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Australasian Association for the History,
Philosophy and Social Studies of Science

Issue No.49, March 1995 (ISSN 0158 9040)

Edited by Tim Sherratt on behalf of AAHPSSS.

Monster Myths

'Monster Myths: Are writers demonising the new genetics?' was the subject of a debate in London on 23 March, 1995. Six prominent speakers were gathered to form a panel chaired by Mark Lawson, a journalist with the Independent newspaper, one of the evening's sponsors. The other sponsors were the Wellcome Trust and SUPERNOVA, a Science-Art charity, concerned to bring together the 'world of art and the universe of science' (to quote from their recent news-sheet). Images of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Jurassic Park (both book and film) and the three films Outbreak, Species and DNA provided the touchstone for many of the speakers.

The debate was a three-cornered one: writers, scientists and 'critics', speaking in turn. The audience was large (about 400), mostly young and was dominated by critics (especially activists, concerned laypeople and HPS students and teachers), with a significant number of science undergraduates from the various colleges of the University of London.

I was initially surprised that the opening speaker, Stephen Gallagher, author of Chimera, seemed defensive about his right to write about science. He opened by showing a chilling scene from the film of his book, and then asserted rather abruptly 'I'm a layman - at least Michael Crichton (author of Jurassic Park) has a medical degree so has the right to talk bollocks'. He then spoke more seriously, justifying his right to 'venture into your territory' in order to connect with a 'public subconscience'. Gallagher's central point was that he was in the myth business, and myths are about eternal truths. His comment that 'nothing dates faster than the eternal truths of science' rather disempowered his opposition. He articulated a 'sub-text' that in genetics, material has rights which if ignored can imperil the science itself.

The other writer, Maureen Duffy, author of Gorsaga, a book that the BBC filmed as 'First Born', spoke only briefly, referring listeners to her thoughtful piece on 'When the scientist plays the Devil' (Independent, 28 February, 1995, p.23). Duffy's emphasis was also on the importance of myth-making as consciousness-raising. Her plea was for more 'balance'. She was not advocating balance in science-fiction novels, but rather that the work of scientists needed the moral scrutiny of the humanities, and that extremist fiction might serve to shift the moral pendulum to avert ethical disaster.

The two scientists who spoke were Paul Nurse, Director of Research at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, and Peter Goodfellow, Professor of Genetics at Cambridge University. Nurse was a master of the media. He carefully distinguished between the media and arts literature, noting that the media had an obligation 'to get the facts right' and generally did. Problems in the media are open to a response in the media, he assured us. The arts arena he represented as inaccessible and therefore liable to irresponsible scaremongering in the interests of entertainment. His comments suggested that the British media, like the Australian, is generally sympathetic to genetics. His call for literary 'responsibility' - by which he meant a fair portrayal of scientists in literature - was an interesting side step in the debate. By contrast, Goodfellow was defensive in putting his position. This was a much less successful strategy, though he spoke in a very entertaining way. He began with a poem about how we need more poets, but unfortunately everyone is doing engineering, and went on to argue that only people with real science backgrounds can make good decisions about science (making a passing cheap shot at Britain's new Junior Science Minister - who has only an O-level in Chemistry, but a full degree in Economics). Goodfellow claimed concern that writers like Gallagher take unjustifiable 'short cuts' and should represent the new genetics more fairly. But his final remark, the most revealing, was about the allocation of limited resources to science. Nurse and Goodfellow both, in different ways, were concerned to ensure that genetics funding was not jeopardised by moral scrutiny.

The 'critics', (as I have grouped them) were Sheila McLean, Professor of Law and Ethics in Medicine at Glasgow University, and Jon Turney, Wellcome Fellow in Science Communication at University College London. McLean was critical of both writers and scientists, arguing that science fiction is an aspect of cultural imperialism, reinforcing both our science and our political assumptions. She questioned whether science fiction demonised science and concluded that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Jon Turney spoke briefly, making the salient point that it is not only writers that create fictions. He drew parallels with Mike Mulcahy's work on the Warnock Report and parliamentary debates about the beginnings of life. Mulcahy noted that supporters of embryological science were more likely to cite 'Frankenstein' than opponents of embryological science. It was telling that in the panel discussion only Goodfellow (a scientist) raised the image of Nazism. As Turner put it, 'antiscientists are a scientific myth'.

It was Goodfellow, too, who was concerned that scientists did not feel properly a part of 'culture'. This I found to be the most British aspect of the debate. From the questions and from passing remarks of some of the speakers, I sensed that science did not occupy quite the high prestige place that it holds in Australia. Literature, on the other hand, occupies a higher place here. Goodfellow commented that if one were really bright at school, one did Arts. If one were good with one's hands, one did Technology. If one was 'in between', one did Science. As one of a generation of Australians who was brought up in the 'if you are bright you do Science' school, I found the debate somewhat foreign. I applauded the higher value attributed to literature: but it was strange to think of literature occupying a place so important in political discourse that it could challenge science.

- Libby Robin, Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, London.

Published by the AAHPSSS on ASAPWeb, 18 August 1995
Prepared by: Tim Sherratt
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 8 September 1997

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