Saturday, September 26, 2009

There Is No Analogy For This

For those who have the time and patience, this article in The New Yorker is about the potential (and actual) significance of synthetic biology. Christians need to think about what this means, and think long and hard. An unchecked celebration over technological advance will pay a hefty price. These words are not meant to be prophetic either. It is a judgment on our own present debt to technology, on our collusion with things we refuse to understand.

My last post discussed the significance of death to 'who we are' as creatures rather than, say, base matter and machine. The point was to draw attention to competing narratives within the modern world. Beneath the guise of so much scientific pretension lurks an account of reality and human identity which is anathema to Christian faith. It is so for many reasons, but the one I identified was its refusal to incorporate death as in some sense integral and ineradicable for our experience as creatures. Not so for Christian faith. Despite our longings for peace and labours for life, no Christian may look upon the importance of our physical death as moot and avoidable. Such is a theological perversion against which the cross and bodily resurrection of our Lord stands in testimony.

Today's article is not about death but about life, that is, artificial life. Several points struck me. There Is No Analogy For This. My heading is in response to the article's discussion about the potential for designer babies. So one quote:
'What if we could liberate ourselves from the tyranny of evolution by being able to design our own offspring?' Drew Endy, scientist.
Provocative statement. In some sense already true. We 'design' perhaps not so directly as the scientist wishes, but in our choice to terminate the lives of those we deem undesirable or unfit for life. We wait for something better. Something more human. It is, in so twisted a way, not the overcoming of nature's tyranny, but our own tyranny of choice. So the analogies dissolve. Quote two:
'If you build a bridge and it falls down, you are not going to be permitted to design bridges ever again....But that doesn't mean we should never build a new bridge. There we have accepted the fact that risks are inevitable' D.E.
The editorial continues: 'He believes the same should be true of engineering biology.' As the bridge, so the human. Matter to Matter. If at first you don't succeed - as though this were the only wisdom science can adopt.

Any serious revulsion toward synthetic forms of human life should not be revulsion on the basis of its technological impossibility. Maybe it's possible, maybe it's not. That is never the issue. Rather it must be revulsion on the basis of its truthfulness: what about it testifies to true things, and what about it perpetuates lies. This is pre-scientific thinking. Not post-scientific scrambling to explain what just happened.

The last thing I noted was the justification for this research. Again the fact that it is inevitable and therefore must be faced - to clothe it in the language of the highest ideals - is meant to spur us on to the kind of post-scientific scramble that I just mentioned. The article will have us believe that anything less is a retreat into the past. This is wrong. There is no mythical retreat into the past. What the narrative of technological advance refuses to recognise, however, is that forms of resistance against technology can participate in true history as well. I have heard some philosophers and scientists speak about the potential to 'un-invent' the atomic bomb. What it looks like to for Christians to resist the fallacy of 'scientific progress' in pursuit of alternative forms of living is not only practical but necessary theology. Even if it costs us the luxuries that that science seeks to entice us with.

I'll leave it there for the moment. The issues require much more attention that anyone one person can give. I just hope we have Christians thinking about these things.

*Spencer, Michael. 'A Life of its Own: Where Will Synthetic Biology Lead Us?' The New Yorker. 28 September 2009.


Andrew Faris said...


Provocative post, and a good call to theologians everywhere.

What is so troubling to me immediately is that totally depraved people will wield such massive power. Thing is, things like this almost always start off in "the right hands" (something like that, but you see what I mean), don't they? But then what?

The article actually noticed your point, but only briefly. In one of the early paragraphs it says that the "good" of this sort of stuff is almost always oversold. And maybe it is irrefutably good to cure malaria, and maybe it is irrefutably possible with minimal drawbacks.

But then we start dealing with constructing babies out of genetic legos, and well, the ethics quickly get really complicated.

And last I checked, most of the scientists involved with this sort of thing only have one ethicical foundation: more technological freedom is always better.

And so I come back around to the initial stomach-churning point: more technological freedom in the hands of slaves to sin is far from always better.


Ian Clausen said...

Thanks Andrew. As Oppenheimer allegedly said, 'When you see something technically sweet, you have to go ahead and do it.' Oppenheimer, of course, one of the geniuses behind the atomic bomb.

It's worth more discussion, of course, but I think you get the gist of the scientific mindset for many. Just not sure what to do about it quite yet; if 'do' is even the right verb.