body parts, make them into a man, and bring him to life.

Now, what’s the problem here? Part of it is stealing. Clearly Frankenstein should not have stolen these things. But he also used them and created a monster. And that’s the major problem. Would there be a problem if his monster had been well-adjusted and law-abiding? Maybe not. Frankenstein, in that case, may have been hailed as a genius and a hero. Instead, he is considered mad, and his name lives on in infamy.

What is the difference between what Frankenstein did and what today’s scientists are doing? First, I presume that today they are not stealing anything or skulking around graveyards. Universities and large corporations provide them with what they need. But they are using body parts from dead people. (I know there are a lot of people who wouldn’t be alive today if it were not for things such as organ and tissue banks, but there are also a lot of people who wouldn’t be dead.) They took pituitary glands from cadavers to use for their growth hormones, with disastrous results. They have been conducting "destructive human embryo research." Recently they have discovered that stem cells can be harvested from cadavers. They are planning to someday use cloned pigs or cloned humans to provide spare body parts for those in need, a procedure the even our good Dr. Frankenstein may have found abhorrent, or maybe not.

So, what is the difference between Frankenstein and today’s scientists? Frankenstein was not as well funded, he had delusions of grandeur, he was remorseful at the end, and he tried to destroy his monster. Today’s scientists don’t have delusions of grandeur, all except maybe some European doctors who have been rushing to clone human beings. Generally I think scientists are just clock-punchers who go to work every day, solve a few problems, and who go to their kids’ soccer games on the weekends. You know, like you and me. Of course they are not out there destroying their monsters. They’re trying to create more. They have the official sanction of their CEO or their President, and if anything should go wrong with their research, well they can always say that they were just following orders.

How are Dr. Frankenstein and today’s scientists the same? Both deal with things that are dangerous, and neither know the consequences. Frankenstein began with the ideal, however misguided, of creating life. He did not know that he would create a monster instead. Today’s scientists are not nearly so idealistic, but they know from the beginning that they are creating monsters, and they do it anyway. Of course, being only human, their knowledge is limited. They do not know what the ultimate consequences of their work will be. This stems, in part, from the inherent unpredictability that exists when you are dealing with so many novel organisms, as well as the complex interactions in nature. Also, their view is micro, in many ways, confined to one problem in one test tube in one lab. And it is up to people who can have a macro approach to sound alarm bells when the situation warrants it. Many people and groups are sounding these bells. Is anyone listening? Is it doing any good? Not really. The research not only continues, but may even be accelerating.

You know, in my reading it has seemed to me that women are the most vocal on issues of ecology and biotechnology. I know there is Jeremy Rifkin, Ralph Nader, people like that who have been activists and advocates. But there is also Rachel Carson, Mae-Wan Ho, and many other women who have spoken out in favor of nature. To my mind, it’s almost as if it’s the mothers, those "from Venus," against the fathers, those "from Mars," in a struggle to save the world. And I know how the women can do it:

You remember the Lysistrata, the Greek comedy by Aristophanes? All the women refused to have sexual relations with their husbands until the husbands agreed to end the war. Well, if all the women today would refuse to have sex with their husbands until the husbands agreed to stop making monsters, then that would bring about meaningful change. I can see all the CEOs in their boardrooms, frazzled and frustrated, acknowledging that it has become necessary to "alter our corporate plan." Yes! No more transgenic crops! I can see all the scientists calling in sick rather than work on yet another chimera. Maybe some of them would move from research to teaching, or even into a different field altogether, like Philosophy or Musical Composition.

If Elizabeth had refused to marry Frankenstein unless he stopped robbing graveyards, you wouldn’t have a great horror story today, but you would have one less monster. Women don’t always realize the power they have. If they acted together they could change the world. At this point in the development of genetic engineering, such an approach may be the only way.
May 30, 2001

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Of God and Frankenstein

In the movie Frankenstein, Colin Clive says, "I know what it feels like to be God!" Is Dr. Frankenstein really like God? I think that is a bit of hyperbole, really. Maybe he hasn’t had much sleep. Maybe he has drunk too much coffee. Maybe he’s been sniffing too much formaldehyde. In any event he is really wired, and I guess giving birth, so to speak, to a monster is a religious experience for him. In my opinion, though, Dr. Frankenstein is more like a bad father. He creates his monster and then doesn’t know what to do with him. The monster doesn’t ask to be brought into the world and so is, in that sense, innocent. His creator is unable to provide him any guidance or protection in his vulnerable state. He lets Fritz torment him, and in the end agrees for the monster to be destroyed.

