Fringe: The Ultimate Test Tube Baby

By Stephen Cass | September 17, 2008 2:28 pm

Screen capture from Fringe, Season One, Episode TwoFringe, J.J. Abrams’ (of Lost and Alias fame) latest show, last night featured the unintended fall out from an attempt to grow humans in tanks. Since the goal of the original attempt was to produce fully grown soldiers, bypassing the normal wait time of 9 months plus 18 years, some liberties were taken with growth hormones in order to accelerate aging. Thus fall out, such as a baby that goes from conception to death of old age within a few hours.

Growing human beings outside the confines of a real uterus–ectogenesis–has been a staple of science-fiction since at least Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World: it was a critical element in The Matrix, and even featured in a recent Doctor Who episode. It’s also been a staple of real science for some time: in 1996, Japanese researchers were able to keep goat fetuses alive and developing for 3 weeks in their artificial womb. In 2002, researchers at Cornell were able to keep human embryos alive and developing for several days, after which the experiments were terminated to stay within embryonic research ethics rules.

This real research is driven by the desire to help childless people, or dangerously premature babies, and not, say, a hankering for a super-soldier production line. But if the day comes when we can produce a child with just a smear of genetic material and a machine, then we will have to do some deep thinking. On the one hand, this kind of technology could allow us to colonize distant star systems (instead of trying to keep humans alive for hundreds of years of interstellar travel, send a robot and some DNA), while on the other it could lead to the creation of an entirely new underclass of humanity, a la the “tanks” of Space: Above and Beyond.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Biotech, TV

Comments (4)

  1. Why do you automatically assume that those born in such a machine would be considered an underclass? For example, In vitro fertilization is pretty common today and people born this way aren’t considered to be worth less. It seems to me like creating humans this way would be more expensive so if anything, I would assume that this mode of reproduction would be something for wealthy people.

  2. @Krystian

    I don’t think they’ll automatically be an underclass, just that it’s a possibility, especially if other traits are manipulated for an ulterior purpose at the same time — because, as you point out, this method of creating humans is more expensive than nature, so there has to be something to make the perceived benefit worth the cost. For a wealthy childless couple, the benefit would be the love for and by a child, and nothing more is needed. Should ectogenesis be performed as a large-scale operation even when there is no significant change in the general population’s ability to reproduce in utero however, it will be because people think they can realize more tangible benefits than love, ultimately casting these machine-born in something of the light of a commodity (the Attack of the Clones scenario). However, if the cost of ectogenesis drops to less than that of a natural pregnancy, the pendulum could swing the other way, and natural born become the underclass, something a little closer to the Gattaca scenario.

  3. It sounds to me like you are rationalizing Scenarios from Brave New World or Space: Above and Beyond. I can’t blame you, they are fascinating because they illustrate another / more extreme kind of racism and class society. However, we should realize that the social and economical environment required to create this kind of scenario is quite unrealistic. What company would want to MAKE their own humans? What for? It is a human being so you have to grant him human rights. You can’t use him as a slave. I guess in a accelerated growth scenario, he would be technically a child anyway so employment is defiantly out of the question. So why going through all that trouble of inventing some complicated biotechnology, establishing the infrastructure, dealing with ethics and rights when there is enough cheap labor on the streets – already grown and with basic education.
    We should also realize that having fully grown humans right off the vat is quite far out. In a plausible scenario you would have just normal human newborns. Again, this would be interesting for a rich person who can’t have children because of infertality or in a homosexual relationship. Not for a company or a government and not on a large scale.
    The only situation I can imagine where a company might want to create fully grown humans is to harvest organs but this is obviously an ethical nightmare.

  4. Elmar_M

    This episode was outright stupid (the one before was not very bright either). I really wanted to like that show and there are some things that I do like about it, like the art direction, the vfx and the acting (sometimes).
    Who the heck is their science advisor? Oh let me guess, there was no room for that in their 10 mio/episode budget.
    I am wondering whether they want to scare one half of the women of this country even more of getting pregnant. The other half luckily has had children and anyone who has knows that this is outright bull. Please forgive me. What does a baby do the first months of its life? Eat, sleep, crapp its diapers, repeat. In these months it grows a lot (not like the dude in that show though). Even given an anormally accelerated growth like this was possible (wich would require some other things to happen in the body as well) in order to grow that much you would have to consume 100s of thousands of calories in such a short time + vitamins + other chemicals. I mean even if the baby had comsumed the entire mother for breakfast, it would still not have enough calories to grow to this size in such a short time (and then after birth, what did he eat?).
    The other problem is what happens with nutrients once they enter our body? How does the body work with them? There are chemical processes going on and these take some time no matter what. You can accelerate those with cathalysts maybe, but only to a certain extent. So even if you managed to deliver the hundreds of thousands of calories that are needed for this in nutrients to this fast growing person somehow, this persons body would not be able to process them so quickly since this requires chemical reactions to happen that in turn require a certain time, or surface area, or amount of chemicals to be present on both ends to work. So no, it is never going to be possible no matter what technology you have to do this, unless they find a way to accelerate time and that would have a lot of other implications ;)

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