Thursday, June 3, 2010

Human Hubris – “We Created Life (In a Lab)”

Several weeks ago we were treated to the following headline on CNN, "Genetics pioneer J. Craig Venter announced Thursday that he and his team have created artificial life for the first time."

Under closer scrutiny, it turns out that Venter's team had used code created on a computer to sequence DNA that was then placed in an already living bacteria, and "reprogrammed" it – they used the term "booted it up."

This speaks again to two important points.

First, that there is an underlying aspect of natural life that follows logical laws and programs that can be altered genetically, just as we reprogram software in our PCs. If I change the code for a web page, for example, it displays differently in a web browser. Turns out if I change the genetic structure of a cell, it behaves differently.

But then the second question arises, where did the cell itself come from? – it turns out that it is life that was already in existence – it was not "created" in a laboratory.

And based on the genetic code, what is it really doing? It is interacting with an environment according to laws being unearthed daily by geneticists, biologists and even quantum physicists and more and more we discover that is doing so intentionally.

Bruce Lipton, in his book The Biology of Belief describes his own epiphany as a biological researcher when he discovered that the same single cell bacteria with identical DNA will behave differently in different environments (they don't really have brains). It led him to the conclusion that the brain of the cell is not the nucleus (or the DNA, which we can now sequence) but rather the cellular membrane, that exchanges energy with the environment and in effect decides what to do next.

In the computer analogy with life, it turns out that what we can replicate genetically is simply the code, which is amazing enough, but using the web page analogy, it means that we know how to rewrite the HTML, but we still have no idea of how to create a "natural" web browser (the organism that manifests the code and responds to input from the user and the Web (environment) -- or the intelligence behind it.

The problem for our civilization is becoming more and more apparent.

Our incredible scientific achievements have certainly given us what seems like mastery over our environment – until an event like the BP Oil Spill occurs.

I believe that the reason this is so troubling to so many people is that it is a stark reminder that we're not as smart as we think we are, and that when we follow our analytical minds at the expense of our emotional senses in the belief that "we know better", we get into some serious trouble.

I might add that it is not just BP that is at fault. Our entire culture has blindly followed the flag of "progress" and technology to this brink of self extermination—to the extent that we drive on the freeway and power our air conditioners, we are all part of the problem.

BP itself is an interesting phenomenon. It is a corporation comprised of organic beings but dedicated to an abstract concept – profit. One could say that its DNA (corporate bylaws?) program it one task – maximizing shareholder value.

Where does its lofty mission statement fit in? Probably in that part of the corporate brain that is similar to our own – dedicated to rationalization and self delusion.

The Oil Spill is just the latest in many events that dramatize our disconnection from the natural universe of which we are a part (and now technologically apart).

If you read the mission statements of credit card companies, tech firms, law firms and any other corporate entity, and compare them to their actual behavior you will see the same disconnect.

Watch commercials on television and you will think these are wonderful companies creating products and services for the benefit of mankind. Get into a conflict with any corporate entity and discover how human they are as you try to navigate through a voicemail menu specifically designed to keep you from talking to another human being.

The same technology that has provided so many real benefits to mankind, and many through corporations that have brought them to market, has also now separated many of us from our own natural feelings and better instincts in order to achieve what the mass media suggests will satisfy us – wealth, fame, a full head of hair, and so on.

No wonder so many people are on antidepressants and unhappy – even when they have attained many of the material rewards our culture can provide.

In his book (and upcoming film) Life Inc., Douglas Rushkoff maintains that "most Americans have so willingly adopted the values of corporations that they're no longer even aware of it."

To me that is why the BP Oil Spill is a wakeup call. As we discover inevitably (as 60 Minutes has already reported) that the entire episode might have been avoided if safeguards and regulations had been put into place – but for the exigencies of profit and performance (getting the oil out faster), maybe people will realize the consequences of making real corporate values of pure profit (and not their mission statements) as priorities.

Of course in this case it is so dramatic and tragic how these values impact not only the human species, but all life on the planet and particularly the oceans. While global warming is in the headlines, the oceans have already taken many body blows with toxic chemicals and wastes and many "dead zones" where no life can exist. This will only make it much worse.

The question is whether this will truly wake us up? Many humans and animals will suffer, to be sure, and the extent is yet to be determined—every gallon that leaks into the sea increases the jeopardy for organic life on the planet.

It is interesting that many (and I include myself) see social media as a hopeful sign for calling corporate entities to account and reintroducing the voices of individual humans into the discussions of what matters most in our world.

So far, predictably, there is a movement to boycott BP on Twitter and that certainly has its place.

But I think we need to look much more deeply into our entire relationship with the natural world out of which we come, and in which we live. We need to realize that we still cannot "create life"; we can manipulate it and certainly threaten it and maybe even make ourselves extinct.

Or we can continue our evolution by reexamining our relationship with the natural world, with our scientific breakthroughs as a guide, and realize that whether you believe the natural world was created, evolved or just simply is – it represents a level of mind and intelligence far beyond our own, and when we think we know better, we do so at our peril.

Life, the earth, existence and indeed the universe itself is sacred in a way that transcends all of our arguments about religion or philosophy. We've shot a puny spacecraft out of the solar system; the universe is vaster than we can even comprehend or imagine.

We are better served by also feeling and sensing our rightful relationship with what is – and consciously proceeding based on a degree of reverence that it sometimes takes a disaster to make us understand.

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