An interesting argument could be made that the success of the United States’ Apollo flights created the biotech revolution. Not only did the space program give a general boost to all the technological sciences, but after we landed on the moon, what goal was left? The subsequent shuttles and space stations were minor things, in terms of the human imagination, and the hunger for technological advance had to find other outletswhich, in the event, proved to be the creation of personal computers and the golden age of biology through which we are currently living.
No one will find this argument fully persuasive, mainly because it’s not. But the history of science fiction suggests that maybe the argument isn’t entirely fantasy. Go back to the old worksfrom the 1930s through the 1970sand look at how rarely biological transformation plays a role. There’s some, of course, beginning with the Morlocks and Eloi in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and the Alphas and Betas from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
But space flight and robotics are what more typically captured the imagination of science-fiction writers. Even their dystopiasand somebody needs to write the definitive account of how often science fiction manifested a deep mistrust of sciencewere much more often about the changes wrought by computers than the dangers of biotechnology. The futuristic visions of the science-fiction writers (“the dreams our stuff is made of,” in Tom Disch’s nice phrase) looked outward to the universe rather than inward to the human body.
This line of analysis gains some additional force from the recognition of how idealized and eschatological the hype about biotechnology is. The Lame Shall Walk! The Blind Shall See! All Will Be Healthy! All Will Be Wise! We make a mistake, I think, when we call the worst claims of modern biotechnology a revivified form of the old eugenics. Read the glowing stock prospectuses of the biotech companies, or the cheery eschatology of groups like the Raelians, or the high moral dudgeon of the press releases issued by medical-advocacy groups. This isn’t the language of hard-edged eugenics. This is a return of good, old-fashioned romanticism.
There may be tendrils, deep in the roots, that join eugenics to romanticism. The Nazis, for instance, clearly believed in eugenics, and it was fairly typical for early commentators to mutter darkly about the romantic origins of Nazism. But ever since the 1960s, that negative use of the word romantic seems to have decayed. Even more to the point, most of the actual supporters of eugenics in the twentieth century thought of themselves as realistsas the great opponents of romanticism’s dreamy unworldliness. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote in Buck v. Bell, the 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision authorizing involuntary sterilization of the mentally unfit. That isn’t the kind of thing you’d hear from Wordsworth, though you might find it in H.G. Wells.
The modern promoters of biotechnology are romantic visionaries, instead. They’re not selling anything resembling a viable technology; the endless failures and scams of the biotech revolution prove that beyond a doubt. No, what they’re selling are the dreams, from which they hope eventually the stuff will come: If enough of us buy the vision, we’ll pitch in and make it real. They’re selling a horizon and a goala purpose for human history.
As well they ought. The problem isn’t that goals are bad, but that this particular one is a bad goal. We’ve had awful experiences in modern times with the immanent eschatologies of the people who wanted either to build heaven on earth or to reestablish Edenwith Marxists and all the rest, who wanted, in one way or another, to achieve in this world the ultimate purposes of humankind. Mass murder seems to be the regular result of the political attempt to reach a cosmic horizon. But that’s not, in itself, an argument against all local horizonsagainst every strong cultural goal.
In fact, the distinction seems simple enough: Vibrant cultures want something; exhausted cultures don’t. And what do we actually want, today? For a thought experiment, imagine hearing this on tomorrow evening’s new shows:
The Vatican announced today that it will soon begin colonizing the planet Mars. Many parts of the mission remain unclear, but the plans to launch the first rocket from a pad on the island of Malta appear definite, with a tentative launch date in July 2010. The goal will be to establish a colony capable of sustaining itself within 20 years, with the long-range aim of completing the terraforming of Mars within 100 years. Accompanying the initial group of 142 Catholic settlers on the 297-day flight will be a priest and an auxiliary bishop from the diocese of Rio de Janeiro.
The geopolitical ramifications would be fascinating and perhaps even dangerous. How would a wealthy Islamic country such as Saudi Arabia react? Or the European Union, so desperate to deny its Catholic past?
But geopolitics are always fascinating and more than a little dangerous. The greater impact would be on the human imagination. We seem to aim at so little today, to have such small interests in mind. No wonder the biotech visionaries have gained a hearing: They claim to be going somewhere. Where they want to go is the destruction of human nature, but at least they are calling us to something beyond ourselves.
To be a religious believer is to know that the hungers of the human heart will not find fulfillment without God, but even religious believers benefit from goals short of the ecstatic vision of the divine. A people without any temporal horizonswithout any historical purpose or vision of the futuregrow enervated and decadent, and they begin to follow strange gods, who promise them meaning.
The science-fiction writers had it better: Space is the obvious next horizon for human beings. Want to diminish the biotech revolution to its proper role as a curer of disease? Offer a more exciting goal. Build a rocket ship, and fly it to Mars.