Tag Archives: Margaret Atwood

Politics of ruin

Every dystopia is a history of the future. What are the consequences of a literature, even a pulp literature, of political desperation? “It’s a sad commentary on our age that we find dystopias a lot easier to believe in than utopias,” Atwood wrote in the nineteen-eighties. “Utopias we can only imagine; dystopias we’ve already had.” But what was really happening then was that the genre and its readers were sorting themselves out by political preference, following the same path—to the same ideological bunkers—as families, friends, neighborhoods, and the news. In the first year of Obama’s Presidency, Americans bought half a million copies of “Atlas Shrugged.” In the first month of the Administration of Donald (“American carnage”) Trump, during which Kellyanne Conway talked about alternative facts, “1984” jumped to the top of the Amazon best-seller list. (Steve Bannon is a particular fan of a 1973 French novel called “The Camp of the Saints,” in which Europe is overrun by dark-skinned immigrants.) The duel of dystopias is nothing so much as yet another place poisoned by polarized politics, a proxy war of imaginary worlds.

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination, asking only that you enjoy the company of people whose fear of the future aligns comfortably with your own. Left or right, the radical pessimism of an unremitting dystopianism has itself contributed to the unravelling of the liberal state and the weakening of a commitment to political pluralism. “This isn’t a story about war,” El Akkad writes in “American War.” “It’s about ruin.” A story about ruin can be beautiful. Wreckage is romantic. But a politics of ruin is doomed.

–Jill Lepore, A Golden Age of Dystopian Fiction

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Improve the world, become famous, and/or make money

NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.

–Francis Collins, Statement on NIH funding of research using gene-editing technologies in human embryos

To me, the biggest likely change in our world from CRISPR-Cas9 and other genomic editing methods won’t be in humans but in the non-humans we use the methods to modify. As it gets cheaper and easier to modify genomes, non-human genomes offer freedom from a lot of regulation, liability, and political controversy, while offering plenty of opportunities to improve the world, become famous, or make money – with combinations of all of the above.

Want to end malaria? Come up with a modified version of Aedes aegypti that can’t transmit yellow fever, dengue fever, or chikungunya viruses to humans and will outcompete and eventually eliminate the wild type. Want to make a really economical biofuel? Take an algae and modify its genome in thousands of ways to optimize it for producing hydrocarbon fuel. Want to bring back the passenger pigeon? Use CRISPR-Cas9 to modify the genomes of existing band tail pigeons to match, more or less, the genomes sequenced from specimens on the extinct passenger pigeon. What to corner the market in high-end gifts? Start playing around with horse genomes adding in bits and pieces from other species in an effort to produce actual unicorns. What to make a splash as an artist? Use CRISPR-Cas9 to make a warren of truly glow-in-the-dark rabbits.

In fact, on the same day Science published the moratorium call on-line, it published on-line an article on one very successful “gene drive” system, using CRISPR-Cas9, that could spread a chosen genetic variant very quickly through an entire population. (See the news story in the next day’s magazine here.)

It is these kinds of uses of genomic engineering that could reshape the biosphere. As the ability to make carefully engineered genomic changes becomes more widely accessible, the possibility of insufficiently controlled or considered experiments increases dramatically. And so, of course, does the chance of more controlled interventions. I would like to see much more focus on this issue, of great practical importance, instead of so much attention on the sexier issue of germline genome modification in humans.

-Hank Greely, Of Science, CRISPR-Cas9, and Asilomar

Context and links via Vox.

On a related note, over the holidays I read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) for the first time. I suggest you do the same.