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On Cloning and Other Experiments with DNA

Last evening I was watching the last part of a program on public television that I had seen before, on the problem of making contact with other life in the universe. Pictured was a Christmas tree, with a large number of twinkling lights on it. The narrator was describing the importance of timing in sending out signals to other beings and listening for a response. For contact to occur, someone must be listening at the same time someone else is sending.

Assuming that the scene of the tree represented the life of the universe, and each light represented an intelligent species randomly appearing and disappearing (as all do, as far as we know), the possibility that any two species might be alive at any one time is represented by their lights being visible at the same time. It has appeared that individual species on Earth have a life span of about four million years. The Human species, it seems, is about midway in its life span, and only now does it have the capacity to think about and do something about communicating with other possible life in the universe—only in the last one hundred years, as a matter of fact. So (and the lights on the Christmas tree were then timed in shorter bursts), the possibility that such attempts at contact will be successful becomes half as much. That’s assuming that each species makes such attempts in a persistent manner. If not, then the possibility that one species is sending out signals at the same time another species somewhere is listening for signals becomes less and less likely. The lights on the tree flashed more briefly, until very often only one or two lights were visible at the same time—even though the total number of lights remained the same.

The visual analogy was very clear. Even if many intelligent species appear in the universe throughout time, the odds of contact between any two are extremely small. And on top of that, one has to consider that the signals themselves take time to travel from one galaxy to another—often longer than the life span of the individual species sending or receiving.

Still, humans are inquisitive creatures, and sometimes persistent beyond what one might think is logical. So, a number of projects are currently underway to search for other intelligent life in the universe.

Just as we collectively have begun searching for the communicative needle in the cosmic haystack, we search for answers to other questions. How does life happen? What is the spark that turns matter into living things? If we correctly assemble all the biological pieces, will our assembly, like Pinocchio, become a real boy?

We have assembled living cells in a successful attempt to clone already living creatures. We envision altering our own DNA code in order to do away with diseases and malformations. We are cooperating with evolution to produce a more perfect species. We are attempting to take control of our own life process.

Whether we "should" be doing this (assuming it’s not our place) or whether we know enough to anticipate the ultimate consequences of our actions, it’s likely that we’ll continue. It seems as presumptuous to say that we don’t have the right to search for answers to our questions—no matter how far-fetched they are—as it does to think that we can ultimately create life itself. If it turns out (a la Brave New World) that we can create people to do the work we design them for, then perhaps that’s simply mimicking the process that already exists in evolution. And that process, we know, is full of false starts and wrong (meaning unsuccessful) turns. The passenger pigeon, that not long ago darkened the skies with its numbers, is no more. One might say that humans cut its life off, that our greed or whatever ended its process prematurely. The fact is, we don’t know what plans, if any, evolution had in mind for the passenger pigeon. Did it have any?

Does evolution know what it is doing, any more than we do? Does the process know where it’s going? And how can we say with any certainty what part we humans are to play in the drama? We do have to acknowledge that our species is equipped with that inquisitiveness that has us searching the infinite heavens for evidence of other life and probing into the mechanics of life itself. Just because we don’t know what mutations—or what impelled those mutations—brought us up out of the primordial ooze to send radio signals to Alpha Centauri or manufacture an identical twin of a sheep, doesn’t mean that these things are not legitimate manifestations of The Big Picture.

Still, that does not seem to give us carte blanche to do whatever we want. Our inquisitiveness might be born into us, inherited from our sources, and as legitimate as breathing. So, also, is our sense that we belong to a larger something, in which meaning is important. Wisdom, whether it comes to the individual from her own direct experience or indirectly from the accumulations of countless others, suggests some direction for desirable actions. The consequences of what we do extend beyond the individual, beyond this moment. What an action means may be open to different interpretations; that it might mean something is an awareness built into our species.

Perhaps that awareness is part of our undeniable inquisitiveness--a search for meaning. The question "Is there intelligent life in the universe?" carries with it much larger, if unspoken, questions. What does it mean? Why am I here? How do I make sense of my life? And those same questions float behind the curiosity, "Can I make a new living being out of these cells?"

The mystery of life, large as it is, seems just the tip of the iceberg.

 

April 19, 2000

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