The big science and tech thinkers in the orbit of Edge.org recently held a grand dinner in California, on the theme of “A New Age of Wonder.” The title was taken from a Freeman Dyson essay reflecting on how the 19th century Romantics encountered science, in which the following passage appeared
“…a new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet. Most of these artists would be amateurs, but they would be in close touch with science, like the poets of the earlier Age of Wonder. The new Age of Wonder might bring together wealthy entrepreneurs like Venter and Kamen … and a worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders, working together to make the planet beautiful as well as fertile, hospitable to hummingbirds as well as to humans.”
Dyson goes on:
Is it possible that we are now entering a new Romantic Age, extending over the first half of the twenty-first century, with the technological billionaires of today playing roles similar to the enlightened aristocrats of the eighteenth century? It is too soon now to answer this question, but it is not too soon to begin examining the evidence. The evidence for a new Age of Wonder would be a shift backward in the culture of science, from organizations to individuals, from professionals to amateurs, from programs of research to works of art.
If the new Romantic Age is real, it will be centered on biology and computers, as the old one was centered on chemistry and poetry.
We do live in an age of technological miracles and scientific wonder. Who can deny it? And yet, and yet! Dyson again, from the same essay:
If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology, then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants. This art form, using the new biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born. It must struggle against cultural barriers as well as technical difficulties, against the myth of Frankenstein as well as the reality of genetic defects and deformities.
Here’s where these techno-utopians lose me, and lose me big time. The myth of Frankenstein is important precisely because it is a warning against the hubris of scientists who wish to extend their formidable powers over the essence of human life, and in so doing eliminate what it means to be human. And here is a prominent physicist waxing dreamily about the way biotech can be used to create works of art out of living creatures, aestheticizing the very basis of life on earth. If that doesn’t cause you to shudder, you aren’t taking it seriously enough. I think of this Jody Bottum essay from 10 years back, which begins thus [read after the jump]:
On Thursday, October 5, it was revealed that biotechnology researchers had successfully created a hybrid of a human being and a pig. A man-pig. A pig-man. The reality is so unspeakable, the words themselves don’t want to go together.
Extracting the nuclei of cells from a human fetus and inserting them into a pig’s egg cells, scientists from an Australian company called Stem Cell Sciences and an American company called Biotransplant grew two of the pig-men to 32-cell embryos before destroying them. The embryos would have grown further, the scientists admitted, if they had been implanted in the womb of either a sow or a woman. Either a sow or a woman. A woman or a sow.
There has been some suggestion from the creators that their purpose in designing this human pig is to build a new race of subhuman creatures for scientific and medical use. The only intended use is to make animals, the head of Stem Cell Sciences, Peter Mountford, claimed last week, backpedaling furiously once news of the pig-man leaked out of the European Union’s patent office. Since the creatures are 3 percent pig, laws against the use of people as research would not apply. But since they are 97 percent human, experiments could be profitably undertaken upon them and they could be used as living meat-lockers for transplantable organs and tissue.
But then, too, there has been some suggestion that the creators’ purpose is not so much to corrupt humanity as to elevate it. The creation of the pig-man is proof that we can overcome the genetic barriers that once prevented cross-breeding between humans and other species. At last, then, we may begin to design a new race of beings with perfections that the mere human species lacks: increased strength, enhanced beauty, extended range of life, immunity from disease. “In the extreme theoretical sense,” Mountford admitted, the embryos could have been implanted into a woman to become a new kind of human-though, of course, he reassured the Australian media, something like that would be “ethically immoral, and it’s not something that our company or any respectable scientist would pursue.”
But what difference does it make whether the researchers’ intention is to create subhumans or superhumans? Either they want to make a race of slaves, or they want to make a race of masters. And either way, it means the end of our humanity.
The thing I don’t get about the starry-eyed techno-utopians is that they don’t seem to have taken sufficient notice of World War I, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima. That is, they don’t seem to have absorbed the lessons of what the 20th century taught us about human nature, science and technology. Science is a tool that extends human powers over the natural world. It does not change human nature. The two wars and the Holocaust should have once and forever demolished naive optimism about human nature, and what humankind is capable of with its scientific knowledge. Obviously humankind is also capable of putting that knowledge to work to accomplish great good. That is undeniable — but one is not required to deny it to acknowledge the shadow side of the age of wonder.
As I see it, the only real counterweight to techno-utopianism is religion. Religion is concerned with ultimate things, and demands that we weigh our human desires and actions against them. Scientists, the Promethean heroes, tend to chafe against any restriction on their curiosity — which is why some of them (Dawkins, et alia) rage against religion. The best of humankind’s religious traditions have been thinking about human nature for centuries, even millenia, and know something deep about who we are, and what we are capable of. How arrogant we are to think the Christian, the Jewish, the Islamic, the Taoist, and other sages have nothing important to say to us moderns! What religion speaks of is how to live responsibly in the world. Here is Wendell Berry, from his great book “Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition”:
It should be fairly clear that a culture has taken a downward step when it forsakes the always difficult artistry that renews what is neither new nor old and replaces it with an artistry that merely exploits what is fashionably or adventitiously “new,” or merely displays the “originality” of the artist.
Scientists who believe that “original discovery is everything” justify their work by the “freedom of scientific inquiry,” just as would-be originators and innovators in the literary culture justify their work by the “freedom of speech” or “academic freedom.” Ambition in the arts adn the sciences, for several generations now, has conventionally surrounded itself by talk of freedom. But surely it is no dispraise of freedom to point out that it does not exist spontaneously or alone. The hard and binding requirement that freedom must answer, if it is to last, or if in any meaningful sense it is to exist, is that of responsibility. For a long time the originators and innovators of the two cultures have made extravagant use of freedom, and in the process have built up a large debt to responsibility, little of which has been paid, and for most of which there is not even a promissory note.
Berry goes on:
On the day after Hitler’s troops marched into Prague, the Scottish poet Edwin Muir, then living in that city, wrote in his journal … : “Think of all the native tribes and peoples, all the simple indigenous forms of life which Britain trampled upon, corrupted, destroyed … in the name of commercial progress. All these things, once valuable, once human, are now dead and rotten. The nineteenth century thought that machinery was a moral force and would make men better. How could the steam-engine make men better? Hitler marching into Prague is connected to all this. If I look back over the last hundred years it seems to me that we have lost more than we have gained, that what we have lost was valuable, and that what we have gained is trifling, for what we have lost was old and what we have gained is merely new.”
What Berry identifies as “superstition” is the belief that science can explain all things, and tells us all we need to know about life and how to live it. In other words, the superstitious belief in science as religion. He is not against science; he only wishes for science to know its place, to accept boundaries. He writes:
It is not easily dismissable that virtually from the beginning of the progress of science-technology-and-industry that we call the Industrial Revolution, while some have been confidently predicting that science, gonig ahead as it has gone, would solve all problems and answer all questions, others have been in mourning. Among these mourners have been people of the highest intelligence and education, who were speaking, not from nostalgia or reaction or superstitious dread, but from knowledge, hard thought, and the promptings of culture.
What were they afraid of? What were their “deep-set repugnances”? What did they mourn? Without exception, I think, what they feared, what they found repugnant, was the violation of life by an oversimplifying, feelingless utilitarianism; they feared the destruction of the living integrity of creatures, places, communities, cultures, and human souls; they feared the loss of the old prescriptive definition of humankind, according to which we are neither gods nor beasts, though partaking of the nature of both. What they mourned was the progressive death of the earth.
This, in the end, is why science and religion have to engage each other seriously. Without each other, both live in darkness, and the destruction each is capable of is terrifying to contemplate — although I daresay you will not find a monk or a rabbi prescribing altering the genetic code of living organisms for the sake of mankind’s artistic amusement. What troubles me, and troubles me greatly, about the techno-utopians who hail a New Age of Wonder is their optimism uncut by any sense of reality, which is to say, of human history. In the end, what you think of the idea of a New Age of Wonder depends on what you think of human nature. I give better than even odds that this era of biology and computers identified by Dyson and celebrated by the Edge folks will in the end turn out to have been at least as much a Dark Age as an era of Enlightenment. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t think I will be wrong.