The Third Culture Todd Siler

Applying our Lessons from the Nuclear Age to this Age of Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering

The general public is wondering about the deep connection between these two Ages in which we’ve glimpsed the power of atoms and are beginning to glean the power of genes.

Welcome to the WISDOMillennium! There’s no better time to tap our collective wisdom as we welcome new opportunities to work together toward advancing science, technology and society. In order to responsibly and thoughtfully use our scientific insights into the nature of molecules and genes, we need to hold in our conscious mind (and conscience) the key learnings from our more freewheeling experimental work on the atom which has lead to the development of increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons. With some concerted effort, perhaps we can avoid repeating the mistake of mindlessly innovating, constructing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Clearly, our boldest insights into the basic building blocks of biological matter can be abused in a similar manner, as we start to scratch that big itch of curiosity — designing, for example, evermore exotic bioweapons with will-o’-the-wisp applications.

Anyone with a sense of wonder can’t help but marvel at those potentially mind-altering innovations in genetic engineering that keep rolling out of the laboratories and into our lives. All this excitement has a way of momentarily silencing our skepticism, as we tend to overlook the impact these innovative works may be having on the whole of human ecology. Somehow, we need to keep in the forefront our wonderment "the thinking eye," as the Symbolist painter Paul Klee referred to that most essential element of creativity: higher awareness. We need to look ahead — cautiously and with full vision — reviewing the times our eyes were "wide shut" to wanton exploits of scientific explorations.

Given our penchant for reaching for the impossible — and, occasionally, realizing "the unthinkable" (those worst case scenarios and experiences involving serious human error) — perhaps the science community would be wise to do some collaborative, projective thinking and moral forecasting about the more questionable applications of experimental research in both Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering; hopefully, this collaboration will take place before the world community is forced to face yet another flagrant act of poor judgment. Surely, there must be a way of supporting basic scientific research while safeguarding ourselves from what cynics gleefully call "the inevitable": you know the story (it’s always the same story): some megalomaniac spearheads a group of clowns, or clones — or cloned clowns — who proudly announce their spectacular creation, a lethal new life-form. "Here, let us demonstrate how this new viral strain works…Oops! Gosh, we had no idea this creature would be quite so devastating." As the story goes — some millions of deaths and apologies later — another group of renegade researchers will try their hand at reengineering virtually every cell in our bodies, as they blindly attempt to morph the human spirit to fit an inhumane world. I mean, just imagine what would happen if we pushed aside bioethics and other governors of conscience, while envisioning what we want the human race to become as it "grows up"? Will we end up looking like amoebas, but thinking like gods? Or will we look like gods, but think like amoebas? "Inquiring minds want to know."

There’s an anxious public just waiting to be informed about the whole field of Molecular Biology and the prospects of The Genome Project. Instead of reporting on this field and Project in a straightforward manner — treating the story as if it were merely another development in the history of ideas — it needs to be seen laterally, against the backdrop and fallout of the Nuclear Age. Looking below the surface and politics of The Cold War that initially drove this Age, we need to drill down to see what lies at the core of human creativity in the service of its aggressive tendencies. Maybe this report could address one of the most perplexing aspects of human creative potential — namely, how highly intelligent people can take good ideas and turn them into bad ones real fast, bearing really grave consequences. But what’s a "good idea" anyway? I think The Genome Project is a great idea because of its enormous medical benefits. However, I fear the more radical possibilities of its broad applications — particularly, those that sway toward expanding the work on advanced weapon systems. I suspect we’ll always be dealing with this dilemma of deciding what’s a fair use of scientific knowledge, and what isn’t; what’s beneficial, and what isn’t; what improves the human condition, and what doesn’t. In responding to the public’s escalating fears about our nuclear future, R. Buckminster Fuller once remarked: "There are five billion people on this planet and no one seems to know what to do."

Have you heard those haunting words of Albert Schweitzer rumbling in the distant? "Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth," said Dr. Schweitzer. I gather from his pensive perspective, we’re no longer opening Pandora’s Box; we’re living in it. The question remains: Do we always have to live in this Box? If so, what’s the best way to live in it and flourish?

In order to make our way with some peace of mind in this new Age of engineered atoms, molecules and genes, we need to quickly learn from the past. That means figuring out how we’re going to initiate policies in bioethics while encouraging greater social responsibility. Jacob Bronowski touched on this issue in his classic muse, Science and Human Values — prompting us to always consider the dimension of values in science that should never vanish from our view. We must take the time now — in this fresh moment — to envision ways of ensuring a healthy collective future. One step towards this end is to transfer our learnings from the Nuclear Age to this new Age, and then transform them. I trust we won’t find this act of connection-making an exercise in futility.

There’s a dark line in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Hocus Pocus that may bleed into this new millennium — permanently staining it. In one sweeping definition, Vonnegut sums up the whole of 20th century thought as "the complicated futility of ignorance." He proceeds to define high art as "making the most of futility." I’m wondering whether many scientists see how this edgy definition applies to high science, as well. Is it so futile to summon our leading scientists and technological visionaries to strategize about the next steps for growing and applying our knowledge of molecules and genes? (This gathering might work if everyone checked one’s ego at the door and removed any Master of the Universe costume or attitude before "dancing naked in the mind field" [to borrow Kary Mullis’s lively expression].)

Finally, the following questions should be included in this unreported story, adding to the bonfire of challenging world questions: Is there one thing in particular that would help improve the state of the world? What is it, and who’s working on it?

TODD SILER, artist, author, inventor, is the Founder and Director of Psi-Phi Communications, a company that provides creative catalysts and communication tools for breakthroughs & innovation in Fortune 500 Companies and schools. He recently presented his latest book, Thinking Like A Genius, at the World Economic Forum, in Davos. He is the author of Breaking the Mind Barrier and co-author (with Patricia Ward Biederman) of "Creativity and A Civil Society," a commissioned report by the Institute for Civil Society.