Synthetic Life, or, Why I Am A Conservative

Someone asked me recently what I think of the creation of a synthetic life form.  As The Guardian put it, “Scientists have created the world’s first synthetic life form in a landmark experiment that paves the way for designer organisms that are built rather than evolved.”

Here is more or less what I think, conveniently written a decade before the case emerged.

The journalists think it intellectually chic to stand open-mouthed before any wonder of science whatsoever. The media, cultivating their mediocrity, seem quite comfortably unaware that many of the calamities from which science is expected to save the world were caused in the first place by science – which meanwhile is busy propagating further calamities, hailed now as wonders, from which later it will undertake to save the world. Nobody, so far as I have heard, is attempting to figure out how much of the progress resulting from this enterprise is net. It is as if the whole population has been genetically deprived of the ability to subtract….

The only science we have or can have is human science; it has human limits and is involved always with human ignorance and human error. It is a fact that the solutions invented or discovered by science have tended to lead to new problems or to become problems themselves. Scientists discovered how to use nuclear energy to solve some problems, but any use of it is enormously dangerous to us all, and scientists have not discovered what to do with the waste. (They have not discovered what to do with old tires). The availability of antibiotics leads to the overuse of antibiotics. And so on. Our daily lives are a daily mockery of our scientific pretensions. We are learning to know precisely the location of our genes, but significant numbers of us don’t know the whereabouts of our children. Science does not seem to be lighting the way; we seem rather to be leapfrogging into the dark along series of scientific solutions, which become problems, which call for further solutions, which science is always eager to supply, and which it sometimes cannot supply…

It is dangerous to act… on the assumption that our knowledge will increase fast enough to outrace the bad consequences of the arrogant use of incomplete knowledge. To trust “progress” or our putative “genius” to solve all the problems that we cause is worse than bad science; it is bad religion.

– Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle

 

Of course, G. K. Chesterton said it much more briefly nearly 100 years ago.  “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”

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