The last century was essentially the century of physics. We went from thinking the sun shone because it was burning, to a deeper understanding of things nuclear like atoms, electrons, neutrons, mysterons and how to make our very own big bangs with a bit of fission or fusion by smashing or mashing them together. We’ve pretty much done nothing more than polish the logically inferential spinoffs of that understanding for the last century. Apart from a couple of bright flashes courtesy of the Enola Gay and Bockscar, it’s all been good stuff, but you’d hardly call it breaking new ground.
We’ve just been quarking around for the last half century or so, with Feynman’s whimsical idea of fractionally charged particles as a piss take, because I think he intuited we were just doing the reductio ad absurdum foxtrot. He’d contributed more than his bit and decided it was time to bugger off and learn to do something more useful like painting or playing the bongos. On reflection, a typically adroit move on his part because some elemental souvenirs of Alamogordo had already burrowed themselves deep into his bone marrow and were destined to take him away early.
We sort of assume we’re somehow advancing as never before but actually we’re not; we’re in a kind of knowledge stasis, becalmed like the painted ship, an intellectual and moral sterility that’s well obscured by a bewildering avalanche of gadgets, widgets, apps and novelties which are actually nothing more than refinements of fifty year plus engineering principles. We’re talking re-engineered retro with nothing more original than tawdry go faster stripes slapped on its arse to get it flogged through the sales barrier. It’s all so new and yet when you look hard at it, there’s actually nothing new there.
We’re up to our bloody eyeballs in just about everything except a single damn original idea.
We now spend more money on education than at any other time in the whole history of the world and yet the return on investment appears smaller and smaller with each passing year. It’s approaching vanishing point and with a cheeky pop, will disappear entirely without even the courtesy of a Cheshire grin. And nobody will notice, never mind give a damn. Education has become the institutionalisation of the enquiring mind, the elephant’s graveyard of the open intellect – a place you go to just to slump down and spend the next three decades of your life doing nothing more than a long mouldering slide into death.
We send our sons and daughters off to places of higher education and they arrive back home as politically correct strangers who’ve learnt nothing more than how to conform as nameless component number 427 of some sorta fucking Borg collective thing they feel compelled to fit into. They’d have learnt more flipping burgers because they crumple under the twin pressures of both the establishment and their peers and any iota of strangeness is hoovered out of the poor bastards.
That crushing of any possibility of dissent, of difference, is the real tragedy. We are sieving out our best, the silly delicate flowers, the mad bastards and their mad bastard new ideas, either of whom might just take our view of the frigging universe and yet again do an arse over tit thing with it.
All that’ll be left is mediocrity and we’re now seeing that, as second or third generation mediocrity now brazenly hops up upon a rock and feels entitled to lecture young and unformed minds about how it’s all been settled, about how high the bar is, but their bar is set agreeably low if you’ve got the smarts to play the game, because dissent is punished. Agree with me kiddo and you walk outta here grasping a first in your sweaty little hand but nothing much of anything else between your ears.
There are some new ideas heading in our direction though, because their birthing is by now inevitable and they will come. We better start thinking about them before they arrive, and I do mean right now, because there won’t be much time when they touch down. The beast will start slouching towards Armageddon and there’ll be nothing on the road to stop him except a few good men of conscience who’ll be outgunned, outnumbered, out bloody financed and as usual way up high on everyone’s shit list and not winning any popularity awards.
This glorious new century of ours that we’re living in is a beast of another scientific stripe, and it’s a dangerous one. A bloody dangerous one, because we might lose our very soul in it. It’ll be the century of biology, of bioengineering, biotechnology, of bioeverything, of getting a sniff of godhead and getting carried away; of being both a creator and shaper of life. God help us with coping with it because experience tells me we’re not very good at dealing with temptations of such dimensions.
We’ll finally have it within our grasp to look at a fertilised ova and know a lot about it. A genetic predisposition to heart problems, a female who’ll have problems carrying a child to full term, mental problems, a chronically weak physique. You name it, we’ll know it. Everything. Absolutely bloody everything. Knowing all that, will the given knowledge be that such unborn children of a lesser god be aborted?
Yes, of course they will. They’ll start blowing the rejects outta the tubes. Fuck ’em, society doesn’t need that overhead and there’ll be a whole lotta good reasons to make people feel plenty good and virtuous about doing just that. It’ll be kinder on them if they never existed. You know it makes sense. Lotsa of course nodding from the crowd but there’ll be a solitary one or two who won’t, because they’re the village warriors and the essence of their personality is to protect the helpless ones, the weak ones with a damaged wing you’ve gotta find a cigar box and a bit of straw for. They’ll fight to the death for the genetic rejects and they’ll be the only ones initially.
