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Some genies are best kept in their bottles. But how?

Mad Science


According to a June 26 CNN poll, 41 percent of Americans think mapping the human genome is "immoral." Technological breakthroughs have always produced naysayers, but there seem to be growing fears of our scientific capacities.

In the first "Austin Powers" film, Dr. Evil, resuming his villainy after a 30-year absence, proposes a variety of cataclysmic schemes like "making big holes in the ozone layer" — only to be told these scenarios were off and running. Modern science had already out-evil'd Dr. Evil.

Science is founded on a celebration of humanity's childlike curiosity. Increasingly, however, we're concerned about developments where "childish meddling" becomes the more apt characterization. Beset by dystopian visions, we struggle with the old futurist question of technology assessment and control, as old as Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."

Galileo, the father of the scientific method, is often cited as the martyr who helped break the chains of superstition that had shackled humanism. The hegemony of science, amplified by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, is now absolute. Where once Galileo was the heretic, today, it's anyone suggesting limits to free inquiry.

And yet, over the near horizons of science lurk human clones, genetically engineered children, animals and plants, variations on the ozone depletion and greenhouse scenarios, diabolical new weapons, clouds of run-amuck, self-replicating nanorobots. We've been "Frankensteined" before, of course, everything from atomic weapons to automation displacing human workers. We've reacted with a shrug, a prayer, and fatalistic references to cats and bags, genies and bottles; Pandora's Box.

The idea of showing troublemakers the instruments of torture, breaking their telescopes and sending them into forced retirement is no longer an option, even as our childlike curiosity has grown into a monstrous craving. "Frankenstein" remains a quaint literary exercise in hubris, but quite irrelevant to a world where science seems to recognize no such thing.

Our ravenous intellectual appetites, whetted by triumphant capitalism, have made for science without limits. Any attempt to impose restraint is shouldered aside in the rush for the next indispensable consumable, from the fat-free potato chip to the latest cosmetic drug your doctor must prescribe. Despite Oppenheimer's warning that, since the bomb, scientists have "known sin," the model of the "neutral technician," guiltless for whatever mischief his discoveries may be put to, is still very much with us — even creating "Unabomber" counterparts, who seem to feel responsible for everything but their own mayhem. Still, are there things man should not do?

Obviously, although saying so risks joining the company of Luddites and "anti-progress" movie villains. We would clearly be better off if, somehow, curiosity could have been quashed whenever it strayed too near the bomb, Sarin nerve gas, MTV. In the Biblical creation story God forbade the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But childlike curiosity won out, leaving the job of technology assessment and control up to the same foxes now ravaging the hen house.

When Congress decided in 1971 not to fund an American supersonic transport, when DDT was banned, when nuclear power plants began dying on their drawing boards, we saw assessment and control in action. It is the same today in Europe respecting genetically altered foods. Unfortunately, this "anticipatory democracy" assumes a capacity to deal with emerging technologies that long ago exceeded the grasp of the masses. Technology miniaturizes, proliferates, sophisticates even as it simplifies, ultimately appearing as magical to the average college graduate as it does to primitive tribesmen. Someone, somewhere, soon, will make a human clone. The smarter-than-human computer is due by 2025, or sooner. Even Reagan's absurd "Star Wars" missile shield refuses to stay dead.

No institution can restrain "evil science," even if the law allowed it and "evil science" could be convincingly identified. There is simply no check or balance built into our society to keep Frankenstein's monster on his slab. Apart from maintaining a generalized (and necessarily ill-informed) public pressure, we are at the mercy of whatever collective wisdom the scientific community wishes to manifest. Renegades aside, if they can be kept there, our best hope may be for common agreement not to investigate certain bags, bottles and boxes; a reinvention of "taboo."

"Taboo" and "science" represent opposing mindsets, but they may meet under the greater rubric of "wisdom." Prescience may best serve science now. A continuous effort to develop foresight and build consensus seems indispensable if we are to avoid the self-induced disaster. Since we have a hard enough time dealing with the evil ramifications of "good science,"this won't be easy.

But, once foreseen, those places where, clearly, only fools or devils would enter should be labeled taboo, with violators cast out and shunned. No Inquisition is needed, just professional and public condemnation. "Taboo review" via professional societies, journals, and ad-hoc committees might provide regular reassessments to guard against hopeless conservatism.

Mere humans can't dismiss this challenge. And the time to begin is before the monster is off his slab and out pursuing his own inhuman agenda.

Travis Charbeneau is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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