Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Mastery Over Nature

One of the rules of pop-science journalism is that one must pay lip service to everyday moral concerns before descending into uncritical technophiliac babble. The point is not to achieve balance, but to deploy an army of strawmen that can then be incinerated with Promethean fire.

Thus, The Economist initially seems troubled by the news that scientists have created a synthetic cell. What now of that "divine spark," that "vital essence," in which we all believe, whether we actually believe in it or not? Don't all the world's religions explicitly tell us, somewhere or other, that it's impossible, or at least wrong, to create artificial life of any kind? Doesn't this milestone confirm that we are gods, with all the power and responsibility -- but especially the power -- that entails?

[Creating life] would prove mankind’s mastery over nature in a way more profound than even the detonation of the first atomic bomb.
I'm more likely to see atomic weapons as proof of our subjection to nature. But there's no sense straining at that gnat when we've got this camel to swallow:
Biology is about nurturing and growth.
If you doubt this, consider the myriad plagues and injuries from which this new discovery might protect us.

This is a golden age, almost. But inevitably, some people will accuse scientists of "tampering" with nature, and causing more problems than they're likely to solve.
Such questions are not misplaced—and should give pause even to those, including this newspaper, who normally embrace advances in science with enthusiasm. The new biological science does have the potential to do great harm, as well as good. “Predator” and “disease” are just as much part of the biological vocabulary as “nurturing” and “growth”.
In other words, it's a great-idea-but-possibly-not-and-I'm-not-being-indecisive!
[F]or good or ill it is here. Creating life is no longer the prerogative of gods.
So let's reason with the worst that may befall:
What if a home-brew synthetic-biology club were accidentally to launch a real virus or bacterium? What if a terrorist were to do the same deliberately?
In that case, decimating humanity with deadly diseases would no longer be the prerogative of gods! We'd be capable of...of...destroying ourselves! Who ever dreamed that things would come to this?

Luckily, there's a solution, and it has to do with Free Markets and the Wisdom of Crowds:
Thoughtful observers of synthetic biology favour a different approach: openness. This avoids shutting out the good in a belated attempt to prevent the bad. Knowledge cannot be unlearned, so the best way to oppose the villains is to have lots of heroes on your side. Then, when a problem arises, an answer can be found quickly.
It's hard to single out the silliest claim in this paragraph, but I'm going to go with the assertion that "knowledge cannot be unlearned." This entire article is a testament to our ability to unlearn, from its prattle about "mankind's mastery over nature," to its cockeyed optimism about the "openness" favored by "thoughtful observers," to its astonishing assumption that "when a problem arises, an answer can be found quickly."

All this philosophical maundering amounts to a means of sounding serious while avoiding any serious discussion of the political and economic contexts in which this research actually takes place. The moral issues here were old news in the sixteenth century, and The Economist simplifies them to the point of banality by focusing almost exclusively on the idea that there's some clear limit beyond which human science must not go (which wasn't self-evident even in more orthodox ages than ours).

The interesting question is not whether synthetic biology amounts to "playing God," but who gets to define terms like "heroes" and "good," which The Economist throws around like confetti on New Year's Eve.
Encourage the good to outwit the bad and, with luck, you keep Nemesis at bay.
"Luck," in this context, shouldn't be confused with mere chance; it's more like the rain that follows the plow. Or a piƱata that will shower candy on you if you keep swinging blindly at it with a stick.

What disturbs me isn't the creation of artificial organisms per se, but this article's assumption that "we" can easily distinguish heroes from villains, good uses from bad ones, and unforeseen accidents from predictable disasters. The problem, as always, isn't what we know how to do; it's who we are.

UPDATE: John Horgan addresses other aspects of the hype surrounding this research.


Abie said...

"Biology is about nurturing and growth"
Nope. You must be thinking of gardening.

Rmj said...

Encourage the good to outwit the bad and, with luck, you keep Nemesis at bay.

And close your eyes, and wish REAL hard, and there's fairies at the bottom of the garden!

No, sorry, that's a bad comparison. My statement actually has more content than the quoted one.

My bad.

charley said...

Socrates already covered this.

wtf good is this blog, if you just keep rehashing the same old arguments?

Phila said...

wtf good is this blog, if you just keep rehashing the same old arguments?

It is not the simple statement of facts that ushers in freedom; it is the constant repetition of them that has this liberating effect. Tolerance is the result not of enlightenment, but of boredom.