How would you design nature?
: It’s a question almost too grand for any one of us to answer adequately. But know that designing nature is something we humans have been working up to ever since we began to throw down our spears to take up the sedentary life of the sickle, hoe and cattle prod. Through agriculture, domestication, selective breeding and all the other forms of genetic engineering, humanity over millennia has expressed a general dissatisfaction with nature: a dissatisfaction that, coupled with our intrinsic curiosity, has brought us things ranging from yogurt, cheese and broccoli to labradoodle puppies. It’s human nature to think that if we could just make a few tweaks, we would make life a lot easier and more enjoyable.
Today, thanks to the booming rate of discovery and innovation in genetic engineering, our facility in making these tweaks to nature has reached the point that we may soon be on the verge of a new era in human and, dare I say, evolutionary history. It has reached the point that it’s not simply genetic engineering anymore: it’s synthetic biology, no longer just the mixing and matching of genes, but the invention of whole new biological functions: silk worms spinning glass cocoons, algae excreting their weight in biofuel, viruses programmed to target cancer cells. We have today the capabilities to simply insert into a machine an E. coli culture and then, in a matter of minutes, pull out that same culture in which every microbe now has a completely new genome: something that in nature would happen in exponentially more time. We have snatched the reigns from natural selection and have taken evolution into overdrive! And given all this, it is only a matter of time before we reach the grand prize: the ability to synthesize life from scratch, with a genetic code especially tailored for our use.
So should we be excited about all these science-fiction-like ventures that scientists are poring over? I’m sure that members of the Bio department are in throes of joy over these things, and I am too, in my own way, but I want to make a point that is easy to forget during all the excitement. Synthetic biology will very likely bring some novel and breathtaking improvements to our society, but we should not be so naÃƒ¯ve as to think that just because we’re discovering new things, attaining more skills, becoming nearly omnific, we’re going to be able to solve the problems that have plagued us since our species came into being. The biggest difference between now and then, during the birth of mankind, is that now we have astronomically more advanced means to endure and especially inflict death, suffering and cruelty upon each other. Therefore, I don’t think that the attainment of enlightenment or peace and prosperity are left up to scientists and thinkers. We have a natural knack for improving our lives on the surface, but when we want to do some real good, it might help to remember that it always comes down to individual choice and whether you decide to dedicate your life to loving mankind or yourself.