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.