Engineering The Engineer

By Eric Le Roy

Content 18+ In reading Artem’s latest essay about genetic engineering “Genetic Engineering: A Moral Quandary or Humanity’s Evolutionary Pathway”, I am immediately struck by the fairness of the article. Thus it reads, mercifully, not like some ham-fisted polemic, but rather as the voice of someone quietly, but almost desperately, seeking answers to an event that is unmistakably (one could say ominously) gathering steam on the human horizon.

Now, as a failed idealist – which is to say a cynic – the only place I slightly part company with Artem is the italicized ‘optimism’ he tagged on at the end. Artem has faith in human civilization. I don’t. It’s as simple as that. Yes, of course we have the power within ourselves to stop all this ‘progress’ any time we want. Except that we won’t. It is not the human way. Unapologetically trampling everything in its wake, the homo sapien has always pressed forward, albeit giving an occasional bit of lip service to “Oh dear – genocide and mass extinction was never our intention!”

Nevertheless, the beat, as they say, goes on. Humankind has never had a weapon of war it did not ultimately use, whether we are speaking of sticks and stones or atomic bombs and chemical warfare (as when the Mongol army, riddled with bubonic plague, began catapulting plague-infected cadavers into the besieged Crimean city of Caffa, prompting an exodus from the city and further spread of the deadly pandemic on Genoese ships to Italy.) Now, as we look around, we can imagine nuclear missiles standing at attention side by side like skyscrapers in Hong Kong. Do you think they won’t be used one day? Will – to recall the old Joni Mitchell song ‘the bombers turn into butterflies’ or will they eventually be let loose like rabid atomic dogs?

As this pertains to the future of genetic engineering, I take my cue from the onslaught of robots and the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence mechanisms. I fail to see that any limits have been set; rather, like European ‘leaders’ discussing what to do about Vladimir Putin, there is a lot of discussion and no action.

There remain a majority of people in this world who claim to be religious, and I don’t doubt that they are. But these people are no longer driving world policy or shaping critical events, unless you count the Islamic wackos who insist on annihilating innocent people in their terrorist attacks. Aside from that, religion is nothing. The Pope can blather on and on, and no one cares. Moreover, the idea that this or that is ‘God’s Will’ has been antiquated for a long time. People have grown tired of ‘His’ mysterious ways and even more weary of watching calamity after cataclysm envelop them while God is inevitably out to lunch.

Raqib Shaw, Absence of God VII, 2009

Infant mortality of epidemic proportions – which was the social staple for centuries – was eradicated by science, not by God. Penicillin was discovered by a man, presumably only after one of God’s great Easter Egg hunts. The Old Testament heroes and heroines may have lived 250 years, but nothing since. Seas do not part; water does not become wine; the dead do not arise and walk around. Now, and only now, is science pushing life expectancy up the charts. Maybe one day, death will become obsolete, although the jury is still out on whether that is a good idea or not.

Fixing afflicted embryos (when not aborting them) seems like a great idea. Let’s be honest: deformed or autistic children need love as much as anyone else, but would any prospective mother and father ask for one? Wouldn’t it be great if all the psychopaths and serial killers could be tinkered with before birth – once their murderous proclivities were detected on ultrasound of course – and made into ‘normal’ people? But will it ever be possible to predict such behavior? Can many mental illnesses, instead of being congenital, simply grow out of the pressures of human experience – such as the alienation and marginalization and the chronic depression that emanates from these rat-warren piles of humanity that we now refer to as urbanization: mega or multi or ? – cities? 25 million inhabitants and counting in a few of them already?

Are we going to stop the flow of people into these cities? Are we going to magically shrink them down to size? No, we are not. Do we have the power to do so? Yes, probably. Will we? Absolutely not. And there are two main reasons for this:(1) the hard-wired human drive toward ‘pushing the limits’ and borderless expansion; and (2) the human lust for power and the money that goes with it – the super booster vitamin pill of human existence.

My view, therefore, is that we will never stop doing anything that we are capable of doing. Shoot first and ask questions later. Or, as my grandfather was fond of saying: “A Stiff Dick has No Conscience,” by which he meant (accurately in my opinion), our desire for gratification will always, sooner or later, trump the circumspection of our wisdom. The hysterical call for Profit will blind most everyone to the dangers of the potential Loss. All you have to do is analyze the great financial collapses that have occurred, such as Wall Street in 1929. The whole thing was fueled by greed. Do you see a different world if you look around now? I don’t.

So, like it or not, genetic engineering will proceed, just as other forms of technology charge forward. The people who push it on and on are, after all, ‘technicians’ not philosophers. Yes, we can think about the great ‘visionaries’ of human history, from Da Vinci to Henry Ford to Elon Musk – but ask yourself: were (and are) these men empowered more by insatiable curiosity than by a yearning for stability and preservation of ‘traditional values’? People like this stand as ultra-exceptional emblems of the human drive for more and more and more. Such innovators will never be curtailed by any sort of social conscience.

Artem – ever the humanitarian– at least halfway believes that humanity, in a miraculous rise of its collective conscience or body of long espoused ethics – will somehow ‘come to its senses’, foresee the dangers and forestall them from happening. But this assumes the possible triumph of human morality as it exists now – in this time and place. If putting a harness on unpredictable ‘ethical’ outcomes – future dilemmas guaranteed by genetic engineering – were simply a matter of decisions rendered at summits and seminars, then I might buy into it. The idea that we are ‘basically jolly good fellows’ – might win my ‘heart’.

But I detect a stronger, even implacable force at work, and that is the force of evolution. Think about it: why should WE, the homo sapien, represent the last frontier of evolution?. My, how presumptuous to believe that! I suggest that we are in a state of continuing evolution even as I write this reply today. And I sense that this FORCE is driven by ENERGY that has very very little to do with Human Morality. Make no mistake about it: the present human and its emerging AI ‘partner’ will assimilate, the one to the other and vice versa. Eventually you won’t be able to tell the difference. Call it the super human, the ultimate calculator, the mightiest algorithm. Call it The Goat. Or call it The Monster.

But get ready for it.

And of course…ah, alas and alack…with genetic engineering will gleefully emerge yet one more Criminal Class – just as with the internet. Super armies of cloned Nazis? Why not? What’s to stop it? Elite cliques with all the Money and Perfect Looks who scarf up all the Best Sex – while the dregs and drones of the leftover world skulk about the gutters crying for bread ? Bet on it ! Or maybe it will amount to nothing more than the same old Shit-Fest of scammers, con artists, and crooks, except operating on a level of cunning never seen before.

The reason I say this is because I have witnessed all my life how human beings can come up with one great idea after another, only to fuck it up with its dark crummy side. EVERY TIME. The homo sapien – point of fact – has destroyed everything it has come across. And ultimately, if logic prevails, it will destroy itself.

This will be, I fear, the sad climax of Genetic Engineering Unlimited, even as – for a little while longer – it trains its gaze outward to blank evenings of faultless form, exactitude of crafted symmetry, frozen in sunshine unlimited – incapable of spontaneity of any sort. And yes, the genetically contrived humanoid of the future will try to reach back sometimes – maybe its algorithmic construct jiggled by something that Jung might have labeled an archetype, or a shadow once – like a distant primordial river of the mind – and then it will blink and return, with a savage optimism, to the lockstep soldiery of its permafrost orb and its long march into a perfected, stainless day.