Chronicle of the Future The Gene Genie
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Stanley Miller
Stanley Miller

Miller's simulation of the production of amino acids, the basic elements of living systems has, so far, led nowhere

The one big breakthrough seemed to have happened at the University of Chicago in 1953 when Stanley Miller passed an electrical charge, a simulation of lightning, through a mixture of chemicals that attempted to match those present on earth at the time life is thought to have begun. Amino acids, the basic elements of living systems, were formed. This, it seemed, demonstrated that life could indeed emerge from basic chemistry.

Miller's results have, so far, led nowhere. Nobody has yet shown how anything more complex than amino acids - proteins, RNA, DNA - could have formed. In the near future it is likely these experiments will be taken further. Some form of replicating, lifelike molecules will be created in the lab. Indeed, one American scientist recently announced he would soon be able to do just that. This may have little significance in terms of practical applications, but it will make the crucial point that life really is an artificially repeatable chemical process.

At the same time, improvements in astronomy - primarily via the Hubble telescope - will find more planets orbiting stars. Twenty have been found already, and it seems likely that we shall find hundreds if not thousands more. When combined with the "artificial life" developments in the laboratories, this will increase the conviction that there is indeed other life in the universe. Life elsewhere will come to seem a likely rather than a wildly improbable event.

The effect of all these developments will be to continue the long process whereby we, the human race, persuade ourselves that we are nothing special. The question then becomes: how will we react?

The worst outcome would be that it would lead to a further devaluation of our moral and cultural status. One superstition - that of our privileged place in the cosmos - would be replaced by another; that of our complete insignificance. We would conclude that, far from having found the secret of life, Watson and Crick had really found that it was no secret at all and that the mystery we feel at the heart of our existence is nothing more than a consoling illusion.

This would be dangerous, for the simple reason that it is not true. The hard scientific view that human consciousness can be accounted for is an elementary error, a confusion of categories. Say, for example, a scientist explains everything about me from my evolutionary background to the detailed biochemistry of my brain and body. Say he even shows the neural pathways of my every thought and memory. Once he had done this he might say that what I call my unique experience and consciousness was merely an epiphenomenon of this long, causal chain.

But, for me, it would remain the phenomenon. Nothing whatsoever would have been changed by his explanations. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched." I would feel as free as I did before; free, indeed, to deliberately evade the logic of the scientist's causality. I would feel that nothing of ultimate significance had been explained.

If that is the case, then the science of life explains far less than the scientists claim. It has no ultimate human or moral significance. We remain what we were before - morally free and responsible entities with a long cultural history that sustains our intuition that we are special. If we sacrifice this intuition on the altar of scientistic rhetoric, we are doomed to a shrunken future, one in which we lose all sense of the significance of ourselves and our actions, and one in which, ultimately, we shall become extinct. The fight for human survival is, before it is anything else, a philosophical struggle. If we lose, we shall not have been destroyed like the dinosaurs by some external catastrophe, but rather because of an internal failure, an abandonment of that which makes us what we are - our imagination and the unique ethical truth of what it is to be human.

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