In his classic book of essays on the rise of modern society, The Revolt of the Masses, Jose Ortega y Gasset shoots a whole quiver of arrows at multiple targets, not to simply destroy or undermine them in our minds, but to warn us. The scientist is one of these targets, both because of his obvious importance to a modern technological society, and for the danger he poses. The scientist is, quite simply, the “modern barbarian” par excellence.
In “The Barbarism of Specialisation”, Gasset writes:
“Modern science, the root and symbol of our actual civilization, finds a place for the intellectually commonplace man and allows him to work therein with success. The reason of this lies in… mechanisation. The solidity and exactitude of the methods allow of this temporary but quite real disarticulation of knowledge. In this way the majority of scientists help the general advance of science while shut up in the narrow cell of their laboratory, like a bee in the cell of its hive.”
I did not have any of this in mind when, on the nineteenth of January, I wandered into the buzzing Biological Sciences Learning Center to witness the appearance of Nobel laureate James D. Watson. He was there to open an exhibition at the Crerar Library entitled, “Honest Jim: James D. Watson, the Writer.”
Unfortunately, I was shunted to the overflow seating, where an audience of eager science undergrads, graduate students, and professors awaited the appearance of the rumpled superstar on a big-screen TV monitor. After a brief introduction, Mr. Watson began to discuss his precocious academic career (he graduated from the University of Chicago at the age of 19).
The listener next to me, a perceptive student of Social Thought by mere chance, turned to me in alarm and asked, “Is he senile?”
No, the seventy-something Mr. Watson is not senile yet. But he was his old self: smug, puerile, and eager to ridicule his favorite scapegoat. Watson said that when he first met the president of the university, Hutchins was “still religious.” Then began the excruciating Watson laugh, a snuffling sound like an asthmatic elephant trying to expel popcorn that has somehow lodged in his trunk. So much for religion as something that might add something to human life. Could this be “that state of ‘not listening,’ of not submitting to higher courts of appeal…” that Gasset warned of in “these partially qualified men?”
Watson’s dislike of religion is more than just a personal animosity. He sees religion as an opponent of the project underway to perfect the human race through genetic engineering, a quest known in previous eras as eugenics or “racial hygiene”. Over thirty years ago, commenting on the recently decided case of Roe vs. Wade, he wrote the following lines:
“If a child were not declared alive until three days after birth, then all parents could be allowed the choice… the doctor could allow the child to die if the parents so choose and save a lot of misery and suffering.”
Well, maybe that was just an offhand comment, and Mr. Watson is really not such a narrow-minded product of specialization that he sees no limits to the omnipotence of science. Maybe he’s become wise with age. More recently, at a 1998 UCLA conference, he was quoted as saying, “I think it’s complete nonsense … saying we’re sacred and should not be changed. Evolution can be just damn cruel, and to say we’ve got a perfect genome and there’s some sanctity? I’d like to know where that idea comes from because it’s utter silliness … I mean, it’s crap.”
Well, at least Mr. Watson wants to restrict the use of genetic engineering to curing diseases, right? Alas, no, as is evident from his words in a recent British documentary. “If you really are stupid, I would call that a disease,” Watson says. Furthermore, “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great.” Although it is not pertinent, the professor’s favorite pick-up line from the ’60’s was to invite laboratory women up to his room to “see his Nobel prize.” Perhaps Gasset was wrong about the lack of culture of the scientific specialist.
Watson won the Nobel prize for the molecular biological equivalent of solving a jigsaw puzzle, but has become intimately involved in the debate over a transformation of medicine and biological science that could transform us beyond recognition. There is credible evidence that he was unethically given X-ray diffraction data created by the British chemist Rosalind Franklin, and then rushed the theory of DNA’s structure (co-discovered with Francis Crick) to publication in order to beat the more meticulous Franklin to the punch. To top matters off, Franklin died before the Nobel prize was given to the three remaining pioneers.
Watson is known as “honest Jim” for his candor. Unbelievably, his candor about his visions of the future of humanity does not seem to cause much alarm. Not all scientists are as blithe about tinkering with the genetic code as Watson is, but there are enough proponents of hard-core eugenics to give them a chance of dominating the debate. The favorite mantra of the techno-eugenicists is that genetic enhancement of the human race is inevitable. Therefore it’s futile to try to stop it or regulate it. The logic stops here, in other words.
The number of possible variations in the human genome is astronomical. If life continues for billions of years, no two naturally conceived human beings, other than identical twins, will ever be genetically identical. In the face of this infinite individuality, how can a mere human being, himself a product of these processes, hope to know what would make a superior human being? Traits that seem maladaptive to most of us are possibly, or even probably, adaptive from a higher perspective. How many geniuses of the arts and sciences have had strange eccentricities or outright bouts of insanity? By winnowing down the pool of genetic possibility, we may be massacring the true saviors and guardians of what makes human life a worthwhile adventure.
In his essay “The Sportive Origin of the State,” Gasset claimed that scientific-utilitarian analysis sees life as nothing but a process of adaptation to imposed necessity. Thus, science has blinded itself to the fact that “the first and original activity of life is always spontaneous, effusive, overflowing… ” Eyes didn’t appear because animals needed them. A species with eyes appeared spontaneously and created the splendor of the visual world. The vital principle selects from and takes over countless actions that living things perform out of “sheer exuberance.”
If there’s even a small possibility that Gasset is right, then we are facing not just a serious crisis, but the serious crisis. Gasset warned of the state subsuming all spontaneous human activity and leading to the decay and death of the society from which the state derives its vitality. How much more would be lost of our spontaneity and creativity if the very genesis of life is commandeered by utilitarian considerations?
Scientists of the persuasion of Watson dismiss such concerns as nothing but silliness or mystical illusions. They misrepresent those opposed to them as claiming that we are perfect as we are, and not in need of improvement. Those opposed to the new eugenics movement, however, make no such claim about human perfection or perfectibility. It is actually the genetic engineers who believe, without evidence, that humans are perfectible by a technical process. The opposition is varied and of many perspectives: religious conservatives are joined with progressive environmentalists and feminists. This unlikely alliance sees many possible, and some extant, drawbacks to a program of artificial genetic improvement. Unintended side effects have already killed some early recipients of genetic therapy. The ability to choose the sex of children has already led to the rejection and destruction of female embryos in India. Genetically engineered organisms have already contaminated crops. Molecular biologist Lee Silver, in his book Remaking Eden, frankly predicts a future in which a so-called superior GenRich class dominates a servile GenPoor class. Appropriately, he’s at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Think of his policy as a muscular Wilsonian foreign policy at the cellular level, or an effort to liberate our genetic potential from the tyranny of the ancienne regime of love and sex.
The profound error of the believers in a genetic solution to human folly and suffering is the same error made by all utopian thinkers. It is the error of believing that the willful manipulation of human nature, whether on the social, economic, or biological level, can ever lead to paradise. The potential of the human genome project to alleviate some human suffering is a valid, and perhaps compelling, reason to continue the research. Along with the splitting of the atom, however, it has let a second genie out of the bottle. How many of them can one finite world survive?