Life in the Fast Lane — or, Protein’s Progress

by Yule Heibel on January 26, 2005

Unless you’re a psychopath, William Leiss is not exactly the kind of thinker who will put a spring in your step, a smile on your face, or a glowing good feeling in your midsection. He will instead make you hunch your shoulders, lurch to the nearest bar, and order a stiffener. Preferably genetically unmodified.

That’s what I wanted to do after participating in his seminar at PaCTaC yesterday afternoon. Problem was, I had to go home and attend to business, and wouldn’t you know we had run out of wine. Now, that was depressing. It took me the better part of today to get over….

“Life in the Fast Lane”, now available as Ch.12 of the new edition of Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk, lays out a future that’s hurtling toward us at breakneck speed. In truth, it’s a future incarnation of a reality that’s been with us since the Enlightenment project of “nature domination” began. The new twist is that we are now facing a technological extension of that idea — the assumption that nature is ours to do with as we will, without regard for other biologically-based beings — which promises to catapult us into a warpspeeed version of that project, one that will make nuanced discussion of post- vs. pre- vs. any-modernity look like a recitation of nursery rhyme.

Leiss’s argument is that the core project of molecular biology will be achieved within the very-near foreseeable future. It will entail that we will figure out how to do to organisms at the genetic level what we will, without the constraints known to previous generations of genetic tinkerers, breeders, and cultivators; that we will manufacture a genetic platform that will allow us to create new species de novo, from scatch, so to speak; and that we will start messing around with adding an additional human chromosome to the standard number — I suppose it’s to serve as a portal for the introduction of genetic variation/ alteration/ enhancement, …whatever. Furthermore, we will apply this technology of genetic engineering not only to bodily functions, but also to mental functions: it’s not just a question of “fixing” disease, it will also be a question of “enhancing” mental function or frame of mind, since everything that we think and conceive in our heads seems to have a biochemical and electromagnetic basis in physical reality (brain tissue). This represents a major developmental shift in how we conceive our humanity, and it behooves us to think about these scenarios now, as though they were already a done deal — because they will get done much faster than anyone anticipates, and we need to leap ahead in our thinking, to bring these issues and possibilities into discursive space now, so that we can reason out how to deal with them within rational or value-based thinking.

Tomorrow, the seminar continues with a discussion of religion and science.

Here’s part of the description of tomorrow’s seminar:

…we will turn to the confrontation of science and religion that is represented in (a) the science of DNA (and mitochondrial DNA) and (b) the findings of evolutionary biology with respect to the rate of genetic divergence over time. (The latter allows us to estimate, for example, that humans and chimpanzees had a common ancestor about 5-6 million years ago.) The science of DNA ultimately will give a purely naturalistic account of human origins, and of all human traits (including self-consciousness), which is complete and self-contained, requiring no other form of explanation.

(Laplace to Napoleon, when questioned on the existence of God: “Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis.” The presentation will offer an account of the experiment, now being carried out in Montreal, in which a neuroscientist is attempting to pinpoint the physical location of the experience of God in the human brain, using CAT and fMRI scans of a group of elderly nuns.)

The immense establishment of modern science today, with tens of billions of dollars expended annually for basic research, applied research, and commercialization, occurs in a world in which – suddenly, it seems – the traditional religions are increasingly “relevant” in social and political terms. This peculiar development appears most strikingly in the United States, which is the vital center of that scientific establishment – and at the same time, a nation whose political discourse is shaped more and more by appeals to religious belief. (Opinion polls report that 70% of Americans not only believe in a “personal God” but also in the literal truth of the Bible, including the vision of Apocalypse in the Book of Revelations, and reject the idea of natural evolution.)

Some questions for discussion that arise in this context are:

1. Can an agnostic science and a militant religiosity co-exist peacefully over time?
2. Or, is it inevitable that religion will (once again) see in modern secular science its mortal enemy and take the necessary steps?
3. In particular, what is the potential range of consequences for the relation of science and religion, as the full potential of genetic enhancement, especially of mental functions, is recognized?

More later, after the seminar. Just remember that you can go to PaCTaC‘s website and check the video archive, where you can watch & listen to William Leiss’s presentation from February 2004. This current seminar will also be available in the archives eventually, and tomorrow’s event will be streamed live on the PaCTaC / CTheory website at 4pm PST, January 27.

I’m not convinced that fundamentalist religion really has to be a wedge between science and “faith.” For one thing, Margaret Wertheim has shown, in Pythagoras’ Trousers, that the scientific avant-garde has typically had a close symbiotic relationship with religion, and that today’s physicists, searching for a Theory of Everything and looking for god in the logic of string theory, are utterly in line with a tradition reaching back hundreds of years. But I’m also unconvinced because I think that our modern fundamentalist Christian variant of faith shares a dark secret with the modernist project: a striving for “perfection” is inherent in both. In their worst moments, they share a deep contempt of the weak and the cast-out, they are at core only interested in “the chosen,” regardless of how that special status comes about, and they detest at heart Jesus’ message to suffer the little children or that it’s the meek who will inherit the earth. They know that’s hooey.

But is it really? And remember, you heard it here first, from an atheist.


melanie January 27, 2005 at 6:53 am

Wertheim’s book was an eye opener for me. I wanted to comment, as early as your third paragraph, that the Enlightenment project goes way back – further than the 17th century – and is intimately connected to Christian religion. Placing humanity at the top of a natural hierarchy.

maria January 27, 2005 at 12:06 pm

If I were teaching in the humanities and sciences (and especially the sciences), I would make Wertheim’s book a required reading. No one can accuse her of a political stance or posturing, as perhaps may eb the case with Thomas Kuhn and the paradigm shift business … instead, her approach brings in history, which, in scientific circles seems strangely absent. Well, not that strangely, given the theological roots and that striving for “perfection” you mention … that desire or need or whatever to step out of time.

Kate S. January 28, 2005 at 9:57 am

I believe we here in the states are already seeing point number two addressed and acted upon: religion does see science as its mortal enemy and it’s fundamental backers are not only taking steps, they’re depositing leaders who will act as guards to protect their cherished ideals of what they think Life is all about. Hence, putting a stop to stem-cell research, rolling back Roe v. Wade, and no child left behind, even though, these same people don’t seem to like these infermed and weak, the unwanted babies and dumbed-down children; no, they don’t like them very much at all, the Weak they find offensive to their senses. They definitely don’t like them enough to want to pay for their education, nutrition, health care, or shelter.

I think we’re going to see science and religion going head-to-head in a bloody battle over control, who gets to claim the title of Ultimate Perfection: “My god is better than your god.”

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