Stigmas or not, if Santayana had continued with his chemistry fascination he might have realized the eventual Scientific Method would value nothing so completely as reproducible results. Stigmas or not, lies or not. On that note, a bland classic gets a twenty-first century reality TV twist: the future is the past-- if we are ingenious enough to discern how to repeat it. In the battle over science in this country, the battle for America's very leadership on the world stage, there is no more exacting methodology to look to than this: experiment, so as to replicate the successes of prior scientific awakenings. This one's for you, George...
There once was a monkey from Scopes
With the 1859 publication of Darwin's groundbreaking treatise The Origin of the Species, evolution was inextricably bonded to religion in ways even a lovelorn Spanish philosopher could not deny. So all encompassing was Darwin's statement that it has borne out profound implications still decades after the fact. Although religion effectively hindered a complete and successful explanation of evolution for the masses, it did serve as the vehicle that brought the topic to the rural kitchen table for discussion. Why? Inherent to the worldview of most societies is an appreciation for mortality. While talk of sickle cell anemia may bring certain party conversations to a halt, almost everyone is invigorated by the interplay between science and religion because it speaks to our collective being, challenging our most deeply held convictions about the way we live and what happens when we die. Evolution has thus been packaged as "religion-lite," the only option possible for intellectuals. Scientists of other disciplines should look to this Madison Avenue branding technique as they lobby for research dollars and/or present industry debate for the public discourse. Re-think the problem, and then re-name it. Note that- as Chris Mooney reported in February, in the pages of Seed- some environmentalists are considering exchanging the dense phraseology of 'the greenhouse effect' for a more powerful image vis a vie 'carbon dioxide blanket.'
As proof of the efficacy of the above technique, take another walk with me down Not-so Memory Lane. It's 2005, it's Dover, Pennsylvania. There's Jim, the fundamentalist Christian carrying his gold leaf Bible, notorious traditions, and eerily compliant wife. There's the freethinking, funky liberal- a sprightly blond named Staci. She follows Jim from rally to rally, chanting hackneyed protest songs. "God. Good god, ya'll! What is it good for? Absolutely nuthin'." Staci is certain that if Jim has even one moment of peace, one moment where he can take a breath and smile at his glassy-eyed wife, he will destroy Western civilization as we know it. And it is on the periphery of these countless gatherings that every other kind of group- many with Christian affiliations- go about arguing the merits of intelligent design. Some predict a slippery slope until courses that touch on all belief systems are brought before students in schools funded by federal tax dollars. And there is just not enough hours in the day-- unless we cut out the 'readin', the 'ritin', and the 'rithmatic. (Bob Dylan attended one of the Dover rallies, and he remarked in passing, "I'm a big believer in religion. I've tried them all.")
The moral of the story is this: such challenges to the status quo enflame the populace. Where is the logic to scientists spending all their time lobbying Washington? The real power is in the PTA, in the school boards, in any number of a hundred different seemingly insignificant organizations that when grouped together equal unparalleled influence (misdirected or otherwise) on the mindset of average America. The average America, mind you, that is growing future Einsteins, future Curies, even a next generation crop of Nobels. Further, and perhaps most importantly, note that teaching the student evolution in school frames the opposing viewpoint for whatever he or she learns in church or at home. This develops and engages the mind in its own lifelong quest for truth.
It was a dark and stormy
"I take full responsibility for the papers and offer you my apology. My life will be spent undoing my wrongdoing. I can't ever repay the debt fully until I die. We've gone crazy, crazy about work and I've been blinded."-South Korean scientist Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk, to Reuters.
With the announcement that Suk falsified parts of his landmark stem-cell discoveries of 2004-05, the disgraced researcher found himself branded with a scarlet "F" for fraud. Amidst however brief an interlude, it appeared as though Suk had successfully helped un-write centuries of the lore that crisscrossed boundaries between spirituality and science-- the limits as to what the human mind could and would achieve. So goes the scientific law of the new millennium: for every "discovery," there is an equal and opposite force striving to undermine the results. An already ethically challenged field of research, stem-cell and cloning technologies suffered a major blow at the hands of the man who was once South Korea's biggest superstar.