Looked at in that way, though, Frankenstein is not greatly different from God. God created us and then left us to fend for ourselves. He stepped in every now and then when we needed to be punished. We were expelled from Eden, and then later destroyed by the flood. Maybe we were like some huge biological experiment. Perhaps He felt remorse. He didn’t destroy us all, and then later let us overrun the planet entirely, doing pretty much as we please. I guess God is inscrutable.

What’s the difference between Frankenstein and God? At least Frankenstein was flesh and blood. He could have helped his creation.

Are scientists like God? I don’t think so. If anyone were like God today I think it would be the large corporations. They can say, "Let there be corn," for example, and there is corn. The scientists work for them.

What’s the difference between God and the large biotech corporations? God doesn’t charge royalties for His seeds.

What’s the difference between God and today’s scientists? God doesn’t need permission from the FDA to make a banana.

What’s the difference between us and Frankenstein’s creature? We’re not monsters.
August 2001

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Biotechnology Forum

During three months in 2001 I participated in the North Carolina Citizens’ Technology Forum on Genetically Modified Foods, under the auspices of the Center for Information Studies at North Carolina State University. We began as a group of sixteen individuals with little or no prior knowledge of the issues surrounding genetic engineering. Our task, as a panel, was to learn as much as possible about the subject, form opinions, and write a report with recommendations which would be distributed to policy-makers. We read voluminous source materials, watched a background videotape and, later in our deliberations, had the opportunity to ask questions from experts in the field of biotechnology. While I am not spokesperson for the Forum, I thought the public might be interested in knowing some of our conclusions and recommendations.

Our group believed that the public has a right to buy and eat food that is not genetically modified (GM) and that contains no genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This is interesting in light of the fact that some two thirds of the processed food in our grocery stores contains GMOs. More and more of the crops in this country are genetically modified. Many farmers don’t grow GM crops, yet find that GMOs turn up in their fields accidentally, perhaps blown by the wind. Organic farmers are finding GMOs turning up in their crops. And Mexico, which carefully guards its maize, recently found, to their consternation, that GMOs had even contaminated that crop. If the public has a right to buy non-GM food, how are we going to ensure that right? Contamination from GMOs is rampant and possibly irreversible. There was a major article in the New York Times June 10, 2001 about this very subject.

In a similar vein, we concluded that some labeling of GMOs should be done. The FDA does not presently require GMOs to be labeled. They have their reasons for not doing so (they don’t consider altered genes to be sufficiently different from unaltered genes to warrant labeling); the agricultural and food industries have their reasons for opposing labeling (I think they fear that consumers would be turned off by a label and perhaps choose products that contained no GMOs, although research has suggested that people really don’t discriminate against GMOs if they are clearly labeled as such); and some people have reasons for wanting GMOs to be labeled. For me it has much to do with caution and choice. No one knows the long-term effects of ingesting novel genes, so I’d rather be cautious for now. Besides, in this great country of ours, why shouldn’t I be able to choose non-GM food to eat if I want to, as I now do with organic food? I cannot make this choice, however, without adequate information. This is the major reason why I think labeling is necessary.

Perhaps most surprising, we thought the United States should adopt the “Precautionary Principle,” similar to the position held by the European Union. My interpretation of this principle suggests that whenever the full consequences or risks involved with genetic engineering are not known, then you refrain from releasing GMOs into the environment and introducing them into the food supply until they are known. This was the thorniest issue with which we dealt. Nine or ten of the remaining thirteen members of our group wanted to recommend it. Three or four were against it. Since this was a “consensus conference,” we couldn’t recommend it unreservedly, but you get the idea. At least two thirds of our members, who were well informed on the subject, wanted to adopt the Precautionary Principle. We even wanted to create an office in the federal government with a chief liaison officer to coordinate and oversee genetic engineering concerns.

All this should show everyone how important we considered the issue of genetic engineering to be. This was just a group of ordinary citizens who got together for a serious purpose and reached some serious conclusions. These were not positions that we arrived at lightly or hastily. What’s to be done now? Our report will undoubtedly be delivered to government agencies and the media. Will it be heeded? It’s a good first step, but in order to be truly effective more people like us need to become informed and to speak out. Noah Pickus, of the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University said, “Policy-makers face the difficult and risky task of promoting the same technology they must regulate.” Without public involvement, the future may see more promoting than regulating.
March 2002

Here is a review of the forum, written by its organizer, Dr. Patrick Hamlett, NCSU.

