Sunday, July 26, 2015

Man has to have feelings and then words before he can come close to thought

Back in 1962, John Steinbeck published Travels with Charley, a series of stories and observations from interactions with people across America.  I happened to pick it up yesterday to re-read it, about 50 years after the first time it was assigned to me in junior high school.  Early in the book Steinbeck relates a discussion he has with a New Hampshire farmer about what was still a major post-World War II concern, the recent development and spread of nuclear power and weapons.

The farmer says,

"Take my grandfather and his father.  They knew some things they were sure about. They were pretty sure give a little line and then what might happen.  But now--what might happen?"

"I don't know," responds the author.

"Nobody knows. What good's an opinion if you don't know. My grandfather knew the number of whiskers in the Almighty's beard. I don't even know what happened yesterday, let alone tomorrow. He knew what it was that makes a rock or a table. I don't even understand the formula that says nobody knows. We've got nothing to go on--got no way to think about things."

The farmer leaves and Steinbeck reports (my emphasis):

"I found I couldn't read, and when the light was off I couldn't sleep.  The clattering stream on the rocks was a good reposeful sound, but the conversation of the farmer stayed with me--a thoughtful articulate man he was. I couldn't hope to find many like him. And maybe he had put his finger on it. Humans had perhaps a million years to get used to fire as a thing and as an idea. Between the time a man got his fingers burned on a lightning-struck tree until another man carried some inside a cave and found it kept him warm, maybe a hundred thousand years, and from there to the blast furnaces of Detroit--how long?

"And now a force was in hand how much more strong, and we hadn't had time to develop the means to think, but man has to have feelings and then words before he can come close to thought and, in the past at least, that has taken a long time."

Now, look at this article about genetic engineering from Wired.  Excerpts:

140 scientists gathered here in 1975 for an unprecedented conference. They were worried about what people called “recombinant DNA,” the manipulation of the source code of life. It had been just 22 years since James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin described what DNA was.

Preeminent genetic researchers like David Baltimore, then at MIT, went to Asilomar to grapple with the implications of being able to decrypt and reorder genes. It was a God-like power—to plug genes from one living thing into another. Used wisely, it had the potential to save millions of lives. But the scientists also knew their creations might slip out of their control. They wanted to consider what ought to be off-limits.

At the end of the meeting, Baltimore and four other molecular biologists stayed up all night writing a consensus statement. They laid out ways to isolate potentially dangerous experiments and determined that cloning or otherwise messing with dangerous pathogens should be off-limits. A few attendees fretted about the idea of modifications of the human “germ line”—changes that would be passed on from one generation to the next—but most thought that was so far off as to be unrealistic. Engineering microbes was hard enough. The rules the Asilomar scientists hoped biology would follow didn't look much further ahead than ideas and proposals already on their desks.

But then:

Earlier this year, Baltimore joined 17 other researchers for another California conference. The stakes, however, have changed. Everyone at the Napa meeting had access to a gene-editing technique called Crispr-Cas9, [which] makes it easy, cheap, and fast to move genes around—any genes, in any living thing, from bacteria to people. “These are monumental moments in the history of biomedical research,” Baltimore says. “They don't happen every day.”

Using the three-year-old technique, researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Agronomists have rendered wheat invulnerable to killer fungi like powdery mildew, hinting at engineered staple crops that can feed a population of 9 billion on an ever-warmer planet. 

Bioengineers have used Crispr to alter the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter and excretes ethanol, promising an end to reliance on petrochemicals. Startups devoted to Crispr have launched. International pharmaceutical and agricultural companies have spun up Crispr R&D. Two of the most powerful universities in the US are engaged in a vicious war over the basic patent. Depending on what kind of person you are, Crispr makes you see a gleaming world of the future, a Nobel medallion, or dollar signs. 

The technique is revolutionary, and like all revolutions, it's perilous. Crispr goes well beyond anything the Asilomar conference discussed. It brings with it all-new rules for the practice of research in the life sciences. But no one knows what the rules are—or who will be the first to break them.

Now, think back to Steinbeck:

"And now a force was in hand how much more strong, and we hadn't had time to develop the means to think, but man has to have feelings and then words before he can come close to thought and, in the past at least, that has taken a long time."

In the past, it was the military-industrial complex, now it's the medical-industrial complex. Driven by ego of people who are too sure of themselves and the greed of those seeking to park their cash, the likelihood of effective and thoughtful controls is likely to proceed at too slow a rate to protect us from ourselves. Now here's an issue worthy of attention by the multitude of presidential candidates: Will any step up to address it?


Anonymous said...

In our scientific establishment, there is "transparency" and hypothesis and rebuttal. Open publication while not perfect gives the opportunity to challenge what we don't like.

I am more concerned about what is or could happen in places with little or no transparency. Scientific knowledge is spreading around the world including to places where a free press, and the free movement of ideas is not respected in the same way as in western countries.

If a saint bites from the tree of knowledge it is not a concern. We have few saints but most of our scientists have values that might fall closer to that end of the spectrum than in societies with less respect for human rights, freedom and democracy.

Paul Levy said...

Thanks so much! Nicely put, but I fear that scientific discovery knows no national boundaries.

Anonymous said...

Step up? Are you kidding? I mentioned the words "accountability" and "responsibility" to the local "monopoly" and Usain Bolt doesn't run that fast.

Anonymous said...

If Jeff Goldsmith’s blog post about accelerated decision-making in THCB (, is correct, the time between perceived opportunity and action to pursue it will continue to decrease while time for reflection decreases proportionally. The only hope is that in a larger crowd discussing an opportunity or issue in real team via social media, thoughtful voices will still be heard and listened to.

Carole said...

Anonymous I sure do enjoy the way you speak your mind, look forward to more, that's all I wanted to say!!