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Last night, we ordered Chinese take-out. Generally, when I eat Chinese take-out, my fortune cookies don't have anything interesting to say; I think I get the short-bus fortune cookies, the ones that had to stay after school taking extra classes in Remedial Philosophy and Pre-College Wisdom.

Last night's fortune cookie, though, was different. It said:

The philosophy of one century is the common sense of the next.

There's some truth in that--but sadly, not enough, especially in a time where culture, philosophy, social values, and particularly technology can change more in five years than they used to change in five decades.

I'm not even talking about formal institutions, such as the Catholoc Church (which generally runs about three centures behind; in 1979, Pope John Paul II instructed the Church to re-investigate the case of Galileo Galilei, and in 1992, after thirteen years of investigation and 378 years after Galileo was first accused of heresy, the Pope formally acknowledged that the Church had been wrong to condemn Galileo's notion that the earth moved 'round the sun).

It's easy to point to institutions of rigid orthodoxy and say "Sure, these institutions have trouble adapting--of course they're always going to be behind the curve." But it's not just the Catholic Church; it's all of us. Every decade or so, some social or technological innovation undermines some sacred notion that we've always believed is immutable and inviolable. The idea that marriage is a union bewtween one man and one woman has been an axiom of American social belief for centuries, assumed to be true so universally that it was never questioned or even considered; now, the idea that it might mean something more has a lot of people upset.

And those people ain't seen nothing yet.

In 1954, the first successful organ transplant on a human being took place. The patient had suffered kidney failure, and received a donated kidney from his twin brother, which gave him another eight years of life.

For the most part, the public was appalled.

The news of the first human transplant triggered an enormous backlash against doctors who were "playing god" by "cutting apart dead corpses and sewing the parts into living human beings like Frankenstein." Nowadays, of course, human transplantation is as natural and as accepted as the idea that the earth revolves around the sun; in the US, about 100 such transplantations operations occur daily.

But we're no smarter, nor more adaptable, than the Catholic church was three or four centuries ago, nor than the Great Unwashed were in the 1950s. We have our own hysterias today, two of the bigger ones being the public hysteria over cloning and over genetically modified food.

Every new technology brings fear along with it, and that is particularly true of biomedical technology. When it comes right down to it, we as human beings have two things working against us--first, we're lazy, and don't have the time or the energy or the inclination to get informed about anything, much less about complex and technically challenging issues. We prefer to make decisions based on lurid sound bites--"The doctors in that hospital are cutting up corpses and sewing the parts of dead people into live people!" Second, our sense of who we are is incredibly fragile, and our sense of our place in the world is even more fragile; the history of religion has been one of religious authorities drawing lines in the sand--"Okay, there's a rational explanation for everything up to this point, but everything on the other side of this line is the province of God!"--and then moving the line when the state of understanding improves. At the end of the day, we are desperately afraid that we're simply the result of a long series of accidents and natural processes, that everything about is is the sum total of a very big set of very complex natural phenomena, and that really, we're all just making up our sense of meaning and purpose as we go along.

We're scared. As we learn that the physical processes occurring in our brains create those things that we used to call a "soul," we get more scared. As we learn to predict and to manipulate the most fundamental processes of life--as we learn that "life" is not some magical force created by some unknowable divine being for our exclusive benefit, but rather the consequence of some very specific forms of basic chemistry--we get more scared. And that fear leads us in some peculiar directions.

Like, for example, the fear that caused famine-plagued Zambia's president Levy Mwanawasa to condemn many of his citizens to death by slow starvation when he barred the import of food from the United States on the grounds that the United States uses genetically modified grain, and genetically modified food is "poison." "Experts" from the European Union, which has an economic interest in the equation, argued that genetically modified food might poze some kind of "hazard" and there was no absolute proof that it is safe; what seens to have been missed is that there is absolute proof that starvation is not safe. Indeed, it turned out to be deadly for nearly seven million people in all--people who, one suspects, would have been happy to eat any food at all rather than starve.

And if you think that's bad, you still ain't seen nothing yet.

Right now, as I type this, a group of researchers at MIT are inventing a brand-new field, one that they call "synthetic biology." Synthetic biology is to genetic engineering what bridges are to fallen trees. With genetic engineering, you look around until you find a gene that does something you want, then stick it in some other cell. With synthetic biology, you decide what it is you want to do, then design and build an organism from the ground up that does it. Rather than getting across a river by looking for a tree that's long enough and then dragging it to the right place, you design the perfect bridge, then build it entirely from scratch, without searching for dead trees anywhere. Genetic engineering can only create organisms that do what existing organisms already do; synthetic biology can create organisms that do anything at all. These guys are actually closing in on programmable nanotech assemblers, and they don't even realize it.

