Friday, June 22, 2007
How Beauteous Mankind Is!
PZ Myers is excited about Mark Morford's excitement about the biotechnology age that is bearing down on us with all the possibilities of a Mack truck driven by someone up three days straight on speed. Among the near-term prospects are designer pets and lab-grown vaginas. The longer run is likely beyond what even the most imaginative science fiction writer can project.
Gleefully embracing the inevitability of the advance of human knowledge and decrying those who quail at the prospect, PZ asks:
Imagine if the American government had voted to censure the Wright brothers and to outlaw the internal combustion engine at the turn of the last century ...Of course, outlawing the internal combustion engine would have been futile. But what if we had taken some time to think about its development, instead of leaving it to haphazard social forces dominated by self-interest operating in the short term? Perhaps we'd have fewer than 50,000 highway deaths a year, blue instead of brown skies, an economy that wasn't an oiloholic subject to political blackmail and a planet not on the brink of a deadly fever.
I'm no Luddite. And the President's veto of the stem cell research bill is wrong on many levels. But I happened to read the following shortly after coming across PZ's ode to technological triumphalism. It comes from the excellent book, The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History by Marjorie Grene and David Depew (p. 346):
[U]ltra-Darwinian versions of natural selection, which ascribe a good deal of causal agency to "selfish" genes ... have done little to disturb, and indeed much to encourage, what is at root a technological vision of the living world. Natural selection is seen as mixing and matching genes in the spirit of a genetic engineer who uses a computer to model what [Daniel] Dennett calls "searches through design space." Dobzhansky's famous remark that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" is well taken. But in recent decades, Dobzhansky's maxim has been given a twist. Rather than appealing to the contingencies of the evolutionary process as a constraint on Promethean ambitions -- eugenics in Dobzhansky's day, "designer babies" in ours -- evolution is now being asked by those who have construed natural selection as a designing biotechnician to bless the transition to the coming age of biotechnology. In the resulting biotechnological vision, the inherently complex relationships among genes, traits, fitness, and diverse environments is displaced by the homogenizing, standardizing, "quality control" tendencies on which genetic engineering depends, and which it is explicitly aimed at producing and reproducing. It is no doubt true that we are entering into an era in which genetic medicine can be expected to do a great deal of good. But genetic medicine will not, we suspect, be able to achieve its promise so long as it is seen as licensed by a simplistic, utopian (or, depending on your point of view, dystopian) view of organisms as technological objects ...Surely there must be something between Morford's prescription that we strive merely for "nimbleness, lightness, a sly and knowing grin to go with your wine and your vibrator" and the grim attempt to hold back Canute's tide.
If not, be afraid ... be very afraid.
Sorry, John, but I doubt that anything would have been materially different. Predicting the future course (and consequences) of technology development is IMO a fool's game. I was in that business for a while back in the late 1960s, and the specific device (at the time, barely in prototype) that several of us spent some months attempting to forecast uses for is now in widespread use in ways that we didn't have the foggiest notion might occur. Given the knowledge that was available at the time that automobiles were beginning to look like they might go somewhere, I am very dubious that any sort of forecasts would have envisioned the kinds of consequences we see now.
I read Paleo-Future in part to keep me humble about forecasting. :)
There were no surprises involved in Americans spending untold billions of dollars to pave over vast tracts of the country so cars could move easily not just in and around cities but over long distances, a function that would have been better handled by mass transit of some sort. We had a national policy of keeping gas prices low to encourage the use of the expensively built interstate highways that made our rail lines uncompetitive except for the bulkiest of bulk transport, effectively throwing away what had been a highly valuable resource we sorely miss now.
I am in no way advocating banning technologies at the outset or preventing their spread to whatever possible uses they may be capable of. But somewhere, somehow, we ought to make sure we have some means as a society to think about our priorities, rather than merely doing stuff because we can or, worse, as we Americans have done with health care, because of ideologies like "free enterprise" that may not always be the best model for addressing every problem, simply because it works well in some areas.
Biotechnology will eventually challenge what it means to be "human" in ways we presently cannot imagine. But we can imagine that those challenges will come and take some thought about the very need to think about them.