Under The Sun

Friday, February 06, 2004


Nature's Way

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I wonder whether it is true, as the Rothmans claim, that "there is no holding back the enterprise." It is just possible--now for the first time in the history of modern science--that the moment has finally come when society might reconsider whether the curiosity and enthusiasm of scientists alone should determine the direction of research into certain technologies.
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To accomplish the feats of genetic improvement predicted with such assurance by Gregory Stock and William Haseltine is to forget the admonition of Francis Bacon, who was, after all, the father of the scientific method: "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." Two centuries earlier, Michel de Montaigne had warned of the dangers of doing otherwise when he pointed out that we should not get in nature's way, because "she knows her business better than we do." Long before the Rothmans, such philosophers were putting us on notice.
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--Sherwin B. Nuland, "Getting In Nature's Way"

"whether the curiosity and enthusiasm of scientists alone should determine the direction of research into certain technologies". But they don't. Science does not proceed in the orderly, pick-and-choose, what-shall-we-research-next-sir? manner of Civilization (yes, I mean the computer game). It proceeds rather in the manner of Civ's more sophisticated successor, Alpha Centauri: we can set a goal, but what we actually discover, and whether it actually has anything to do with our goal, is significantly random (or at least chaotic). This is true--in the real world--for two reasons: first, because reality is complex and interdependent, not to be accurately mapped by any geometry we can fathom; second, more importantly, because what we discover about the world is in the end determined by how the world actually is. If something is true, then sooner or later it will be discovered, by someone, somehow. We can, perhaps, make an effort to avoid looking in the more likely directions, but that's just another form of head-in-the-sand, and it won't work.

Which is to say that the progressives, as well as the conservatives, can quote Bacon and Montaigne. Scientific progress is part of Nature's business: indeed she knows it better than we do, and indeed we can command it only by obeying it. Science must first fulfill its obligation to truth, to reality; only later can we mold it to our own ends. If bio-engineering leads, or can lead, to a more successful society, that too is a fact, and will be discovered, and will be used. Any particular group may have the will and power to ignore it, but in the long run such groups will lose. It can be argued that losing would be an acceptable price for moral rectitude. But Mother Nature would not agree.

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