"I sincerely apologise to the people for creating shock and disappointment. With an apologetic heart. . . I step down as professor." -Suk's perp walk, as recorded in the UK's Telegraph. Later, he added, "I emphasise that patient-specific stem cells belong to South Korea and you are going to see this." Regardless of the details, many scientists readily agree with him that the outcome he attempted to produce in his lab is not far off. Someone, some time soon, will do what Suk set out to.
For several years, Hollywood personalities have come out in droves in favor of stem-cell research. Many claim it has the potential to vastly alter the landscape of treatment options, more than a few have taken their quest to the U.S Congress, and along the way scores of people have been both enlightened and motivated. On the reverse side of the coin, with profiteering at the expense of fear as their overriding motive, authors and filmmakers have created works that seek to vilify scientific advancement and to frighten the American public into believing that any deviation from the norm will have horrific effects. Still, in the days to come, whichever science offers the casual observer a mixed cocktail of both hope and convenience will without a doubt be voted most likely to succeed.
In the Beginning was the Word 'Poll'...
Now, for something completely different- an informal and fairly unscientific survey... Recently, I asked ten people on a Philadelphia street what they thought of "designer babies." A sampling of the intelligible results:
Catherine, retail, 25: "Mattel makes those, right?" Mike, student, 15: "Do you mean making everyone smarter, or just better looking?" Ashley, homemaker, 42: "I've read about this. I wouldn't have wanted to know beforehand what my children would look like. My favorite fights with my husband were over which twin had whose nose... They both had mine, by the way. Lucky for them!"
The result of my street corner research was this: I'd learned I needed to be on the lookout for the great secret fear that keeps some parents awake at night, and just instills others with a healthy sense of worry or over-protectiveness. In that light, choosing to design children without that which predisposes them to disease... well, it's hard to argue with and easy to see why geneticists both domestically and abroad are working toward that goal at an ever increasing pace.
Hank, truck driver, 56: "It'll never happen, even though they keep talking about it. The drug companies won't let genetics get that far ahead of itself. It would cost them billions. And everyone in Washington is in their pocket." Aye, there's the rub... In the weeks just prior to the indictment of South Korea's Dr. Suk, the dog he genuinely cloned- Snuppy- celebrated his first birthday. Why, then, are we not making greater strides with human genetics? Certainly mores in this country prevent a large amount of research from being done, but what about the cost issue? Once again we see that the battle must be taken out of the hands of lobbyists and placed in the hearts and minds of Middle Americans. After all, if it were cheap enough, wouldn't opponents to stem cell research find the temptation too great? ("Junior has a predisposition to acne. What did you expect? You knew me in high school. We'll have him fixed.")
In all seriousness, if Ashley- homemaker- 42 could stretch a buck that far, it's hard to imagine she would have skipped the step of assuring that her perfectly nosed twins lacked any disease predispositions. Timothy, lawyer, 34: "And that's what people keep fighting about. It isn't like the concept cars of the new millennium. It isn't about drawing up perfect children either, or editing away the undesirables. It's about assuring a chance for normality."
Amazingly, the lesson we should take away from this last experiment is perhaps the most unscientific of them all. No one has any control over the journey of life and what we do with our "chance for normality." No amount of planning can take the place of living, of experimenting. If the future of science in America is to strive to replicate the successes of the past, than the journey is indeed its own reward. America will always sit at the head of the table because of its aversion to strict controls and oversight (when compared with the rest of the world) as well as its deep love of the exchange of ideas- the worship of invention and creation and experimentation in all its many forms. The future is deeply rooted in the past. As long as we honor that heritage we will never lack great stories to tell and- perhaps most importantly- we will never experience a shortage of ideas. That is our legacy to the world.
wednesday, october 25th, 2006