Christian Long

Barry Schuler: Genomics

In TED Talks on April 11, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Reflection by KYLE M.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Barry Schuler:  Genomics

When observing Mr. Schuler’s speech, a hauntingly relevant quote by Omar Bradley crept into my mind.

Addressing the subject of nuclear proliferation, he once predicted that technological progress without prudence could lead to a situation where “our servant may prove to be our executioner.”

Whether or not one echoes Bradley’s rather bleak sentiments on the subject, it’s difficult to not view Barry’s proposed “advancements” with an incredulous eye. Of course, on the face of it, none of his suggestions seem particularly unreasonable; throughout the majority of the presentation, he spends his time establishing the potential of genomics, or the ability to decode, understand, and rewrite the genomes of living organisms. The practical benefits he lists are numerous: he uses the example of a noir grape, and asks us to envision a somewhat Frankenstein-esque wine cellar, packed to the brim with chardonnays sporting superb tastes and aromas due to genetic modification; later, he moves on to human beings, proudly asserting the capacity for genomics to absolutely eradicate numerous diseases.

Yet, despite the superficial appeal of these notions, I cannot fathom them sitting well with the average person’s gut.

Perhaps it’s the callous aura emanating from his diction: he constantly refers to nature as a “toolbox” and advocates the splendor of “synthetic” genomes; neither of these claims, however true to reality they may be, aligns well with the popular perception of the universe’s sanctity. Maybe it’s the incessant contradictions that pepper his monologue; for example, Barry claims to believe a god is a much more intelligent designer than we are, yet finds it adequate to “correct” this being’s blueprints.

No matter the cause, people are going to find his ideas tasking to swallow, as evidenced by none other than the comment section on the TED website. “Man has taken what nature brings forward…and rapes it,” cries one user, while another bellows on about how dangerous it is to “start playing with DNA.” This tone is not exclusive to a few key posts; the page flourishes with trepidation about Barry’s ideas, with only a scarce smattering of dissidents offering approval. Who can blame them; life is a rightfully cherished entity. Barry’s propositions are counter-intuitive in that regard; a bounty of negative reactions is only natural.

Still, as expected as they may be, there is hardly anything substantial behind the prevalent objections. Mankind has been conditioned by religion and the media to view science as a potentially monstrous beast, proficient in the art of contorted mutations and apocalyptic misfires, yet no tangible evidence that would demonstrate the adverse consequence of genomics yet exists. Vague clamoring about “rape” and “danger” ultimately rings hollow without sufficient support; it’s perhaps best we submit to the logical benefits the process entails and throw any unsubstantiated calls for alarm to the wayside.

Is Barry playing god and treating life a little too much like an operating system in need of the latest patch? Indubitably, and I imagine he’d be the first to acknowledge it; nevertheless, Mr. Schuler closes his speech with an utterly crippling gambit: if one could cure disease, end hunger, and produce clean energy, wouldn’t one? Despite the somewhat unsettling utilitarian mindset behind the question, it isn’t one I can conceive of being refuted, especially when the only cause for worry is a tenuous collection of ill-defined warnings on “meddling with nature.”

I’d posit that a meddle-free nature is highly overrated.

Evolution didn’t intend for humans to fly, yet our lives are demonstrably better as a result. We had no idea if such an outlandish concept would prevail, but such is the ironic nature of science; in order to achieve the comfort of knowledge, one often needs to take a leap of faith into the unknown.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: