Biotechnology in the Arts

Science fiction writers create spell-binding stories about the human future by predicting events based on scientific and political trends. But now artists, too, are finding inspiration in the sciences. A prestigious art journal, Art Press, pointed out, “genetic manipulation, cloning, GMO — these are some of the new words and realities to have become part of our everyday life and the life of art.” Some of the new life sciences art is representational — using paints, prints, sculpture, photography as its media. Other art uses biological phenomenon — human tissue, the results of DNA tests, and so forth — as artistic media.

Recently, I’ve begun to explore ways to bring the works of artists and novelists directly into the policy-making process. There are three reasons I think such an effort might be fruitful. First, policymakers themselves refer to novels when they contemplate how the law should develop. When President Bush addressed the nation about embryo stem cells, he referenced Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. When legislators hold hearings on surrogate motherhood, they sometimes refer to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. People concerned that information about their genetic makeup might be used by employers or insurers to discriminate against them refer to the movie Gattaca in describing their concerns. Novels — and works of art — surface social tensions about the technologies and reveal cultural values that should be considered when formulating laws.

The arts also help initiate social discussions about important policy issues in ways that the related science or technology may not. I was intrigued during the United Nations debate on whether human cloning should be banned, when the delegate from Brazil gave his reasons for supporting a ban. He said Brazil had already had a widespread social discussion about cloning because of the television drama series, “El Clon.” The series lasted for months, included references to actual would-be cloners such as Dr. Severino Antinori, and explored legal issues such as whether it would be considered bigamy to marry your wife’s clone.

Third, the arts can bring a fresh approach to the policy debates about biotechnologies both at the micro and macro levels. Novels can particularly address the impact of genetic and reproductive technologies on an individualês self-concept, relationships, and place in society. Yet the arts can also focus attention to potential longer range social impacts of biotechnologies on families, communities, society, and the social order. The need for a large framework for regulating biotechnology was raised by Robert Blank, in his book Regulating Reproduction, where he noted that “by concentrating on one or several applications, the cumulative impact of reproductive and genetic technologies is obscured.” Blank observes that a “fragmented policy-making process and its tendency to focus on immediate, conspicuous problems has led to a failure to provide systematic, comprehensive assessment of the technologies or their implications for society.”

When scientific procedures or technologies are presented to society, many individuals and groups who have not been scientifically trained feel disenfranchised from any debate about the desirability or proper regulation of those developments. Discussion is also stifled by the long-standing division in America between pro-life and pro-choice advocates. This split has stymied the development of appropriate regulations for the infertility industry, for example.

Moreover, when discussed in the medical context, the biotechnologies are hyped in a way that promises a medical benefit and the hope of a cure runs roughshod over the discussion of any other social value, making the adoption of appropriate regulations virtually impossible. Researchers convince patients that their salvation lays just around the corner in the next genetic development. Within two weeks after Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell announced that they had cloned a mammal, and before any research had been done to show any therapeutic benefits resulting from human cloning technologies, a cancer patient was telling reporters that President Clinton’s moratorium on federal funding for human cloning research was preventing him from getting the one treatment that could save his life. A lawyer was arguing that, if couples were not allowed to clone their dead child, their fundamental right to make reproductive decisions would be violated.

The arts provide a setting in which a wider audience can begin to understand, evaluate, and explore the ramifications of biotechnologies. A painting of a chimera that crosses a human and an animal can facilitate discussion of the issue long before such a creature has been created in reality.

Beyond the aesthetic value of their work, artists and novelists whose work is influenced by the biological sciences can help society to:


• confront the social implications of its biological choices,
• understand the limitations of the much hyped biotechnologies,
• develop policies to obtain the benefits of biotechnologies without undue risk, and
• confront larger issues of the role of science and the role of the arts in our society.


Because many novels, movies, and works of art provide a way to foster discussion about biotechnology and the human future, we’ve decided to include examples of biotechnologies and the arts on all of our topic areas. Enjoy, contemplate, and get active on the issues these novels, movies, and works of art raise.

Check out some of our recently published Bio pages: