May 27, 2011
'X-Men' Explores Ethics of Making Better Humans, Says Emory's Wolpe
The debut of the movie “X-Men: First Class” this summer is one more chapter in America’s ongoing fascination not only with science fiction, but with the ethical issues that result from humankind’s pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, says Paul Wolpe, director of Emory’s Center for Ethics and an expert on bioethical issues.
“’X-Men’ is the story of a reviled minority,” says Wolpe, in this case, a minority with genetic mutations that give them extraordinary powers. Of course, genetically, X-Men make no sense, he adds. There’s no way that even dramatic genetic mutation would result in a normal human being giving birth to a human being with wings.
“On the other hand, X-Men are completely plausible as biotechnological developments, and we’re already developing some of the kinds of powers that the X-Men illustrate,” Wolpe says. “There are genetic engineering possibilities for human beings that would increase things like memory, perhaps attention, and maybe even strength, not to super-human levels, but perhaps to mimic the best achievements of the species.”
And although “we still don’t know how to create muscles that exceed the muscles of the strongest creatures on earth,” says Wolpe, “it’s when you combine natural ability with technology that you can talk about truly extraordinary types of powers.”
“What’s interesting about ‘X-Men’ is that it takes up a conversation that began in its real form after World War II,” says Wolpe, who also serves as the first bioethicist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where he formulates policy on bioethical issues and safeguarding research subjects.
Judges presiding over the Nuremberg trials of Nazi doctors were so outraged by the human experimentations carried out that they wrote the Nuremberg Code. “This was the first real code of human experimentation that laid out in a very clear way what had to happen in order to ever use a human being in medical experimentation,” says Wolpe.
As knowledge of Nazi atrocities became more widespread, he says, issues surrounding human experimentation became part of popular culture, including Marvel Comics, “which talked about social issues in a way that Superman and Batman didn’t.”
So the X-Men became “a fascinating discussion of majority-minority relationships, human experimentation, the coming genetic sophistication,” says Wolpe. And the conversation continues.