The Tree of Good And Evil

Curiosity killed the cat. Pandora’s box. Prometheus and fire. The garden of Eden. There are so many expressions and fables about the heavy burden associated with knowledge that I can’t even list all of the western ones.

We’ve been told we would have better living through chemistry. We live in the atomic age. People slightly older than me would remember when they were promised nuclear power would make electricity so cheap that usage wouldn’t be monitored.

In the United States, we have become so defined by a few historical exceptions that we’ve forgotten the rules. There is almost no argument that World War II shouldn’t have been fought. It’s unimaginable what might have occurred if the Allies hadn’t rushed to develop the first nuclear weapons and sabotaged Germany’s attempt (to the eternal credit of the Norwegian people). But in general, absent-minded professors have had their inventions snatched for pointless warmaking, profit, and oppression.

Technology also has so many good uses. Vaccines. Refrigeration. Feeding the hungry.

The term Luddite has become common enough again in the past few decades to be a convenient handle for anyone who opposes technology. What–we should go live in caves? No. The apple/fire/Pandora’s Box metaphors break down because they don’t distinguish enough. They make it too easy to dismiss not eating the apple as romantic fantasy.

There’s technology and there’s technology. A first classification would be things that could easily be used to kill the human race. Nuclear weapons would be the most obvious. The Internet, for all its down sides, is not going to kill us all. Even SkyNet used nuclear weapons.

Then there are things that are pointless. They don’t improve public health or feed the hungry. Their costs may not cause our extinction, but they don’t weigh out. Any number of industrial poisons used to feed our addiction to consumerism fits into this category.

If something has potential uses as a weapon but won’t cause us to make ourselves extinct, but it also has great potential benefits, then it probably should be ok. If there’s no positives to it, why even travel down that road of invention? And if the risk is extinction, why pretend that JFK will save us from every possible Cuban missile crisis?

Synthetic life.

The creators promise to make vaccines, take all the carbon out of the atmosphere, and eliminate contamination from chemicals. Great. That might actual implicate the flip-side: species saving technologies that might be very dangerous too. But the truth is, the creator is a scientist who already has tried or succeeded in patenting genes. He tried to beat the academic human genome project to conclusion in order to do that.

It’s not that people who make great discoveries shouldn’t be rewarded, but can’t you see where this is going? Scientists love evidence and testing hypotheses. The evidence shows that humanity is not capable of handling these things without poisoning the planet. We haven’t blown ourselves up with nukes yet, but we have put toxic chemicals into every living thing, mostly for no meaningful purpose. We are in the process of turning this planet into Venus, which is basically hell, through carbon pollution.

Many of those chemicals are synthetic. If we can’t even understand the effects of synthetic chemicals, I don’t see any good reason to take it to the next level of emergence unless it is absolutely done with extreme care (which it won’t be).

It will now be possible to make bacteria that kill only select species. Or maybe even select people. Your own personal superflu.

Besides the Luddite tag there is also the argument that these things are inevitable, or, like the bomb, it’s better that we get them before Iran (or whoever). Well. Then can we please create some synthetic compassion and intelligence?