They naively think that what they're doing is working on ways to grow computer parts instead of etching them from silicon, the poor suckers. What they're actually doing is custom-building living organisms for the purpose of creating whatever it is we want to create. As it stands now, people go all kinds of freaky-deaky if we do nothing more than move this bit of DNA over there--just wait 'til the public gets ahold of that!

The philosophy of one century is the common sense of the next--or, more precisely, the philosophy of one century is the common sense of the century three hundred years later. But technology doesn't advance by the century; it advances by the decade, and sometimes by the month. Given the number of people who still feel profoundly threatned by Darwin, the notion of re-assembling matter on the most basic level is going to cause more than a few problems, especially when that matter we're re-assembling is the stuff of living systems and most especially when the matter we're re-assembling is us. After seeing the way people respond to Darwin, organ transplants, and genetically engineered corn, I'm thinking that perhaps Alcor is going to need to invest in some stone walls and antipersonnel mines before this is all done.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 25th, 2005 05:30 pm (UTC)
The philosophy of one century is the common sense of the next

... quotefiled.

There *are* cases where things turn out to really be dangerous that we thought weren't. Like cigarettes -- it took 50 years for studies to confirm that they were carcinogenic. It *is* possible to make changes and embrace new technology too fast. A lot of ecosystem damage has been done through simple artificial migration of certain plant and animal species, for example, like japanese beetles in the northeast and kudzu in the south. Say a screwed-up experimental wheat gene spreads into the wild -- realistically, there's no stopping it after that, you know?

But as you point out, it's also possible to be too irrational and reactionary. And it's not like banning or restricting biological experimentation is going to prevent it from happening -- it will just push it underground and make it even more likely to result in a catastrophe. And a lot of good is really being done -- like the vitamin A enhanced rice for the blindness epidemic in Asia, and transplantation of course, and stem cell work that is resulting in, e.g., pancreas cell replacement possibilities for insulin-dependent diabetics.

As always, it's a balance, and one that should be approached consciously and realistically, eschewing both unrestrained optimism and irrational fear.
Apr. 25th, 2005 11:32 pm (UTC)
"There *are* cases where things turn out to really be dangerous that we thought weren't."


However, it's always been that way, and indeed all manner of human endeavour, of all types, is fraught with peril. The domestication of animals and the move from a nomadic society to an agrarian society resulted in longer life expectancy and a higher standard of living, but it also brought human beings in close proximity to animal disease, sometimes with devastating consequences. The net effect was still positive, and in fact this is why the arrow of disease pointed from the old world to the new world after the discovery of Christopher Columbus; when an agrarian society meets a nomadic society, disease moves in the direction toward the nomadic society, not away from it--the old world spread disease to the new world, but not vice versa.

The fact is, people's assessment of risk is distorted by predjudice and fear, sometimes to the point of ludicrous absurdity; witness, for example, the people who object to food irradiation, and write letters to the editor while their frozen chicken nuggets are cooking in the microwave.

Do you remember the Ray children in Sarasota, back in the late 80s? They were three schoolkids who'd been born hemophiliac; all of them were infected with HIV from the blood clotting factor they needed to survive, before a reliable HIV test had been developed. There was a huge outcry over having them in public school; parents were pulling their kids out of school, people were picketing to have the Ray kids removed from the public school system altogether. I'm not quite sure what these parents believed their children were doing to one another during recess--I don't remember any buttfucking from my grade school days, but that's beside the point. True story: I was waitging in line at an Arby's one day, trying to get my bacon, beef, and cheddar sandwich, and the woman in line in front of me was talking about the Ray family. She was holding an infant in her arms, and telling her friends "Oh, there's no way I'd ever let MY kid in school with some kid who had AIDS--everyone says it's perfectly safe, but I would never, ever want my child to be in danger, and I'm not going to take any chances with the health of my baby!" Funny thing is, she was smoking like a chimney during this conversation. Yep, you've got that right--she was holding her infant child in her arms while she was smoking, and carrying on about how having that child in the same room with someone with AIDS was unacceptable because she would never take any risk, no matter how tiny, with the health of her little darling.

This same sort of lopsided risk assessmeent takes place everywhere. Look at the people who refuse to live next to a nuclear power plant because they're worried about radiation, yet are perfectly content to live downwind from a coal-fired plant, in blissful ignorance of the fact that coal naturally contains trace amounts of carbon-13, which is released from the chimneys of those very power plants; coal-fired plants release, on average, twelve to fourteen times the amount of radiation nuclear plants are permitted to release per year.

