News - September 10, 2009

‘People are not potatoes’

Arnon Grunberg was in town on Wednesday. But Wageningen didn't seem too impressed. The celebrated Dutch writer had to be content with a half-full hall.

Arnon Grunberg in debate
Grunberg was in town to lead a debate on the theme of 'Manipulation, power and powerlessness'. A lead-in to his position as guest writer at Wageningen University. But students stayed away - there were more student serving the drinks afterwards than in the audience. Apart from the small group that will be philosophizing with the writer over the next ten weeks on themes related to life and death, power and manipulation.
Not much spark
The debate audience was largely made up of men and women of around fifty. What they were served up was entertaining, but had little spark to it. In spite of Grunberg's efforts to set things alight, it remained a polite exchange between gentlemen. There was a theologian (Egbert Schroten), a philosopher (Michiel Korthals), a food technologist (Kees de Gooier), a plastic surgeon (Simon Strackee) and a parliamentarian from the SP (Socialist Party: Geert Reuten). Literally gentlemen: not a single woman.
Sex with animals
The most attention-grabbing part of the evening was right at the start. Imagine that humans could reproduce with animals and that the result was a better human. Should that be allowed, Grunberg wanted to know. No, it shouldn't; it's morally repulsive. The learned gentlemen were unanimous on that. But their reasons differed. 'From the human point of view, I have no objections to reproduction with animals. But from the animal's point of view, I do', said Reuten the SP member. 'It's to do with power and dependence.' Anyway, thought Reuten, we are all the result of reproduction between animals. 'So we would all be morally repulsive.'
'But reproduction is another story altogether.' According to Korthals, this would lead to a war between 'the modified' and 'the unmodified'. Theologian Schroten zooms in on the choice issues involved. 'Opting for plastic surgery is a personal choice. But a genetically modified person has no choice. The choice was made by the parents.' Plastic surgeon Stracken thinks it's all a bit optimistic. Technology is not nearly that far, he thinks. 'Seen from a rational standpoint, it ought to be acceptable', says De Gooijer from Wageningen. 'But it doesn't feel right. My biological ethic says no. Does that feeling have biological origins?' In any case, it's a technical impossibility, he reassures the audience. 'Reproduction across species is not possible. It leads to a sterile species.'
The evening produced a few more pearls of wisdom, from Schroten in particular. A couple of examples.
Schroten: 'There's nothing wrong with guilt. But if you feel it, you have to do penance.'
'Any standpoint is just as strong as the arguments that support it.'
'I don't know if sex is the best way to reproduce, but it's certainly the nicest.'
'Philosophy is an exercise in fantasy.'
But the best one-liner came from plastic surgeon Strackkee, when they were talking about the permissibility of genetically modified humans: 'People are not potatoes'.