Monday, October 24, 2005


Outbreak (1995) is about an Ebola-type virus that makes its way to the United States where it immediately spreads death and destruction, not to mention conflict and chaos. There are some wonderful scenes in this movie: a woman reporter tells her television audience that the army has the virus contained in this one town and that there’s nothing to worry about. Of course the audience knows there is a lot to worry about, which is ironic. How many times have we all listened to an official spokesman tell us we have nothing to worry about? How many times have we wondered if he or she was telling the truth?

I am reminded of John Gummer, former agriculture minister in the UK, who "publicly fed his four-year-old daughter Cordelia a beefburger in a bid to calm public alarm over mad cow disease." I don’t need to comment on that further. We all know now the horrors of mad cow disease. And while spokesmen may claim they are not trying to protect this interest or that interest, how many of them can we believe?

Outbreak is in the science-fiction section at the video store. And while there are many science-fiction elements in it, a good case could be made for its placement in a different section: action, comedy, drama, docudrama. But perhaps its best place would be in the horror section: horror to think this sort of thing could really happen; horror to think our government, like that in the film, could be less than truthful. Things like this have happened in other places. For those who say it can’t happen here, why not? Did anyone read The Hot Zone? You might want to give it a try.

Substantial Equivalence

Just a word or two about Substantial Equivalence:

Frankenstein's creature may have been substantially equivalent to a human being, but he was still a monster and should not have been made or allowed to escape.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Guilty

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is really great in The Stand (1994). Here is this giant, dressed in long robes, ringing his bell, lumbering through the streets, delivering his message of gloom and doom. "Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead! The monster is coming!" Well, in this case the monster has already arrived and is consuming everyone in its path. Even Kareem is finally consumed. His voice is silenced. His bell is stilled. But he is less of a prophet than a town crier, really. And there is a lot to cry about.

Ed Harris plays an Army General in California monitoring the spread of a pandemic from his base of operations. You can tell from the beginning that he is deeply affected by the catastrophe: he is unshaven; he chain-smokes; and he drinks liquor. As the disease spreads, he spends hours watching people die on a video taken from the lab where the virus first escaped. He broods upon the tragedy, the lost lives. Finally he puts a pistol in his mouth and pulls the trigger. His assistants rush in to find him slumped in a chair with the word "guilty" on a piece of paper pinned to his chest. Too late, Ed. The time to blow your brains out is before you destroy the world; before your mind hatches some reckless scheme that endangers all mankind; and if not then, certainly before you implement it or let it escape.

Gary Sinise is one of the first civilians exposed to the plague, and he’s one of the first to be found immune. He is locked in a containment facility, poked and pricked by doctors and nurses who try to discover why he’s not sick. Gary is indignant because of his treatment, his lack of freedom, his lack of simple respect. But he’s also outraged that the government may be responsible for unleashing this plague upon mankind.

Too late, buddy. The time to be outraged is before they destroy the world, not after. The time to ring your bell, Kareem, is everyday when these guys in their white lab coats go off to work. The time to put the pistol in your mouth, Ed, is before you join your colleagues in the board rooms and the war rooms and sell humanity to the highest bidder. After the monster escapes is too late.

All this just shows an appalling lack of foresight, a quality that human beings are supposed to possess in abundance. And it should serve as a warning to us: it’s not too late, yet. We should warn the world now about the little monsters in hopes that we never have to mourn a world lost to big ones.
April 21, 2001

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Of Men and Monsters

A March 2001 newspaper article stated that Arthur Peacocke, latest recipient of the Templeton prize, “believes scientists must be given broad freedom to work toward the eradication of disease and other forms of human suffering.” I’d like to ask, what freedoms do scientists not have?

They were free when they created a mouse with a human ear on its back. They were free when they created frogs with no heads, rabbits that glow, lambs with human genes. In short, they have enough freedom to create any kind of monster they want. (I don’t use that term in a pejorative sense. The word “monster” means “any animal, plant or thing of abnormal form or structure.”) They are free, in many cases, to place transgenic crops into the field, thereby making surrounding crops and organisms vulnerable to gene pollution and horizontal gene transfer, the long-term effects of which no one can say.

Where are the checks and balances to restrain the scientists and make them accountable? The large corporations give them limitless amounts of money and resources. The Biotech industry is represented in the highest levels of government. The FDA won’t even require labeling of genetically modified food. And the public is complacent and uninformed. Where are the impediments?

Certainly genetic engineering has the potential for enormous good, but it also has the potential for enormous, irrevocable harm. Arthur Peacocke had a bully pulpit upon receiving his million dollar prize. I wish he had used that pulpit to advocate more circumspection in the pursuit of scientific advances instead of elaborating positions that can only serve to strengthen the cause of untrammeled technology and big business.
(March 2001)

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