Once upon a time, in 1875, a law was passed in the United Kingdom that restricted the use of gunpowder and explosives for safety reasons. Everyone at the time thought is was a good progressive law to pass, because it limited the use of dangerous materials to things like warning flares.
The longer term implications painted a very different story. The Germans without the hindrance of such legislation developed with their V2 bombs. The Americans and Soviets did as well, with the German scientists only enhancing their knowledge. And from there we had the space race culminating in the Apollo missions landing on the Moon. And the United Kingdom? They eventually made what turned out to be a half hearted attempt with the Black Knight programme.
The moral of the story is that legislation can change we can develop as a society.
Fast forward to next week. There will be a summit in Washington discussing whether or not to band gene editing worldwide. See here for details.
Gene editing can help people who would otherwise cripples or have other nasty diseases. So why should the society stop what is good for society in general? Why should we make these people’s lives miserable when they can be happy?
The trouble is where do you draw the line for gene editing? Why should a rich person get themselves a designer baby with all the good aspects when others can only get the basic gene repairs on the national health? What would be considered a disability in the future? Not having high bone cheeks or blond hair?
Now here’s a couple things to consider:
- We as a species have always been developing ‘better’ specimens through breeding programmes. The cattle of today have been breed for their efficiency to produce good milk and meat. The flowers of today have breed to produce lovely scents and delicate petals of all colours and hues. So gene editing in many ways is a fast track to changing a species. The only real difference is that we humans have more chance to get used and find ways of dealing with new species’ developments.
- If we do gene-editing en masse, we are in danger of losing some basic gene material. That gene material could have helped the human race to survive in the past and if those conditions return, we would not have the natural defences to deal with them.
- Even if there was a worldwide ban on gene editing, we still know how it is done. It means that people can do gene editing illegally. In these circumstances, there would not be the oversight to see that it is done properly with safeguards in case things go wrong. Is it not better to have that oversight rather than force things like this into the criminal fraternity?
Ever since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H G Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, we have been well aware of the potential for breeding monsters. Science fiction has in effect written about the proposals, nuisances and discussions about what is acceptable and not.
So how much notice are the scientists at the Washington summit going take from science fiction? I have a nasty suspicion not a lot, but I could be very wrong.
In any event, relevant science fiction stories should be included in debate because they articulate the ‘What if?’ scenarios. These in turn would inform the debate.
One thing that does really worry me is the apparent lack of interest by the UK government in working to produce and maintain good legislation with respect to technologies.
Let me give you another example. President Obama has signed into law the right for US citizens to own and commercially exploit (in the first instance this will mean mining) property in space such as asteroids. See here for details. Can a UK citizen do that? I mean own and commercially exploit space minerals? It means we as a country are at commercial disadvantage compared to the Americans. Certainly this is not good news for British citizens.
And again, asteroid mining has long since been part of the science fiction cadre. So it’s not that we don’t know some of the ins and outs of the issues involved.
There is a whole wave of new technology heading our way. Some of it is already catered for by legislation, but as we’ve seen above there are significant chunks that still need a ‘legislative sorting out’.
And yet… it seems to me that a vast majority of science fiction being published today tends towards the fantasy end of the spectrum, just when we need the more scientific end of the genre to help us decide our future the most.
Part of the problem is there are so few speculative fiction writers who can draw on deep scientific knowledge to produce the cutting edge thoughts about what technology could really bring in the future. Anther part is the lack of encouragement by the publishing industry to write such stories. Yes, there are places such as Nature Futures that ask for short stories, but they are few and far between.
At this rate the human race as a whole will end up heading blindly into a disaster by creating and using a new technology, just because it did not look at ahead to understand the full implications of doing so. Yes, some the incoming technology could be that dangerous.
I wish I was kidding, but I know the latest short story I’ve written is only the tip of an extremely large and dangerous technology iceberg. And there are other icebergs waiting to be explored.