Chronicle of the Future The Gene Genie
James Watson
James Watson

Watson says that people want grandchildren and they fear the problems of the homosexual life

Even leaving aside the moral issues, the practical dangers are obvious. Say we find a gay gene and allow parents to abort foetuses that bear it. People, as James Watson once pointed out to me, want grandchildren and they fear the problems of the homosexual life. And so, if they have the chance, they will undoubtedly abort in large numbers. Free-market eugenics will have arrived and the next Michelangelo - perhaps the greatest artist known to be gay - will be denied a life.

Or, in the case of cloning, who will be the buyers? Certainly the infertile - you may think they have a fair case. But who else? The vain (it is clearly an act of vanity to watch yourself as in a genetic mirror). Or those, as long as they have enough money, who have difficulty reproducing through normal, stable relationships - the schizophrenic, the psychotic, the criminal; the last people, in other words, we would wish to see cloned.

These may appear to be extreme and implausible scenarios. But they make the crucial point that taking control of life is a qualitatively different scientific act from any that has gone before. It represents a fundamental change in our status as human beings.

We have come this far - attained our current precarious balance - by largely accepting the autonomy of the living world. Of course, agriculture and medicine have always manipulated its processes. But these manipulations were only at the margin. Human reproduction has generally remained in its natural condition. We use contraceptives and we abort on a massive scale, but in essence we are still at the mercy of nature's lottery. It is this coexistence of nature and culture that defines what we, over thousands of years, have become. And yet now, over a few decades, we are preparing to change everything.

Why should we do this? Because we have accepted the principle of radical change implicit in the scientific vision. For many scientists this is raised to the level of a moral code. We must change because it is our destiny. Human success, they point out, has always been based on the restless demands of the inquiring mind. It seems likely, according to evolutionists, that the great advantage our distant ancestors, the Cro-Magnons, had over their rivals, the Neanderthals, was their logotaxia - their love of information. In the West for over 400 years, modern science has ordered this impulse and given it a new, systematic power. Affluence and success inevitably followed. We live longer and in greater comfort thanks to science's invasion of the natural world. Surely, therefore, we have no choice but to continue this project wherever it may lead. And if it leads us to transform life itself, then so be it.

It is important to be clear about the exact assumption behind this attitude, the assumption that science is right about everything. We must presume this, otherwise the risks we are about to take would obviously be far too great. Both Watson and Crick have said that the idea that drove them on to the unravelling of the structure of DNA was antireligious. They wished to show that vitalism was wrong, there was nothing special about life and no need for God. Life was chemistry and, ultimately, physics. In broader terms: the world is made of scientifically analysable matter and can, therefore, be accounted for in purely physical terms. Science is the only source of true wisdom.

This is why understanding life in general and human consciousness in particular became so important to scientists. Life needed to be brought within the competence of science if the case that the world was physically accountable was finally to be proved. As an indecipherable black box it was an affront to the claim of scientific omniscience.

But more needs to be explained than simply the fact of life. Much more problematic is human consciousness. We can see what life does. We can even see what we do in the same terms: we are born, we eat, die and reproduce, like other creatures. But we think about those things, we reflect on our actions, we are aware of the reflections of others and we construct the whole vast edifice of human civilisation on the basis of those reflections. So even our birth, eating, death and reproduction, our most elementary biological functions, are wrapped in rituals and meanings. This, surely, would remain a mystery beyond scientific explanation.

Of course, it could not if the physical account of the world was to be complete. And so, in the post-war period, alongside the developments in the biology of life, massive efforts were directed at the problem of human consciousness. What was it and how did it work? Initially this was based on the idea of information and the associated technology of computers.

From the construction of the first computers during the second world war, it was thought that the way they worked was related to the way the brain worked. They did calculations and that was what we did. We might think we were feeding the cat but, at some ultimate, unconscious level, we were solving equations. As computers grew smaller, faster and more powerful, people became increasingly convinced that, at some point in the future, they would become brain-like. Some threshold would be crossed, and the machine would start to think for itself.

Alan Turing, the great mathematical theorist of the computer, devised the Turing test to establish when this had finally happened. Somebody would be able to talk to a computer and to another person, both concealed from him. If he could not tell the difference, then that computer must be judged to be intelligent.

In fact, 50 years later, no machine in the world comes close to passing the Turing test. The hopes of the early computer builders were wildly overoptimistic. Computers can play world-class chess, control stock markets and do many mechanical things that humans cannot; but when it comes to the most important things that we do think for ourselves, reflect on our actions and learn through complex interaction with our environment they are hopeless. Even when it comes to walking round a room, computers are little more impressive than they were 30 years ago.

This failure has been a serious setback for the materialist world view, because it seems to suggest that human consciousness may lie beyond the reach of science. Powerful arguments have emerged against the whole idea of computer modelling of the brain.

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