Saturday, January 26, 2008

life is digital

My brother sends me a link to a WaPo article about a team of scientists in Maryland who are on the cusp of creating artificial life.

This is the future. It boots nothing to say we are "playing God" or "opening a Pandora's box." Religious language merely adds unnecessary drama; it instills fear and kills genuine debate. More than anything, we need to be able and willing to talk openly about these developments, to speculate coolly together on where they may lead, to palpate and push at the ethical boundaries and decide if there exist any lines we should not cross-- and why. And we need to do this again and again.

DNA is a program, and we're beginning to learn how to read and manipulate it. Life is digital, if I may use a computing metaphor: it is composed of parts that can be rearranged, reconfigured, and reassembled, thereby producing visible, tangible results. The discovery of the existence and manipulability of DNA provides us the ultimate evidence that humanity shares, at an intimate level, a historical continuity with the rest of the biotic world: what can be done to the "lower" animals can be done to us. More than the fossil record, our genetic makeup drives home the point that we are the products of evolution. Moreover, we are reaching a long-anticipated point in human history: the ability to take the reins and guide our own evolution from here on in.

How anyone can remain a creationist in the face of such evidence is beyond me. The same goes for a belief in humanity's "special" or "chosen" status. At the same time, the fact that our fundamental parts are both similar to and interchangeable with parts found in other beings is evidence in favor of those processual worldviews that teach us that we are all fundamentally interconnected, that all is constant change (and exchange).

Where do we go from here?


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