There are several moments in Christoper Preston’s essential new book that describe how new technologies mark ‘completely new territory’, or ‘a giant philosophical leap in terms of how we view life’, or, whimsically, as ‘the Regenesis’. While many are self-proclamations from the technology’s creators, the message is still the same: the human race is about to enter a new era in environmental manipulation.
What else is new? Hasn’t every generation thought its discoveries could spell the end of the world, or presage the start of a new one? Nevertheless, argues the science writer, ‘we are at the dawn of a new age... Humans are no longer just surrounding ourselves with new materials. Our species also is gaining the ability to reengineer a number of key planetary purposes.’
The Synthetic Age runs through these technologies, from atmospheric engineering that could turn down the sun’s heat, to the reintroduction of extinct species, to new feats in nanotechnology which could give ordinary materials such as carbon and silicon powerful properties. In a scary chapter, Preston details how synthetic biologists have created cells from scratch in a bid to create useful life forms. Such artificial microbes could generate fuel or consume carbon dioxide pollution. Sounds good. However, he shows how this would spell the largest rupture from the Darwinian nature. While all cells today are rooted to 3.5 billion years of evolution, ‘a synthetic organism literally has no ancestors... nothing has been passed down. Nothing has been inherited.’ Even genetically modified organisms and the fictional dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were created from pre-evolved material. Frankenstein’s monster too.
Preston does not write off all new inventions, celebrating where new tech has cured disease, improved lives or made everyday practices more sustainable. Rather, he anticipates that it will be a moral minefield, with each new form of control presenting questions to everyone from the most environmentally-conscious hippy to the shrewdest entrepreneur (perhaps especially the hippy entrepreneur). ‘Can has never automatically entailed should,’ he emphasises. To Preston, as important as the discoveries themselves is the need to have the widest and fairest discussion about them. Doing that ‘is perhaps the worthiest political task of our time.’
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