Monday, April 2, 2012

Too clever by half

Do you share my affection for the Disney classic, 'Fantasia'? I've loved it ever since I was a child. I'm sure you know it.
Do you remember the moment when the conductor, Leopold Stokowski, launches the Philadelphia Orchestra into the story of 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice'?
In his master's absence, the Apprentice, Mickey Mouse, has the inspired idea of magically producing a troupe of active brooms to save him the menial task of cleaning.
It's only when the brooms develop equally inventive ideas of their own that the chastened Apprentice learns his lesson - the lesson that it's far easier to create than to control!

I thought of those wayward brooms on several occasions last week. The first was on Wednesday when I was listening to the 'Today' programme.
In the middle of cleaning my teeth, I was brought up sharply.
What was this about artificially-engineered organisms?

"One of Britain's top research priorities," we were told, "is the extraordinary new field of what's called 'synthetic biology' where scientists design and create artificial DNA to produce everything from medicines to fuels to materials."

The reporter went on to say that the government hoped that this new science would play an important part in economic growth. Environmental campaigners, it appeared, were warning of the risks of creating artificially-engineered organisms. But this piece of information was only added as an afterthought.

Later in the day, I came across another rather startling news item on-line. With growing apprehension, I read:

French researchers have shown how to apply the ideas of 'optical cloaking' - the endeavour to make a Harry Potter-style cloak - to the thermal world.
"We can design a cloak so that heat diffuses around an invisibility region, which is then protected from heat," Sebastien Guenneau explained.

My sense of unease was further fuelled on Thursday morning. Once again listening to the 'Today' programme, I heard an interview in which Professor John Pickett explained field trials were under way of a genetically modified variety of wheat. This wheat, it appeared, had been designed to reduce the damage done by aphids. It was, the professor insisted enthusiastically, wholly beneficial and nothing could go wrong.
"Nothing? You can say that as a scientist?" queried the interviewer. Professor Pickett insisted that the chances of anything going wrong were miniscule.

I'm sure that Mickey Mouse would have said exactly the same.

Elsewhere last week there seemed to be constant debate on the contentious subject of energy. It's widely hoped that shale gas (regardless of the risk of fracking-induced earthquakes) will reduce the West's dependence on overseas oil. In addition, synthetic, man-made DNA is providing algae with synthetic genes in order to create an artificial form of fuel.
Every country would appear to be sending out the same message: whatever the cost in terms of risk and uncertainty, energy supplies must be increased in order to fuel mobility and, at the same time, promote competitive economic growth.
But is this wise?

As a species we are clever. There's not the slightest doubt about that. Our top scientists are brilliant. But do we want more cleverness? Do we even want more brilliance?
Surely the crying need in our troubled world is for wisdom?

May I suggest the unthinkable?
That we stop modifying genes, that we pull back from tampering with creation by means of synthetic biology, that we pause for a moment . . . just a moment . . . and reflect.

What is it that really needs to change . . . who is it that is crying out to be modified, refined, and remodelled . . . which is the species that needs to evolve in order to live lightly on the earth . . . might it not be us?