Technology that brought down civilization

By Razib Khan | June 26, 2012 10:58 pm

The IVF Panic: ‘All Hell Will Break Loose, Politically and Morally, All Over the World’:

For many, IVF smacked of a moral overstep — or at least of a potential one. In a 1974 article headlined “The Embryo Sweepstakes,” The New York Times considered the ethical implications of what it called “the brave new baby”: the child “conceived in a test tube and then planted in a womb.” (The scare phrase in that being not “test tube” so much as “a womb” and its menacingly indefinite article.) And no less a luminary than James Watson — yes, that James Watson — publicly decried the procedure, telling a Congressional committee in 1974 that a successful embryo transplant would lead to “all sorts of bad scenarios.”

Specifically, he predicted: “All hell will break loose, politically and morally, all over the world.”

The past is not always prologue, but it’s very instructive to look at newspapers from a given time period and see what the public mood was. Fear is a natural human reaction to new technology. My general bias is that technology itself usually isn’t as disruptive as social innovation. That being said, when technology is genuinely revolutionary it can have a much bigger impact than social or institutional shifts.

MORE ABOUT: Technology
  • soren

    So is it self-evident that the Watson was wrong? The technology is still young.

  • April Brown

    I’m going to collect a bunch of these articles, and when my son starts asking about the origins of babies, I’ll tell him about his petri dish and let him know that someday he can RULE THE WORLD WITH AN IRON FIST, or so the panic articles say.

    I would have loved this kind of thing when I was little. Hope he does too. I’ll teach him how to laugh evilly.

  • Gary B

    I recommend reading “Last and First Men” by Olaf Stapledon. It is science fiction, written in 1930 (available on Project Gutenberg). One of its themes is the use of genetic engineering that results in a new race of humans (the ‘second men’) with the most ‘desirable’ traits as defined by their predecessors, but lacking in some essentials like empathy. The outcome is devastating war and annihilation of the race. The ‘third men’ arise out of the survivors. He also presupposes a long term conflict between two superpowers – America and China – but that’s another topic. (Note – this is my recollection from reading it many years ago so I could be mistaken.)

  • floodmouse

    “When technology is genuinely revolutionary it can have a much bigger impact than social or institutional shifts.” – The printing press equivalent for genetic engineering would have to be something like this: Someone cracks all the permutations of the human genetic code, publishes templates online for creating the ideal engineer (politician, entertainer, etc, etc, etc,), the prospective parent downloads the code (probably for a hefty fee), and manufactures the child on a 3-D printer, skipping the messy “test tube” step. I suspect this is still a few years in the future. :)

  • Alam

    The social stigma with the IVF and surrogate pregnancy is still very much in under-developed countries (more with surrogacy than IVF). From my experience, couples hide IVF procedures, specially, when the implication is that you could choose “gender selection” package in the IVF treatment. So, if u had a boy by chance, it must be that u chose that package. And even if u had a normal child, its best that u hide that this child came out of IVF treatment, if not for ur sake, then for kid’s sake. Not making this up !


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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