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Reinventing nature.

Every major economic and social revolution in history has been accompanied by a new explanation of the creation of life and the workings of nature. The new concept of nature is always the most important strand of the matrix that makes up any new social order. In each instance, the new cosmology serves to justify the rightness and inevitability of the new way human beings are organizing their world by suggesting that nature itself is organized along similar lines. Thus, every society can feel comfortable that the way it is conducting its activities is compatible with the natural order of things and, therefore, a legitimate reflection of nature's grand design.

For more than a century, our ideas about nature, human nature, and the meaning of existence have reflected the extraordinary influence of Charles Darwin' theory of the origin and development of species. It would be difficult for most of us to imagine a world without his theory to inform and guide our journey. Now, however, this pillar of twentieth-century thought is being shaken from its foundation. Our ideas about nature, evolution, and the meaning of life are being fundamentally revamped as we enter the Biotech Century. Even the language and text we use to describe the evolutionary process is being rewritten. The new ideas about nature that are emerging will likely reshape our consciousness, values, and culture as significantly as did Darwin's theory of evolution when it replaced the God-centered creationist view of Christianity more than one hundred years ago.

This is not to suggest that people's cosmologies are mere fabrications, as many social relativists claim. Some social critics would have us believe that our cosmologies have no real footing at all in the external world. The social relativists contend that our ideas about nature are completely subjective and bear no resemblance to the world as it exists in fact. While they are right in assuming that our ideas about nature are socially biased and deeply influenced by the cultural context in which we live, they are wrong in assuming that such ideas are without a basis in the "real" world. The fact is, our cosmologies are based on the workings of the real world, but only that small portion of the real world where society and nature interact. People learn things about nature in the process of organizing it. The things that they learn are useful. They allow people to interact with nature, to manipulate and appropriate it. The problem is that people take the things that they have learned about nature and puff them up in such a way as to create an all-encompassing explanation of the workings of the cosmos. Cosmologies, then, are distortions. They are society's way of inflating its rather limited "real world" relationship to the environment -- at any given time -- into universal truth. Cosmologies are made up of small snippets of physical reality that have been remodeled by society into vast cosmic deceptions.

Darwin's world, for example, was populated by machinelike creatures. Nature was conceived as an aggregate of interchangeable parts assembled into various functional combinations. This mechanical conception of living beings robbed sentient creatures of any remaining sacred qualities. The denaturing and mechanizing of the biological kingdom eliminated intrinsic value and replaced it with John Locke's notion of utility value. Most scientists, as well as the general public, came to share Rene Descartes' view of living creatures as "soulless automata," whose movements were little different from those of the automated puppetry that danced upon the Strasbourg clock.

Today's revised notions of evolution replace the idea of life as machinery with the idea of life as information. By resolving structure into function and reducing function to information flows, the new cosmology all but eliminates the idea of species integrity. Living things are no longer perceived as birds and bees, foxes and hens, but as bundles of information. All living beings are drained of their substance and turned into abstract messages. Life becomes a code to be deciphered. There is no longer any question of sacredness or specialness. How could there be when there are no longer any recognizable boundaries to respect? In the new way of thinking about evolution, structure is abandoned. Nothing exists in the moment. Everything is pure activity, pure process. How can any living thing be deemed sacred when it is just a pattern of information?

Eliminating structural boundaries and reducing all living entities to information provides the proper degree of desacralization for the bioengineering of life. After all, in order to justify the engineering of living material across biological boundaries, it is first necessary to challenge the whole idea of an organism as an identifiable, discrete being, with a permanent set of attributes. In the age of biotechnology, separate species with separate names gradually give way to systems of information that can be reprogrammed into an infinite number of biological combinations. It is much easier for the human mind to accept the idea of programming a system of information than the idea of engineering a dog, chimpanzee, or human being. In the coming age, it will be much more accurate to describe a being as a very specific pattern of information unfolding over a period of time.

