- field notes
The 1.5 cultures problem. I recently found myself at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's research center in Silicon Valley for a workshop convened to imagine how biological engineering could help NASA explore space. This was a "blue-skying" type of workshop. Still, I was not prepared to hear an ethical case made for human colonization of other planets.
The engineers and scientists who presented hope this will be the century of biology. "If physics put man on the Moon, synthetic biology will help get men and women to Mars!" was a rallying call. A few of the possibilities they imagine: spacecrafts powered on biofuels cooked up in situ, biological life support systems driven by microbes, and maybe one day, photosynthetic humans able to turn sunlight into energy. I figured that such big ideas for the future must be commonplace at this agency and in this zip code, so what was more striking was the ethical spin the workshop took.
Prepared to be viewed as an outsider and claiming no special wisdom, I merely reported on some of the wider issues that have been raised about the synthetic biology movement, and I buttressed the case for the often-called-for and necessary conversations between critics and enthusiasts and between experts and the wider public. When I had finished speaking, a few attendees declared that there is an unambiguous ethical imperative for humans to go to Mars. We have so fouled the Earth that there is no option but to branch out to other planets (where, presumably, humans would be better stewards). Some said that merely asking questions, whether about safety or ethics, was a waste of precious time better spent engineering new technologies—and that any doubts were likely due to having received an inadequate science education.
It strikes me that some puzzling contortions are needed to conclude that the environmental crisis should have us thinking about inhabiting Mars. We're past the gulf between two cultures—science and the humanities—that C.P. Snow identified when he bemoaned that literary intellectuals knew The Tempest but not their thermodynamics. Now, instead of two cultures, it seems like we often have 1.5. The dominant view today is that most problems are technical in nature and that better-engineered solutions are the answer. The cost of this view is that the other side of Snow's divide is so poorly attended to that it scarcely counts as a contrast.
Technology is clearly part of our path forward, but the history that has precipitated the climate change crisis warns that technological fixes often come as a mixed blessing. The search for meaning, purpose, and goals—a quest conducted by asking questions—can be as important as proposing solutions. And yet sometimes our culture views this search, and the pursuits that add to it, as dispensable (consider the language, classics, and theater programs recently shuttered at a handful of universities). If—in John F. Kennedy's words—we "choose to go," it surely will be our choice to make and not an ethical mandate that eliminates the need for reflection. [End Page c2]