We live in an age where our understanding of life is far beyond what our forefathers could have dreamed. We have cracked the genetic code. We have to capability to splice and dice. We have an entirely new field, bioengineering dedicated to the proposition that we can literally, “engineer life” to suit our needs. The breakthroughs we have made are astonishing. We have sequenced the entire genome of mankind. We have the power to modify species at will.
In a sense we have been at this for a very long time. We have domesticated the dog and the cat. The grains that we rely on to feed mankind are all a product of manipulation of one seed with another, keeping the ones that grow the “best” crop. Rice, wheat, corn are all essentially artificial and manmade in a sense. I find it a little ironic those that will look at genetically altered agricultural produce with fear and disdain when by definition, agricultural products are manmade. Whether we select genetic traits in a lab or in the field, the fact is we alter them.
Genetics can be a powerful tool for good. It offers a hope for curing diseases, developing bacteria that do now (i.e. human insulin) and will in the future produce more medicines. Scientists have developed different strains of bacteria that can either produce or remove and clean up gasoline or diesel fuel. We are developing all kinds of technologies that people would generally agree are useful and wonderful, yet something in all this gives me pause. Is this just an emotional gut reaction?
My mind was sent down this path by a excellent RadioLab podcast about bioengineering, chimeras, mythical and not so mythical creatures and an exhuberant song about “making stuff.” It really gets at the heart of the matter, and I have blogged about this before regarding mankind. This podcast pointed out the problems with envisioning life as machine in general. They even got me wondering, what makes a human. The human chimp hybrid question and student that wanted to parent one is particularly provocative. They argued that division into species is breaking down as we counteract the speciation and process of Darwinian evolution that has gone on for millennia. They argue that literally, life is melding into one big, system and that we control where it goes. There is a certainty and a invincibility that some bioengineers express that gives me pause.
As much as we have made unbelievable breakthroughs in biology over the past 50 years, I wonder if we really appreciate how much we don’t know. We understand DNA, we are only beginning to appreciate what a small part of the picture DNA is. We are just beginning to understand how both a human and a worm can have the same number of genes, and why a majority of them are identical. We are discovering there is much, much more involved, such as genes switching on and off because of environmental signals, proteins interacting with eachother and shaping themselves, modification of proteins by adding sugars to them, neuronal networks that can actually be physically changed by thinking and learning even with identical structure to what it had previously. We can hardly begin to understand the mechanics of the hive mind or groupthink, social thinking or consciousness. We may produce bacteria that make gas, but what will that do to the existing bacteria? How do these things effect the ecosystem? The truth is, we have no idea, but we press relentlessly forward. Tinkering with these things is what we do. In fact, it seems to be a defining part of being human.
I belong to a faith that is actually quite supportive of the sciences. I believe that learning, thinking, gaining knowledge and wisdom are actually central to the purpose of our existence. In fact, learning the mechanisms of life is arguably a big part of our becoming like him and seeing him as he is. The question is, can we in our ignorance destroy creation in our never ending quest to understand and create. I can’t argue that biotechnology is evil. I don’t believe cracking the genetic code is some kind of Pandora’s box. I just feel a little more humility and respect for the wonder of life would go a long way.
Should we engineer life for our purposes? Most often probably yes, but by no means is that an absolute. I wonder sometimes if science doesn’t need an ethicist governing body, with power to banish abusers from publication. How can science (re)gain its soul? Of course this solution just leads to new problems. Any such body would also need a check to keep it from abusing its power, or what we would have is just a modern Galileo on our hands all over again. Agreeing on when we should not do something, even if we have the ability, is not a question science handles well. It is not a problem we handle well in society. How do we agree? I wish I knew. I pray that someday we might figure it out.