In the new scheme of things, each species is "better informed" than its predecessor and thus better equipped to anticipate and control its future. If evolution is the increase in computational ability, then humanity is performing its proper role in the cosmic scheme by its relentless drive to process increasing stores of information in order to anticipate and control its own future. Kenneth M. Sayre, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, accurately describes humanity's newest rationale for the manipulation of nature when he writes in Cybernetics and the Philosophy of Mind:

Human beings ... excel in the acquisition of information,

and also in versatility of information gathering.... Since

superiority in information gathering and processing

amounts to superior adaptive capacities, this accounts

for human dominance over other kinds.

Suddenly the old Darwinian notion of "survival of the fittest" is replaced by the idea of "survival of the best informed." Mental acumen, not brute force, becomes the key to evolutionary advancement. Human beings -- the best "information processors" in the biological kingdom -- me now advancing the evolutionary process by downloading genetic information and reprogramming nature using engineering design principles and genetic engineering tools.

The new operations approach to the engineering of life, as well as the cosmological justification for going ahead with it, was first advanced more than half a century ago by Norbert Wiener in 7he Human Use of Human Beings. Wiener wrote: "It is my thesis that the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel in their analagous attempts to control entropy through feedback." That being the case, there is no reason whatsoever why bioengineering shouldn't proceed. If, as Wiener and his proteges in the fields of engineering and biology contend, living organisms and machines closely resemble each other, then bioengineering is just an amplification of nature's own operational principles. As such, bioengineering is merely a logical extension of, but hardly a radical departure from, the way nature itself operates.

But the new ideas about evolution offer much more than a convenient rationale. They delineate humanity's new responsibility. One hundred years after Thomas Huxley's eloquent defense of Darwin's theory, his grandson, Julian Huxley, takes up the banner of the emerging cosmology. Humanity, itself the product of evolutionary creativity, is now obligated, says Huxley in Evolution in Action, to continue "the creative process" by becoming the architect for the future development of life. Homo sapiens' destiny, he contends, is to be "the sole agent of further evolutionary advance on the planet." Humanity's new responsibility is momentous. All Darwin asked of people was that they compete for their own life. The new cosmology asks people to be "the creator" of life. Huxley says we have no other choice but to become the "business manager for the cosmic process of evolution."

Genetic engineering, Huxley and other biologists would argue, is the inevitable result of Alfred North Whitehead's "creative advance into novelty" that began with the emergence of the first organism. From the very beginnings of life, each organism has striven to enlarge its informational domain, to become "better informed." That the human mind has now become so well informed that it could actually conceive of using the vast amount of information at its disposal to engineer life is itself an acknowledgement of the entire evolutionary process at work.

Therefore, if one accepts the new explanations for how life organizes itself, one has little choice but to accept bioengineering as well. Not to do so would appear to violate the very process of evolutionary development. By the new cosmological thinking, bioengineering is not something artificially superimposed on nature but something spawned by nature's own ongoing evolutionary process. It is, in effect, the next stage in the evolutionary process. Any effort, therefore, to resist bioengineering would, in the end, be futile and self-defeating because it would fly in face of what is "natural."

Clearly, the role cosmology plays in rationalizing the new circumstances society finds itself in is critical. It is the least considered, yet most important feature of any new governing matrix and the linchpin upon which the entire edifice rests. It provides the all-important legitimizing context. For this reason, it is essential that the new cosmological narrative be closely examined. Our failure to do so might effectively shut the window to any possible future debate on the particulars of the Biotech Century. For once the revised ideas about evolution become gospel, debate becomes futile, as people will be convinced that genetic engineering technologies, practices, and products are simply an amplification of nature's own operating principles and therefore both justifiable and inevitable.

Jeremy Rifkin is the author of fourteen books on economic trends and matters relating to science, technology, and culture. He is president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C. This article is excerpted from chapter seven of his new book The Biotech Century (Tarcher/Putnam, March 1998).
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Title Annotation:Exploring the Foundations of Humanism
Author:Rifkin, Jeremy
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1998
Words:1689
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