Doing the Undoable
I was talking to a friend recently, discussing book titles that both seemed to sum up their main point and, at the same time, were evocative, the kind of title that catches your eye and your mind. Titles like Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s book that was a major factor in launching the environmentalist movement or Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s sharp critique of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding.
Then there was Herman Kahn’s 1962 book on the potential results of nuclear warfare, Thinking About the Unthinkable, a title that soon was reduced to the simpler “Thinking the Unthinkable” in public discourse and which has been used again and again by many writers on different topics. The fact that later in the same year we were forced to think the unthinkable during the Cuban Missile Crisis just underlined the importance of his topic.
Different authors, different viewpoints, different styles, different topics, but each with a title that catches the eye, evokes interest, and summarizes their main points in two to four words. No small feat and I believe one factor in helping them gain additional attention from the broader public and the media, right from the beginning.
It was Kahn’s title that inspired my subject title today. He discussed a topic that was certainly not unknown in his time, but one that was frightening. After all, a reader might think, this business of thermonuclear warfare is far too complex for me to understand, there’s nothing I can do about it anyhow, and that’s what we pay the “experts” to do for us so we can get on with our lives. Better to avoid the topic. Kahn disagreed. He insisted that the consequences of such a war needed to be understood. Whether or not people in 1962 agreed with his conclusions or even appreciated them is immaterial. By bringing attention to the potential consequences, he did not make the situation worse or cause widespread panic. Instead, he opened a discussion that, once the initial shock wore off, helped us all get a grip on reality, underlined the tragedy that needed to be avoided, and led to our being better-prepared for whatever the future held.
I think the time for something like that has come again.
I have been following a topic for far more than a decade from its origin in science fiction to its arrival as science non-fiction. The simplest way to express the topic is in two words – genetic engineering. It is incredibly complex and is related, directly or indirectly, to many other areas of rapidly-expanding science non-fiction.
First, a little foundation. I will make it as quick and easy as possible. Of course, it will be grossly over-simplified, but it should be sufficient for today’s purposes. I will start with the human genome.
The human genome is all the information in the form of code that is the basis for your and my existence as humans. It is found in DNA and RNA, DNA being of the most significance to current research. Your DNA is originally made up of a combination drawn from your mother’s code and your father’s, combined at random. The result is summed up in simple terms at Wikipedia as follows:
An analogy to the human genome stored on DNA is that of instructions stored in a book:
In short, you are pre-coded. Like a computer, when you are “turned on” at birth, you are not a blank slate. You can function, if only simply. But this genetic code is far more sophisticated and powerful than any human-made computer code. It will continue to have a huge impact on your development and its results will influence, at the very least, your operation as a human being every day of your life without exception.
Enough. That provides the foundation of where past research has led us. Today, thousands of researchers all over the world are deeply involved in genetic research. That includes altering the genetic code, thus the term “genetic engineering”. If you include all the research indirectly associated with the genome, the number of researchers involved would be much higher.
We need to come to grips with what is happening now with current research. That could take several volumes to write and, by the time I was done, so much would change that I would have to begin all over again. So this will be much, much simpler. I read dozens of articles every week from many sources. I will share three just to give you a very tiny taste of the sort of research that is underway.
The first is a simple summary of some NASA-funded research that involves taking an ancient gene, 500 million years old, and restoring it to life. It’s nowhere near as technical as most reports, but it still includes language unfamiliar to most people. No matter, a quick read will get the point across. You can read it here.
The second is longer, but offers a startling look at what may be coming down the road sooner than most people expect. It involves the research sponsored by Craig Ventner who played a key role in the “breaking” of the genetic code in 2000. His research work has since led to the creation of the first cell with a synthetic genome. He is now working at the creation of diverse, powerful, fully-synthetic life. It may sound “over the top” to you, but he is hardly the only person with this goal in mind. He simply has the money and background that makes his research a likely source for this major break-through, and the fame to get his work into major publications. You can read it here. Note: they force me to link to the regular multi-page article with ads. Once there, click on “Print” or “Single Page” for faster reading.
It is not just biology that is affected by genetics. It reaches into many areas, even into mathematics, as the third article briefly describes.
I will leave it at that. If you want to see other reports of a similar nature, there are hundreds of them out there.
Okay, so where does that leave us? If synthetic, man-made life is in our future, here are a few potential conclusions. Although only “potential”, they are worthy of consideration.
When Herman Kahn wrote his book fifty years ago, we were already well into the “Nuclear Age”, but we were still innocent in many ways of its potential consequences, both good and bad. Today, we are well into the “Age of Genetics” and we are again innocent in many ways of its potential consequences. The Nuclear Age offered hope for a better life, but also the threat of the self-extinction of the entire human race. The Age of Genetics is, if anything, an order of magnitude more important, more potentially helpful, and more potentially disastrous than the Nuclear Age. It deserves a great deal more attention than it is receiving.
My hope is that someone far more competent than I, a skilled science reporter or an especially articulate scientist, will sit down and put all this and a great deal more together and get it the attention it deserves. Yes, there are books that have been written on one aspect or another of genetic engineering, but none that have caught the public attention as those by Carson, Moynihan, or Kahn. Today, their names are largely forgotten or are simply unknown to the great majority of people, but their “message” remains, and their contribution as well.
Like Herman Kahn, we need someone who “thinks the unthinkable” and puts it out there for all to see. He inspired my title, but there is a major difference. He wrote what could happen, but has not yet happened (thank god). This topic is about what is happening. That is why I chose to call it “Doing the Undoable”. There’s a tiny play on a word. The current and future research was undoable not very long ago at all. And once done, it is undoable. In an inter-connected global community, research released is research that cannot be undone.
Genetic engineering is not the sole focus of Future Brief, but I will return to this topic in the weeks to come and discuss specific research and various potential consequences.
I will leave you with a video. There aren’t many that deal with this topic briefly and articulately. This one does a better job than most. If you know others, feel free to share them with me.
One last thought. At the conclusion of his presentation, the speaker’s audience gives him a standing ovation. The first time I saw this, a thought passed my mind. Were they applauding his presentation, or the implications of his presentation? I suspect the former, but perhaps later on after more consideration, the latter took precedence.