The immemorial “they” will dust off all the tired old lies of Eugenics, tart them up in new-age clobber and they’ll be on a roll again. So-called scientists, geneticists and sociologists will lend the whole thing some authority, a stamp of official approval from those better educated people who know better. They, after all said, will be in that ignoble tradition of being nothing more complex than control freaks who have constantly striven to get a reluctant humanity to conform to their notion of some sort of ideal. The opportunity to get the unwashed masses to conform via their DNA will prove to be irresistible in the end.
But it won’t stop there at the supposedly compelling arguments to snuff out our inadequate children who don’t meet some supposed gold standard of a Mk. I human being. That’ll be just the health wedge argument used to tyre lever open the very doors of well intentioned hell on Earth.
What happens if the carrot of picking out a better offspring of yours is dangled in front of you? Hey, you’ve got a viable one there but perhaps you’d like a taller one? You want blue eyes? Brown ones? No problem, baby. Okay, you don’t want smarter, you want more athletic? No worries, we can pick out the one you want. Just leave it to us. We can do good financing you can afford and we can definitely do a good deal for you.
It gets worse though.
Howse about we fiddle about with ye olde double helix? We can actually engineer the kid you want. We’ll zap out the riboproteins, the di-ribo bollocky stuff, the amino acids, all that sciency crud, put our own stuff in and build you something to order, something you can really be proud of. Money back guarantee. Promise. No more picking out the best swimmer of a bad bunch, you get to design them. Mix n match, the customer is king. Your son could turn out to be El Prez material. Just sign up here, it’s an easy financing plan. Thank you for your custom, we’ve got our percentage and now shush off outta the showroom because we’ve got lotsa other couples stacking up in the waiting room.
I’ve a predisposition to making the intellectual argument, because I’m used to anything emotional being dismissed but this is my blog, so let’s stray into that foreign territory for a change because that’s where the heart of this thing is. As always, it’s the practical food on the table questions which expose the grand ideas for what they actually are.
You’ve seen that delicious girl, she’s lovely and you just can’t believe she’d let a fool like you put a hand on her. She’s the one. Suddenly you get the DNA newsflash – she’ll be doing the dementia boogie in thirty years or so. Do you go on anyway? It’s make your mind up time. Perhaps knowing the story, she looks at you and her love of you dictates she’ll never burden you with the embarrassment she’ll one day become, so she jacks you in.
She’s just decided not to live her life because it’d be pointless.
He looks at you as he prepares to go on the pitch. You both know he’ll be the only “natural” on the field and it’ll be another bitching tough day at the office. He’ll do his best but there’ll be that momentary backward glace at you; you didn’t love me enough to get me engineered like all of these bastards I’m up against every week.
He wants a mortgage but the DNA profile says he’s most likely to cardiac arrest out of existence in his mid forties. He’s still in his twenties so you make the offer but with a jacked up rate. It’s of course conditional on him getting life insurance, which you know he’ll never actually get because nobody in their right mind will cover a risk like him.
Once you start reading the book of life, it gets very dark, very quickly.
To any young person out there embarking on a career in biology and who happens to read this, I have to say you’ll be breaking new ground. Right straight out onto a whole new wide open prairie of ethical dilemmas. I can’t give you any golden guiding rule which will steer you through that because there isn’t one, or at least one I can see. If anything, I’d say never forget you’re a human being and that we’re driven by love. That’s not much help I know, since young people feel the thunder shock of love but a deeper understanding of what it really means awaits them more than a few years down the line.
I am the seventh of thirteen surviving children. By so many people’s rules or ideas of a perfect world, I shouldn’t even exist. Once you get past the numbers of the thing, I’ve always shouldered a few burdens of my own. They’re by now old friends, old enemies whose peculiarities I’ve learnt to cope with. Never a joiner but fiercely protective of my friends, a hopelessly addictive personality verging on the compulsive, ruthless in the fight but a complete rollover schmuck to those I love, a bad habit of just when things have stabilised of getting bored and can’t help myself reaching for and hurling that spanner
Too much of this, too many of that, not enough of the team player thing, too much of the I’ll never forgive thing, too much love, too much hopeless muchness and everything else on the bad boy menu from hell on well-greased roller blades to ever have any hope of surviving their genetic cull. Someone like me would never appear on the sales menu. The nature of the beast is I’d choose not be their creature and anyway I wouldn’t allow them to write up the available options on the menu.
I’d never have been allowed to come into existence in their perfectly-ordered, spotless, bloodless, and terminally boring world but someone like me would have, because rude life has a certain inevitable way of sneaking around the odds.