No, nothing is perfectly safe. Every aspect of human activity has a permanent and irreversible effect upon the environment, and always has, even since the days when we were hunter-gatherers living in tribes of fifty people. Could a genetically modified plant get loose in the wild? Sure it could; hell, modern agricultural plants are so heavily modified by centuries of clumsy genetic engineering of the old-fashioned variety that they scarcely even resemble the original any more (ever see an original, undomesticated apple or ear of corn?). Will it cause the Apocalypse? No; these genes already exist, and nature tinkers with genes on a more or less random basis all the time anyway; that's how single-celled prokaryotic bacteria turned into you and me. Is the risk of this happening worth the slow starvation death of seven million people? That's the real question--and the answer is, I think, intuitively obvious to the most casual of observers.
Apr. 26th, 2005 12:29 am (UTC)
It's true, what you say.

Of course, having been a programmer, I've seen the kind of havoc that an innocent bug in some source code can cause. A memory leak in the ad server code once caused servers to crash on a daily basis for weeks until we finally found it. Software takes lots and lots of testing, and genetic manipulation strikes me as rather similar to programming software.

So yeah, relying on people who make lopsided risk assessments and irrational judgements to determine what's safe to experiment with? Doesn't sound like a good strategy. But not assessing risks? Probably also unwise.

yes, we're constantly changing our environment and can't help doing so, and I'm not one of those people who believes that humans should seal themselves away from nature and refrain from having any impact on it. My own sympathies as far as GMO's lie with those who want to end hunger. Ultimately, technology is going to move forward no matter what, and the human race (and Earth) will adapt, as they always have.
Apr. 26th, 2005 12:43 am (UTC)
Funny you should mention memory leaks. the company where Shelly works has a memory leak in their proprietary Web-based email software; as the system is used, the client computer gradually becomes increasingly unstable until it finally falls over dead. Since she has quotas on the amount of email she's required to send per week, this is rather a frustrating problem. :)

Genetic engineering as it exists today isn't really much like programming; it's more like building things out of Legos. Genetic engineers lack the ability to "program" in any meaningful sense of the word; they cannot conceive of a function and then write DNA to perform that function, and in most cases can't even look at a piece of DNA and tell you what it does. All they can do is move genes whose functions are known from one place to another--say, a gene for producing insulin from a human to a bacterial plasmid. They can't create anything new, and they can't tailor a specific intended result if they can't locate an existing gene somewhere that already does what they want.

Now, synthetic biology on the other hand...

Synthetic biology is i>exactly</i> like programming, only with DNA instead of electronics. The goal of synthetic biology is to be able to create systems from the ground up, molecule by molecule, that do exactly what we intend them to do. Synthetic biologists are already learning how to spell out a desired activity, then code a piece of DNA, by hand, that does it. They use machinery that takes an input as a string of letters and produces as output strands of DNA with those base pairs, and the goal is to assemble those strands of DnA into functional blocks that do something useful.

Right now, they're just working on molecular computers, and they've already created strings of DNA that act like electronic components--inverters, "and" gates, "nor" gates, and so on. I think they're naive, though; they don't seem to realize the potential of what they're doing, which goes way beond making digital circuitry out of DNA instead of silicon. In fact, it goes way beyond making corn that glows in the dark, too. Ultimately, what they're talking about is the perfect assembler--a programmable device which can be fed and blueprint for a macroscopic object of any type and can, molecule by molecule, assemble that object.
Apr. 26th, 2005 12:48 am (UTC)
That's pretty exciting info. It won't be the first time that scientists were naive and unable to see the potential of what they were working on. I'll be watching that area with interest.
May. 2nd, 2005 10:33 pm (UTC)

Genetic engineering as it exists today isn't really much like programming; it's more like building things out of Legos.

Great. Now we've got gene "script-kiddies"....

Apr. 26th, 2005 12:36 am (UTC)
How do you think we best help to change the minds of these folks who are so fearful, ignorant, etc.
As a public eduactor, this is a totally frustrating situation. I find that I often can't even get my fellow science teachers to step outside the fear. What is the most basic key? Learning to be OK with some fear, some death? that change is OK? that God doesn't cease to exist if we do things that only were previously attributed to "his" power? Should I teach that evidence from all perspectives must be weighed? I teach all of these now, but which do you think is the one that will yeild the most change for the most people?
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )