Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


‘A New Age of Wonder.’ Really?

posted by Rod Dreher

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.



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Leah

posted March 3, 2010 at 9:48 am


The thing I don’t get about Utopians of any sort is their failure to understand even the basic etymology of the word, which comes from the Greek: ou “not” + topos “place.” In other words, no place, nowhere, never can exist, never will.
Science and religion address two very different questions. Science can answer the “how?” of many great questions, perhaps, but it will never be able to answer the “why?”.
Yes, the hubris is astounding. I agree with you.



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TTT

posted March 3, 2010 at 10:06 am


Dyson has annoyed me for years with his hubris and you’re right about him here…. but honestly I see little better from Berry. If he believes it is even possible to judge the “responsibility” of an inquiry before you’ve actually performed it in the first place, let alone that his own personal worldview–a sage-like preference for religious tradition–yields the unique precognition required, then he’s just as much a utopian human-perfectionist as Dyson, just from a Luddite instead of technocratic perspective. You’ve either found a methodology that is always right or you haven’t.



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the stupid Chris

posted March 3, 2010 at 10:34 am


What astounds me is the failure of educated people to grasp how resilient human nature has proven to every “New Age.” Not just that, but how historically the larger the claim to a bright new age the larger the shadows created and human misery. Lucifer appears as an angel of light, after all.



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Helen

posted March 3, 2010 at 10:46 am


If you’re in the mood to be scared out of your wits, read Bill Joy’s essay “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” from a year 2000 issue of Wired magazine. He raises many of the same concerns.



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J.Random

posted March 3, 2010 at 10:52 am


Rod, what do you think of the following TED talk that describing how humanity is actually becoming *less* violent, *despite* the oft-cited Holocaust, et al.?
It’s by Steven Pinker and titled “On the Myth of Violence.” The myth is that violence is increasing in the world. He gives evidence to the contrary.
http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/163



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Lord Karth

posted March 3, 2010 at 10:57 am


“We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Your technological distinctiveness will be adapted to serve us.”
Your servant,
Lord Karth



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Charles Cosimano

posted March 3, 2010 at 11:41 am


“The mind is its own place and in itself can make a Hell of Heaven or a Heaven of Hell.”
Where Rod shudders with horror, lots of us shout, “COOL!” If we compare our lives with those of our forebears and wonders that science has wrought, WW1, the Holocaust and Hiroshima were a damned cheap price to pay, and, better stil, paid by foreigners before we were born.



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Octo

posted March 3, 2010 at 11:52 am


Of course we’re violent. What do you call abortion?
As for the rest. Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” is a good yarn



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hlvanburen

posted March 3, 2010 at 12:07 pm


“As I see it, the only real counterweight to techno-utopianism is religion.”
Except when it isn’t, and as history has also shown us religion can be used every bit as much as science in advancing the power of one group over another. Recall that Hitler’s overarching plan for dominance included not only harnessing science to his goals but also religion, and in many cases religion in the Third Reich was quite willing to be jointly yoked in this endeavor.
We have seen in this history of humankind instances where religion was a counter-balance against atheistic extremes (USSR, Communist China, etc.) and where it was a partner in such extremism (Islam in the Middle East and Christianity in Medieval Europe). So I would disagree with you somewhat, Mr. Dreher, in your statement quoted above. Religion certainly can be a counterweight, but it can also accelerate such a decline. The controlling factor is more human nature than either science or religion.



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Lindsey Abelard

posted March 3, 2010 at 12:47 pm


Any mass movement, non-religious or religious, has the potential to led to the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism. I don’t think religion is a useful counterweight against this problem as religion, itself, has been used to justify restrictions on individual liberty and the elevation of this or that group over all others.
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I believe the only solution to this problem is to promote the development of technology is such a fashion such that it leads to the breakdown of centralized power structures and leads to a more decentralized society through greater empowerment of the individual. If technology can eliminate top-down hierarchical social organization and allow it to be replaced by bottom-up networks based on spontaneous self-order, then technology can be a good thing.
The reason why I do not believe religion can solve this problem is because religion is actually a part of the problem. The philosophical root of all tyranny is the notion that the individual does not own his or her own life and that they must live by the dictates of some “greater purpose or plan”. This concept is as inherent to organized religion as it was to Nazism and Stalinism. Top-down hierarchy is the root of all evil.



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Paul

posted March 3, 2010 at 12:58 pm


Did y’all see the guest list? Inviting Arianna Huffington sorta shows your political preferences, while inviting Sam Harris, who has done nothing but write a book about atheism, sorta reveals your theology. If this is the future, we’re not invited.
In which case, we religious folks may be not debated but simply ignored. Does anyone today seriously debate the Amish, or take seriously the idea of converting to their lifestyle? Morally it *might* be better, but…



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Theophilus

posted March 3, 2010 at 1:04 pm


Those who are saying that the destructive excesses of religion disqualify it as a counterweight to science do not grasp the point of a counterweight, or of Rod’s essay. It is a counterweight, something that should be balanced with science, not a pole from which only goodness comes. The same can be said for science. We need both.



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karina_b

posted March 3, 2010 at 1:09 pm


Not to mention that the “Myth of Frankenstein” was actually COMPOSED by one of those “19th century romantics” he lauds, the contemporary and friend of Byron, Mary Godwin Shelley… so apparently not all of them were infatuated with the uses of science.



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Turmarion

posted March 3, 2010 at 1:11 pm


TTT: If [Berry] believes it is even possible to judge the “responsibility” of an inquiry before you’ve actually performed it in the first place….
So are you saying, to take an admittedly extreme example, that it wouldn’t have been possible to judge the “responsibility” of Dr. Mengele’s inquiries before he actually performed them?
C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man addresses the issues discussed in this post as well, and is well worth reading. While I think that E. Michael Smith is totally around the bend on many things, his book Monsters From the Id is really intriguing. He argues that the prevalence of horror as major genre in contemporary fiction (of which he sees Frankenstein as a precursor) and cinema results from a subconscious cultural realization of the overturning of nature by unrestrained human intellectual hubris. Something to think about.



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John E - Agn Stoic

posted March 3, 2010 at 1:23 pm


Does anyone today seriously debate the Amish, or take seriously the idea of converting to their lifestyle?
Converting to an agrarian, religiously based lifestyle…someone ought to come up with a catchy term for that option…
Anyway, won’t Peak Oil bring the industrial base needed to support these sort of genetic experiments to a screeching halt?



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New_Ideas

posted March 3, 2010 at 1:30 pm


To hold that history teaches us that science has boundaries is to hold a contradiction. It is equivalent to asserting that reality proves that sense data and logic are inadequate for identifying reality. For more details, see “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology”



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Marian

posted March 3, 2010 at 1:44 pm


Eeeeeeeeeeuuuuuuuuuuuuuuwwwwwwwww!! is not an argument. Yes, the idea of a pig/man is repulsive. So is watching an appendectomy, for most medical laypeople. So is watching a natural vaginal birth, for a lot of men. So is the whole idea of loving marital sex, for most pre-pubescent kids.



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TTT

posted March 3, 2010 at 1:48 pm


Tumarion: So are you saying, to take an admittedly extreme example, that it wouldn’t have been possible to judge the “responsibility” of Dr. Mengele’s inquiries before he actually performed them?
Berry isn’t taking any example–extreme or otherwise. Rather he seems miffed that those nasty scientists think they’re so smart for daring to find answers to questions, because they shouldn’t have been asking at all. He seems to complain more about the means than the ends.
You don’t have to be a Luddite to find Mengele reprehensible.



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The Man From K Street

posted March 3, 2010 at 2:03 pm


The ones here looking down their noses at the “hubris” of Freeman Dyson ought to remember that he’s seen a lot more of the dark side of human nature in his long life than they’re ever (fortunately) likely to, and his outlook was consciously shaped by that exposure.
That hard look at evil was as a result of his involvement in the strategic bombing campaign of the Second World War, in “operations research”. As different a man as Curtis LeMay was equally affected by that involvement. LeMay realized at the time that the firebombing of Japan was an immensely immoral act. Dyson, who was then in the RAF’s Bomber Command, realized at the time that the strategic bombing of Germany was an immensely immoral act.
That both bombing campaigns were almost certainly necessary does not keep them from being immensely immoral – and both men went through considerable soul-searching after the war to resolve it. Both concluded – in their own, highly idiosyncratic ways – that anything gained by such acts was simply a brief respite, a time that must be used to improve society. LeMay turned to politics and Christianity; Dyson to social and scientific activism. Both embraced the idea of human progress being facilitated by technological improvement.
What’s the point of winning the war, if the society that results is just no damn good? And a society that prefers to embrace an anti-technological worldview to a confident belief in man’s capabilities as a toolmaker is, ipso facto, no damn good at all.



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PDGM

posted March 3, 2010 at 2:03 pm


hlvanburen wrote below:
We have seen in this history of humankind instances . . . . where [religion] was a partner in such extremism (Islam in the Middle East and Christianity in Medieval Europe).
Wow! What a startlingly ignorant presentation of Medieval Europe! Modern science rose out of medieval theology and Aristotelian science, in case you’re curious where it “came” from; your statement betrays an amazing historical vacuum of Western intellectual history.



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MikeW

posted March 3, 2010 at 2:41 pm


Love Lord Karth’s comment.
Look, there’s problems with putting all your eggs (I would hope they are produced by your local, free range chickens) in the technology basket, as well as many of the other, er, baskets mentioned above. Any type you step back and say “I’m going to trust you to act in my best interests” there is the potential for abuse and worse. Doesn’t matter if the people you are trusting are priests of science, religion, politics, or whatever. What I worry about are the unintended consequences of the various choices that science in particular is making for us without a lot of input from us regular folks. But that’s just me. Now back to the latest Territorial Seeds catalog and Dave Brubeck’s Take Five.
Regards,
Mike



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Cecelia

posted March 3, 2010 at 2:57 pm


Yeah Dyson is right – just apply some of that good technolgy thing and we can make the world more beautiful! Cause you know – it isn’t beautiful now. And yeah – lets manipulate plant genetics and enhance the world’s plants and flowers – cause you know – we don’t have much in the way of biodiversity now and anyway – Monsanto is doing such a great job with all those roundup ready genetically modified seeds (whoops – corn won’t dry – wheat is now susceptible to a really bad fungus – ah well – modify away!)
Man from K street – appreciate your post and yes I see Dyson had great conflicts re: his role in WWII and I do recognize the problems he had coping with his role – although I suspect the folks in Dresden had it a bit worse – but that in no way makes it logical or justified to go where he has gone. Dyson fails to get that immoral acts do not lead to moral societies – it was inevitable that having crossed the line re: immoral war time tactics we would then continue to cross new lines. Slippery slope. And then to go further – the fire bombing of Euro cities during the war was an application of technology – so now we should apply more technology and that will be the cure? Think not. Dyson remains enraptured with tech solutions in the same way he allowed those tech solutions to erode his own sense of moral behavior during the war.
Dyson has so distorted the meaning of the romantic movement it is mind boggling. The Romantics would vomit if they were around to read Dyson’s rapture over this new age of wonder. Romanticism was a REJECTION of technology and industrialization – it was a movement which glorified the past and the “natural”. Think Daffodils, blue skies and neo gothic. Not genetic modification.
It seems to me that we have a long and not so nifty history of 1) recognizing a problem then 2) applying some solution to that problem which 3) creates a new problem usually worse than the original problem. For two hundred years or so we have been industrializing and technologizing away – thinking we would create wealth, raise standards of living, eliminate disease and hunger. And we have – except we also depleted resources, fouled our air and water, depleted our soil and maybe also affected our climate so that we are in danger of mass extinction. So now let’s apply more technology and industrialization to solve this problem. At some point we have to recognize that this rely on science/technology thing is not working quite the way we had hoped.
I am ranting here I know – but Dyson has a notion that what we have is not enough – that we can improve on it – and that it needs improving. I think that given the results of all our improving maybe we should have a moratorium on applying anymore improvements – and focus instead on understanding and appreciating what we have now. I am not so sure we can afford any more of this sort of improving.



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absurdbeats

posted March 3, 2010 at 3:20 pm


I wrote a dissertation on this very topic, genetics and the definition of humans, so I’m well acquainted both the utopians and the catastrophists, as well as the many, many thinkers who take a cautious approach to both positions. (I tend to side with Donna Haraway on these matters, who notes that there’s no getting back to the garden, but that doesn’t mean we have to just give in to the technicians, either.)
In any case, one of the best pieces I read while researching this topic was by Jean Porter (in the Cambridge Q of Ethics? 1990s?), who noted that while we tend to worry/exhult over changes to our biological substrate, we tend not to consider social changes which have had a profound affect on who and how we are, such as the mastery of fire and the development of written language.
Whether or not you think there is a fixed human nature (I mostly do not), there are those conditions which affect how we’re human. Our understanding of biology is one of them, but not the only, and not alway the most important, one.



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Helen

posted March 3, 2010 at 3:20 pm


Was it “We are the Borg” or “We are Borg”? I think it’s the latter. And I think the latter is scarier, in a subtle way, than the former.
Says I, the Star Trek nerd.



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hlvanburen

posted March 3, 2010 at 3:59 pm


I wrote: “We have seen in this history of humankind instances . . . . where [religion] was a partner in such extremism (Islam in the Middle East and Christianity in Medieval Europe).”
To which PDGM replied: “Wow! What a startlingly ignorant presentation of Medieval Europe! Modern science rose out of medieval theology and Aristotelian science, in case you’re curious where it “came” from; your statement betrays an amazing historical vacuum of Western intellectual history.”
Yes, and we also saw wonderful advancement in rocket technology provided to us courtesy of the Third Reich. That does not take away from the horrific actions that also took place at that time. Neither does the advancement of science in the Medieval era take away from the well established fact that religion, in the form of Christianity, was used during that time as a tool to oppress and centralize power in corrupt royal houses.
Religion, just as science, is a tool we humans use to explain and explore the world around us. Sometimes we use these tools to better our world and ourselves. Other times we choose to bring incredible harm upon ourselves.
But to claim that religion is necessary to correct the excesses of “scientific utopianism” is hogwash. Religion can, and has, been used to oppress and harm every bit as much as science.
After all, even the great Christopher Columbus demonstrated this, the evidence written in his own journal by his hand (translated at this site): http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/columbus1.html
I stand by my original statement, and suggest that you perhaps may wish to move from a 2-bit to a 16-bit view of the world. It isn’t all black and white.



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hlvanburen

posted March 3, 2010 at 4:06 pm


“And yeah – lets manipulate plant genetics and enhance the world’s plants and flowers – cause you know – we don’t have much in the way of biodiversity now and anyway – Monsanto is doing such a great job with all those roundup ready genetically modified seeds (whoops – corn won’t dry – wheat is now susceptible to a really bad fungus – ah well – modify away!)”
Boy, isn’t it wonderful that we have such pure and undefiled fruits and vegetables available at our local farmers’ market? I mean, where else would you find those wonderful seedless watermelons, or the “big boy” tomatoes that are such wonderful, natural products undefiled by genetic manipulation?



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John E - Agn Stoic

posted March 3, 2010 at 4:20 pm


Anyway, the scary transgenic stuff is trivial compared to the Grey Goo problem.



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Steven Donegal

posted March 3, 2010 at 6:44 pm


As always, you have an interesting perspective, Rod. It’s generally not my perspective, but it is usually interesting. In this case, I would pose this question: who poses the greater risk–Frankenstein or The Grand Inquisitor? You seem to fear Frankenstein; I’ll take my chances with him. It’s the Inquisitor that is more frightening to me.



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Cecelia

posted March 3, 2010 at 6:52 pm


hlvanburen – seriously – watermelons? There is of course a difference between breeding plants to get rid of some characteristics and genetic modification that requires injecting some other plants DNA into that watermelon. There is the issue of reaching a certain point – hybridizing plants has clearly had advantages (no more watermelon seeds) but at what point do we say that the potential consequences are disturbing enough to stop? When do watermelons no longer need improvement? I’d suggest that when we get to the point where we are creating genetically modified crops that cannot bear seed anymore and need roundup to sprout as well as deplete the soil – when we get to the point where ONE company monopolizes the seeds that grow your food- that might be the point at which we need to stop. Pig hybrid people might also be another improvement we can do without.
I benefit from technology as much as anyone – and I for sure am not advocating a return to hunter gatherer status – I just am questioning a single minded approach which sees everything on the planet needing improvement – and that these improvements (despite what we know from our history) are going to make things better. Certainly some of those improvements have created lots of serious problems. Given that history – to blindly assume we should continue with this mindset is idiotic.
Re: religion. In the Middle Ages people REALLY believed – in ways even the most pious among us cannot truly understand – yet despite their firm belief and piety – religion did not curb their behavior. Case in point – the Church and its constant efforts to end all the warfare going on. The Church proclaims that the use of mercenaries is immoral and sinful (the pillage and plunder ante gets upped when using mercenaries) the Church also condemns the use of the crossbow(more lethal and killing at a distance precludes the chance for the combatant to surrender). Kings, knights etc all know this stuff is absolutley imperiling their souls – we know they were concerned about it because there are monasteries and hospices founded as acts of atonement, pilgrimages to atone – there is even a prayer ritual called The Knight’s Penance (an early form of rosary). They know it is wrong – they care that it is wrong – yet they still do it. Religious belief does not stop their use of these strategies. I’d say that our medeival ancestors were the same as people in WWII – the short term immediate problem is what concerns them – they have a war to win and so any strategy which gives them an advantage gets used – that it is immoral or has long term consequences doesn’t factor in. They can save their souls later on. People think short term – going to hell is in the long term. I think this points out something else – you can make all the technological improvements you want – yet we have not improved people – we still do the same stuff we did hundreds of years ago – and until we improve – there won’t be a wonder age.



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stari_momak

posted March 3, 2010 at 9:12 pm


Is this the guy that makes the vacuum cleaner?



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stari_momak

posted March 3, 2010 at 9:13 pm


Can you imagine Damien Hirst if he were proficient with recombinant DNA?



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meh

posted March 4, 2010 at 10:03 am


Rod: “Science is a tool that extends human powers over the natural world. It does not change human nature.”
Genetic engineering is a tool that could change human nature in manifold ways.
Hmmm, to me the obvious Hitlerian use of genetic engineering would be the engineering of a lethal plague that one particular race is more susceptible to.



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meh

posted March 4, 2010 at 10:30 am


Patricia Piccinini is the artist with the vision of human-animal hybrids.
http://www.patriciapiccinini.net/
For instance:
http://www.lilavert.com/cv_online/piccinini.html
Rod, would you feel better if the human-animal hybrid was with, say, a nice golden retriever instead of a pig?



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Lindsey Abelard

posted March 4, 2010 at 2:11 pm


“Those who are saying that the destructive excesses of religion disqualify it as a counterweight to science do not grasp the point of a counterweight, or of Rod’s essay.”
The root of the problem is the notion that individuals should be required to plug into top-down social hierarchies. Technology is a two-edge sword. It can be used to increase the power of these hierarchies or it can be used as tool for personal liberation and self-empowerment. An effective counterbalance is one that promotes the latter. Religion, by definition, cannot do this since, by its very nature, promotes the formation and growth of top-down social hierarchy that is the root of all tyranny. Only a philosophy that opposes all top-down hierarchy in favor of decentralized networks based on spontaneous self-order can serve as an effective counterbalance to the abuses of technology.
BTW. religion is rather worthless as a critique of man and state. If people are by nature good, then everything is hunky dory. However, if people by nature are nasty and evil, it make no sense to put one person or group of persons in charge of all others. Either case is an argument against top-down social hierarchy and in favor of a society composed of decentralized networks of individuals.



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Lindsey Abelard

posted March 4, 2010 at 2:18 pm


Think of incompetent or evil individuals as a risk to society. If society is organized in a top-down hierarchy, the systemic risk of incompetent or evil people to society is greatly increased if such persons get to the top of the hierarchy. On the other hand, a “flat” society composed of decentralized networks of free individuals poses very little systemic risk to society on the part of incompetent or evil individuals, because such people can never be in charge of anything more than the few individual immediately around this.
The elimination of institutional authority and top-down social hierarchy reduces systemic risk to society and should, from this standpoint alone, by vigorously promoted.



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quantum_flux

posted March 6, 2010 at 2:55 pm


Techno-Utopia is a lot better than Dark Ages. There is an inverse relationship whereby the more that scientists consult with religion, the worse the human condition gets, and the less that scientists consult with religion the better the human condition gets. Clearly, in the absense of any religion, humans will transend their all too humble origins and become proud Superhumans and Cyborgs, someday we’ll evolve into all out droids. It won’t just be humans that will transend their origins though, for scientists will gladly take their dogs with them too. Maybe the more we love our dogs the more advanced our dogs will get too.