I’ll give you the practical reason why this path should never be taken.
Once we start to specialise, it’ll be the clarion call of our extinction as a species. We are the only creatures on the planet who live everywhere on it. We’re not adapted to any particular climate, terrain, habitat, latitude, longitude or even culture. Basically, we’re still African hominids. We teach our helpless babies how to survive in whatever habitat they happen to be born in.
We are the great non-specialised, non-selected primates who have colonised the entire world and I rather suspect our ambitions don’t stop there. Hard-wiring ourselves would be a self-limiting leap backwards and I’ve a feeling a revulsion will kick in towards the evening of the day.
I’ll give you the human reason.
My youngest brother Joe was mentally handicapped. He was damaged goods but the tragedy was he knew it and that was his particular sadness, but he handled it as best he could and slugged his way through it. He’d just turned thirty when the cancer got a hold of him, and the bastard chawed down good and hard on him. On the last afternoon of his life he was surrounded by all his brothers and sisters and he wanted to do a dump. Upon being offered the bedpan, his eyes rolled.
No way baby, but he accepted help staggering down the corridor to the toilet. He steadied himself with his right hand against the wall the whole way down. I watched because he already had the whole frigging sisterhood Mafia helping and he grumpily accepted that. He did the necessary in private, wiped his own arse, washed his hands, climbed the Everest of that corridor again and was helped back into his bed.
If there’s a better example of human pride, consideration, love, innate masculinity and unconditional familial support through the dark days, I’ve yet to see it. We all knew Joe and were the richer for it. If his only sin was slipping a bit too low down the IQ scale, then God help us. Mebbe God help you, because you might not be as high up the pole as you think.
I’d had enough and ducked out. Turn off that bloody camera. No more recording. Please, please just stop the recording but I was the one doing it in the 24 frames a second of my eyes. I was outside the front door of the place, the timeout zone, just sitting down on some shit heel wall and having a smoke. I’d a few puffs and the tears started to flow. Just natural like; you don’t really notice, it just unexpectedly pops out of you the rock hard bastard from hell and there you go; you’re so bloody wrecked it’s incidental, and you’ve already driven clean through the couldn’t give a damn zone.
Sod it. Fuckit. Flow my tears, flow dem babies and it don’t mean a thing. I can always keep functioning but I’ve always been bad at letting go of people. I’ve a compulsion, a terrible belief I can always somehow drag them back towards the light, whether they want it or not. Reality was giving me ye olde wake up call. Some things no amount of love can fix.
My mother, who’d the sort of primal instincts that would have intimidated your average lioness, appeared because she always kept a watchful eye on the foolish ones in the family. I’d be topping that bill from so many perspectives. Did I think he’ll make it? Of course he would I assured her, he still looks very strong to me, he really does. He’ll make it. He’s still got the legs. We lied to each other with impunity for a bit of comfort and the silly sort of love you give each other when things are totally hopeless, but of course he was dying and we were just seeing him out.
It was coming at us like some unstoppable Manhattan-sized meteorite and we both knew it. We sat on the crappy wall together. I puffed and wept and she cuddled me. The woman was made in a steel factory and they demolished it the day afterwards. At the end, I was by his side and heard that rattle. I forced his gob shut and his eyelids closed so they wouldn’t have a bad final image of him and that was the last best miserable gasp of a kindness I got to do for a baby bro. Some days are just hard ones and you have to find some sort of way to boogie on down the road. It’s all just rock n roll kiddo, so laugh it up.
Why’s he a reason? Why’s he significant? It’s because he gave us all something to admire, something to live up to and he made us appreciative of what we had and aspire to be much better people. He’d his own life and squeezed a lot out of a little morsel of nothing much. There’s other stuff but I choose not to talk about his confidences. When I shuffle off the mortal coil, I want to do it with a measure of his courage and dignity.
You fold that sort of humanity into a double bloody helix that’s been bugged around with and I might consider joining the we can manufacture you better club but until then, I’ll be an out voter, a statistical outlier, a massive dissent of one single man left standing and a curious anomaly impervious to all those wonderfully seductive arguments.
All of that nicey nice compelling logic will bounce off the awkward bunnies like me because while I sometimes have to hunker down and scratch around for the exact reason, I always know you’re wrong because anyone who looks at human beings as some sort of programmed bloody ants will always be wrong and that’s with a big fat capital R.
Lines will have to be drawn and I did that a lorra lorra years back and a long way down the track. So you and all the wonderful promises of your whole dazzling and beguiling roadshow can fuck off because I see all too clearly the nightmares at the end of it.
I long ago put my money down on us lumpy grumpy imperfect humans and I’ll stand proud on that bet.
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