STORY, PHOTOS, and SLIDESHOW by GEOFF DAVIES
A half-packed hall heard Dr. Nik Rose reveal the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. For free.
And just like in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, it’s 42.
But as Dr. Rose explains, it’s four AND two, four being the number of bases in DNA, and two referring to the 1s and 0s of binary code.
Not only do these numbers shape lifeforms, says Dr. Rose, but also our new understanding of how these numbers work has reshaped how we view lifeforms.
Dr. Rose presented this idea – borrowed from Yang Huanming at the Beijing Genomics Institute – and others in his lecture Engineering Selfhood in the 21st Century on Oct. 13, 2009 at the University of King’s College. It was the first in the Trust in the New Sciences: Remaking the Human lecture series, put on jointly by CCEPA and the Situating Science Cluster.
“We’re in the middle of a transformation and we don’t know how it will end,” says Dr. Rose, an expert in bioscience at the London School of Economics. “Some new image of the human is beginning to emerge.”
There was a time when a person’s ability to change their body only went skin-deep, says Dr. Rose. Back then we could tattoo each other, or change our appearances with plastic surgery.
Now, with advancements in genetic science, we understand how our bodies work at a molecular level, and we’re starting to figure out how to retool ourselves at that level, says Dr. Rose.
Dr. Rose argues that this new power is having a profound impact on both the bodies and souls of humanity. We can’t simply see ourselves as just a brain or just a body anymore, because we can now intervene and manipulate both. We can no longer cordon off the realm of selfhood as sacred and untouchable. Instead, we now see ourselves as a bundle of genetic factors, each helping to create the self. Whether it’s my blue eyes, my predisposition to the piano, or how I’m prone to Celiac disease, I can now pin responsibility on my genes. And I can change my genes.
In this way, Dr. Rose says, scientific understanding has led to humanity adopting a new responsibility and a new control over humans. A barrier has been broken, and now the question we face is where to build the next one.
As our ability to intervene on ourselves grows, so does the urgency of the ethical questions at hand. Genetic science has shattered many tenets of traditional humanism, causing lots of philosophical grief, says Dr. Rose. One of the many questions we must now ask is How far is too far?
But we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves just yet. Despite the fact that there are even little businesses popping up built around mapping one’s personal genetic code – Scan Me, Decode Me, and others – we’re closer to the beginning of this scientific revolution than the end, says Dr. Rose. Cloning Dolly didn’t give us divine power, and to think otherwise is scientific hubris, he says.
But the bottom line is we can now pop the hood of the human being. We’d better do some thinking before we throw a wrench in the works.
Dr. Nik Rose’s lecture was the first in the five-part series Trust in the New Sciences: Remaking the Human. Between October and April, CCEPA and the Situating Science Cluster will be taking this show on the road, with lectures in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, and Halifax. Check out the next one in Vancouver on Jan. 26: Science Friction: Personalised Genomics and the Future of Medicine, with Drs. Michael Hayden and Anita Ho.