Philipp Ball

Philip Ball

Thursday, 30 June 2011, 16:00, Large Operon, EMBL Heidelberg

Philip Ball, Science Journalist and Freelance Writer

Unnatural: the heretical idea of making people


Can we make a human being? The question has been asked for many centuries, and has produced recipes ranging from the homunculus of the medieval alchemists and the clay golem of Jewish legend to Frankenstein’s monster and the mass-produced test-tube babies in Brave New World. All of these efforts to create artificial people are more or less fanciful, but they have taken deep root in western culture. They all express fears about the allegedly treacherous, Faustian nature of technology, and they all question whether any artificially created person can be truly human. Legends of people-making are tainted by suspicions of impiety and hubris, and they are regarded as the ultimate ‘unnatural’ act - a moral judgement that has its origins in religious thought.

In this talk I delve beneath the surface of the cultural history of ‘anthropoeia’ - the creation of artificial people - to explore what it tells us about our views on life, humanity, creativity and technology, and the soul. I suggest that, from the legendary inventor Daedalus to Goethe’s tragic Faust and the automata-making magicians of E.T.A Hoffmann, the old tales and myths are alive and well, subtly manipulating the current debates about assisted conception, embryo research and human cloning, which seem at last to have made the fantasy of ‘making people’ into a kind of reality.


Philip Ball is a freelance writer. He previously worked for over 20 years as an editor for the international science journal Nature. He writes regularly in the scientific and popular media, and has authored many books on the interactions of the sciences, the arts, and the wider culture, including H2O: A Biography of Water, Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour, Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Medieval Mind, and The Music Instinct. His book Critical Mass won the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books. He contributes regular columns to Prospect magazine, Chemistry World and Nature Materials.

Philip trained as a chemist at the University of Oxford, and as a physicist at the University of Bristol. He is a member of the advisory council for the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University, and serves on the editorial board of Interdisciplinary Science Reviews and Chemistry World. He was the 2006 recipient of the American Chemical Society’s James T. Grady – James H. Stack Award for interpreting chemistry to the public, and the inaugural recipient of the Lagrange Prize for the ‘diffusion and promotion of the culture of complexity’.