Human engineering has very conspicuously achieved a lot. From expansive bridges and undersea tunnels to space stations and complex urban environments, copious evidence testifies we know what we are doing. No doubt our ancestors would have viewed the modern smartphone as nothing short of magic.
However, achievements are less startling in the arena of organic life. Here we have engineered little or nothing from scratch; instead, we try to fix what we perceive as problems. Illness, injury, aging and even death and genetics have been addressed, but results are patchy at best. For example, many drugs only treat one problem whilst creating many others euphemistically termed side effects.
Given degradation and death are integral to life, organic engineering is arguably trying to do the impossible. Do we really understand how life works?
Logically, even if death were cured, it would only result in a hopelessly overcrowded planet, and stop the evolutionary process that has brought us this far. Meanwhile the social order would likely descend into some hell-on-Earth as those with power sought their immortality by whatever means necessary. Do those who seek to overcome aging never reflect on these horrific consequences of success?
Medical treatments form a loose continuum from considerable success with more mechanical matters to less obvious success in outright biological ones. For example, replacing bones and joints is now a relatively routine affair, whereas wound infections can prove tricky. Inserting replacement tubes and stents can be seen as just soft plumbing, but any biological complications with the procedures are not so straightforward. And as regards organ replacement, the main issue is not the physical operation or whether the organ is able to do its job – it is about whether or not the body will reject alien biology. More generally, many diseases continue to defy any cure.
This continuum is no surprise given key differences between industrial and organic engineering.
Industrial engineering starts with a blank page to which the human mind adds elements to achieve dedicated goals within what is considered a system. But even if such systems only partially meet their goals or experience certain problems, they are nonetheless well understood by the human mind inasmuch as they are its own creations. For most purposes, such systems can be considered fully comprehended.
Organic systems are wholly different in that biology is vastly complex and not a human invention; it can therefore only be partially understood at best. Hence – and despite extensive efforts – biology proves far less amenable to human mastery. A dentist can kill nerves and fit various kinds of artificial teeth, but he cannot cultivate new living ones. Compared to inanimate industry and mechanics, organic systems generally remain at best poorly understood and almost impossible to reconstruct from raw materials.
By evolutionary theory, biological lifeforms all struggle to survive in that they face threats, and either evolve to manage those threats, or die out. Consequently, when humans attempt to eliminate specific lifeforms, evolution reacts against the assault. From our partial understanding in this area, this is what life appears designed to do. Creating unfavorable conditions for a lifeform can actually promote evolution to survive those conditions.
This real-world phenomenon underlies new drug-resistant bugs and diseases, as well as unpredicted biological mutations associated with the agricultural use of herbicides and pesticides. Our attempts to control nature produce results other than intended and not as we would choose.
When the human mind contrives that a given form of life should be suppressed, does it allow that nature does not share its preferences for one lifeform over another? Although human engineering within the world of biotechnology may apparently provide localized benefits if viewed within narrow perspectives, on a broader front it is little more than biological gambling.
Consequently, a biological arms race is now underway as the biotech world presumes superior fire power in the face of nature’s counter offensive. For better or worse, humans have declared a limited war on life itself – all amidst some extremely dubious and unproven notion that only lifeforms deemed beneficial to humans should be valued. Species posing problems to human plans are to be eradicated. In short, we are trying to re-engineer nature for our own purposes. And this is done through an intellectual arrogance and gung-ho commercial attitude far outstripping any levelheaded caution about acting from our position of demonstrable ignorance.
The idea that we might succeed in this risky venture is nonetheless easy to explain. Technological engineering has so far proved beneficial in terms of the species thriving and multiplying, such that we now appear masters of the planet – at least in comparison with any other species. A level of confidence appears justified, or at least understandable
However, given our profound and accelerating impact on the planet, the fallout of human actions now pose a generalized threat to multiple lifeforms. Altered environmental conditions result from intentional human activities such as agriculture and urbanization, as well as unintended consequences reflected in chemical and climatic changes to land, sea and atmosphere.
Not surprisingly, evolution is generally failing to keep abreast – dozens of species becoming unintentionally extinct on a daily basis. Logically, we cannot be masters of the planet if we cannot master the planet’s life. And this is now evident – should we care to be honest about it.
For the time being, human culture generally seems dangerously unwilling to consider that however successfully we engineer our own inanimate inventions, re-engineering the world of nature is a very different affair. Some organisms we attack simply evolve and survive, whilst others become extinct for reasons only understood via our general assault on the environment. To make matters worse, the fallout from our industrial activities also attacks life in general.
If engineering is to demonstrate a useful and beneficial role in our future, human abstract thought itself must be re-engineered such that the mind better differentiates between that which is merely immediately appealing, and that which is honest about human limitations and vulnerabilities within the greater scheme of things. Without such a paradigm shift, our supposedly great engineering achievements will only culminate in our eventual demise.