Life by design, and history

We happen into an interesting though unintended convergence of pop culture reference today in Bioethics and A&P: Isaac Asimov, the late great scifi writer. Neil Tyson and Carl Sagan have been credited with making science cool in our time, but Asimov paved the way for them both.

In “Life by Design” Venter acknowledges Asimov’s prescience.

One point that has struck me forcefully over the years is that few of the questions raised by synthetic genomics are truly new. One of the most famous attempts to grapple with issues raised by synthetic life forms can be found in [Asimov’s] Three Laws of Robotics [wiki]… One can apply these principles equally to our efforts to alter the basic machinery of life by substituting “synthetic life form” for “robot.”

Interesting report project possibilities here: extrapolate the substitution and see if it renders synthetic biology any less transgressive or reckless in the minds of its critics. Will anything do that?

Check out the sidewhiskered Asimov in 1989, addressing the American Humanist Association on “how humanity can save the earth for humans.” This seems also to be Venter’s own humble aspiration, his “big picture goal”:

It’s natural to groan and roll your eyes when somebody says they want to save the world, and Venter’s probably earned his share of groans and eye rolls. But if the question is what his goals truly are, I think that’s it. I don’t think it’s any secret that he also wants total freedom, tons of money, a fancy house, expensive cars and boats and infinite toys. But I think when he wakes up in the morning, he actually believes he’s going to change the world. Which at this point, regrettably, is synonymous with saving it. So for example, he wants to replace agribusiness with food-generating algae, and he wants to design organisms that eat the pollution out of smokestacks, and he’d like to replace large sectors of industrial manufacturing with low-impact biomachinery. That doesn’t mean he’s not seeking fame and glory and piles of cash. He’s doing that too. “Behind the Story,” NYT 6.4.12

Oh, and he wants to live long and prosper too. His latest “new company, Human Longevity, will focus on figuring out how people can live longer and healthier lives [and] will build what Dr. Venter says will be the largest human DNA sequencing operation in the world, capable of processing 40,000 human genomes a year…” – A Genetic Entrepreneur Sets His Sights on Aging and Death, nyt

The issue in A&P is whether history is bunk. Alex Rosenberg is the latest model (hardly a model philosopher, if you ask me) to roll off the human assembly line and say so in print, in the spirit of Henry Ford and in defiance of Asimov’s “psychohistorianFoundation dreams.

I don’t know much about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today. – Henry Ford, 1916

Ford also said an idealist is someone who helps others prosper, and that his customers could get their Model Ts in any color they liked, so long as it was black. Is that funny, or just ominous, if it turns out to be the template for life by design? I find myself again recurring to Bill McKibben’s concerns, expressed in Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. (There’s lots in that book about robotics too, including an ethically unsettling thought from Asimov on “the greatest social use of robots.”)

Do we really want predictability in history, in either our collective history or in our personal biographies? Is that why we study, or even just notice, history? Is ultimate unpredictability history’s Achilles Heel, or its greatest asset?

I don’t know much about history, but I do know I like what I read at @brainpicker the other day on this topic, and about how exposure to history (past, present, and future) deepens our empathy for other lives. It draws out the better angels of our nature, it strengthens our Keatsian “negative capability.”

The idea of empathy has distinct moral overtones and is often associated with “being good.” But experiential empathy should really be regarded as an unusual and stimulating form of travel. George Orwell would tell us to forget spending our next vacation at an exotic resort or visiting standard tourist sites. It is far more interesting to expand our minds by taking journeys into other people’s lives — and allowing them to see ours. Rather than asking ourselves, “Where can I go next?,” the question on our lips should be, “Whose shoes can I stand in next?”

There’s no bunk in that aspiration, just lots of humanity. As history continues, we’re probably going to need that.

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