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quantum_flux

posted March 6, 2010 at 3:12 pm


A further point of contention. Hitler was an extremely religious dude. The truth is that religions should be consulting with scientists about what truth is or not, as should politicians too. The problem comes when scientists consult with either politicians or with religious authorities to determine what the truth should be, well, instead of doing actual science to determine that stuff. Without curiousity, we’d all be living in the dark ages or perhaps the Soviet Union would have won the Cold War without our scientists here in the USA having the freedom to explore however they wanted to explore.



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Ambidexter

posted March 6, 2010 at 7:18 pm


“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. ”
So we should give up modern medicine, agriculture and the other things technology has given us. We should huddle in caves, grunting to each other “fire bad” while gnawing on grubs and berries. All this because Rod Dreher is a luddite, afraid of things he doesn’t understand.



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Rod Dreher

posted March 6, 2010 at 7:31 pm


Boy, you really didn’t understand my post, did you? That’s an unintentionally amusing remark, almost as funny as the crackpot observation that “Hitler was an extremely religious dude.” Just goes to show that fundamentalism is not confined to Bible thumpers.



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Shaun

posted March 6, 2010 at 7:54 pm


‘the crackpot observation that “Hitler was an extremely religious dude.” ‘
Hitler was most certainly a very religious person. He was nearly obsessed with it, referred to God and Jesus constantly, despised Darwinism for the same reason many religious people do (He felt it debased man by making him an animal) and killed millions for their religion. He was a very unorthodox relgious person, and believed a lot of very odd semi pagan (thats a religion too) stuff but he had atheists put in camps for crying out loud!. Dont ever ever try to pin the holocaust on science or secularism again, try to reclaim a little fraction of the credibility you lose when you pen this kind of nonsense.



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Rod Dreher

posted March 6, 2010 at 8:22 pm


Ah, freshman year.



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MikeTheInfidel

posted March 6, 2010 at 8:32 pm


meh:
“Hmmm, to me the obvious Hitlerian use of genetic engineering would be the engineering of a lethal plague that one particular race is more susceptible to.”
Of course, this ignores the reality of the genetics of race – that is, that two members of any given “race” may be radically more genetically different than two members of different “races”. Race is almost entirely a SOCIAL construct, not a biological one. The shared features of the members of any given “race” can become expressed in anyone given enough time in a particular environment and society.



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MikeTheInfidel

posted March 6, 2010 at 8:36 pm


Mr. Dreher:
Kindly explain what fundamentalist means to you, because the definition I have reads thusly: “a belief in a strict adherence to a set of basic principles (often religious in nature), sometimes as a reaction to perceived doctrinal compromises with modern social and political life.” It has absolutely nothing to do with a style of argument, and labeling someone a fundamentalist is nothing but a “poisoning the well” fallacy disguised as a way to brush their argument aside. Rather than mock your detractors by saying they’re fundamentalist or that their arguments sound immature or childish, address the things they’re saying on a factual or logical basis.
Saying you’ve heard the argument before, that your opponent seems immature, or that your opponent is a fundamentalist is not a rational response. It’s a fallacious attempt to refuse to respond.



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MikeTheInfidel

posted March 6, 2010 at 8:38 pm


By the way, if you wish to make an argument that a particular approach to science WILL produce an undesirable result, do not provide fictional stories as your evidence.



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MikeTheInfidel

posted March 6, 2010 at 8:43 pm


Oh, and one last bit. This assertion that only religion can provide moral and ethical balance to the acts of science is preposterous. To claim that a faith-based idea is equally balanced against evidence-based ideas is to say that mythology can tell you real information about the real world.



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quantum_flux

posted March 6, 2010 at 8:45 pm


Adolf Hitler listened to his Vagner record for hours on end, and he fantasized about bringing those post rapture wars that go on for all eternity, you know what I’m talking about, Hitler was a real Valkyrie nutcase.



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Shaun

posted March 7, 2010 at 1:32 am


“Ah, freshman year”
I assume that that is a concession of the point? It is after all not exactly an argument is it?
Hitler was religious by any definition of the word. Are you seriously suggesting that he was not? Or are you just committed to avoiding backing yourself up by insulting anyone who disgarees with you?



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