JANUS revisited.

Some Thoughts on the Deep Trouble we are in.

November 7, 2002

Vladi Chaloupka


   The Basic Problem.

    Arthur Koestler begins his book Janus: A Summing Up by the following reflection:

If I were asked to name the most important date in the history and prehistory of the human race, I would answer without hesitation, 6 August 1945. From the dawn of consciousness until 6 August 1945, man had to live with the prospect of his death as an individual; since the day when the first atomic bomb outshone the sun over Hiroshima, mankind as a whole has had to live with the prospect of its extinction as a species.

    After a recent molecular biology Colloquium, it suddenly became clear to me that Molecular Biology (including nano-technology) took over from Physics the role of the science/technology capable of ending civilization as we know it. This certainly was not the aim of the Colloquium. In fact, just recently the speaker  - Dr. Leroy Hood, apparently impatient and frustrated with all kinds of restrictions, limitations, delays and regulations, resigned from the University, and established a  private Institute for Systems Biology, where research will proceed with the maximum speed and efficiency. And it was exactly this event, combined with the brilliance of Hood's presentation, and with the breath-taking progress in the field of molecular biology, that made me see the basic problem suddenly and clearly.

    The Basic Problem is very general - it is the spectacular, and I am afraid fatal, gap between the cumulative, exponential progress in science and technology on the one hand, and the lack of comparable progress in ethics, civility, and generally in the ability to use our technological tools thoughtfully and responsibly. Today we laugh at Aristotle's Physics, but much of his Politics and Poetics is still relevant, and deals with problems which are still unsolved. Ethically, we still struggle with the same issues of love/hate/loyalty/betrayal/... which were the subjects of Greek tragedies - without any real progress, but now with enormously powerful tools which magnify our follies. The gap is ever increasing, and at some point, the system becomes unstable, the tools get too powerful for Civilization to use, and fatal chain of events occurs. I believe that will happen soon - within a few hundred years. To the extent that people are worried about this at all, they tend to worry about terrorism and other evil intent. In fact, the situation is much more general, and the outcome is quite possibly unavoidable - picture a group of children in a gasoline depot, with matches - and instructions to please use them carefully!

    In Janus, Koestler hypothesised that some cosmic civilizations may be "evolutionary misfits" (in case of our species homo sapiens sapiens, he  postulated an inadequate communications between the "modern" and "ancient" parts of the brain), and concluded that, after the discovery of thermonuclear reactions by a given civilization:

... natural selection - or rather, the 'selective weed-killer' - takes over on a cosmic scale. The sick civilizations engendered by biological misfits will sooner or later act as their own executioners and vanish from their polluted planet.

Similar warnings have been issued by professional scientists, too.  In his 1994 book "Pale Blue Dot", Carl Sagan wrote:

It might be a familiar progression, transpiring on many worlds - a planet, newly formed, placidly revolves around its star; life slowly forms; a kaleidoscopic procession of creatures evolves; intelligence emerges which, at least up to a point, confers enormous survival value; and then technology is invented. It dawns on them that there are such things as laws of Nature, that these laws can be revealed by experiment, and that knowledge of these laws can be made both to save and to take lives, both on unprecedented scales. Science, they recognize, grants immense powers. In a flash, they create world-altering contrivances. Some planetary civilizations see their way through, place limits on what may and what must not be done, and safely pass through the time of perils. Others, not so lucky or so prudent, perish.

And, even more recently, San Francisco Times reported that Stephen Hawking - with a no-nonsense, impersonal attitude of a physicist - "is focussing a lot these days on how humanity fits into the future of the universe - if indeed it fits at all. One possibility he suggests is that once an intelligent life form reaches the stage we are at now, it proceeds to destroy itself."    ... In his 'Life in the Universe' lecture, Hawkings writes:  How long the self-design stage [i.e. the stage in which the species is capable of self-modifications] will last is open to question. It may be unstable, and life may destroy itself ...

    The question of the long-term stability of complex systems is indeed a very interesting and difficult one. In this particular case, we are the players, and the fate of the civilization on Earth is in the balance. With so much at stake, one would think that extraordinary effort is being expended to make absolutely sure that we are not overlooking anything. Instead, the attitude seems to be: full speed ahead until a specific danger is clearly demonstrated.

    It is not trivial to evaluate the likelihood of singular events. In our case, we might imagine, say, one hundred Earths, each compatible with what we know and understand about our Earth, i.e. each with with its equivalent of Jesus and Hitler, and Einstein and Frankenstein, differing in multitude of things we don't know and don't understand about ourselves. Then we ask: could it be that one of these Civilizations will destroy itself after it discovers nuclear energy and molecular biology? I doubt that anyone would say: no, out of one hundred, all will survive. I also doubt that anyone would board a plane if the likelihood of a crash was  one in one hundred .... Estimating this likelihood would seem to be of more than academic interest - and doing something to reduce it may be, by far,  the most important and most urgent thing to do.

   What is so special about Molecular Biology?

    Discussing these issues at a recent Seminar, I (as a physicist) was accused of "attacking molecular biology". Therefore, I will start by quoting two prominent biologists. This is some strong language, reminiscent of an Isiah or Jeremiah, and it is beyond me how come so few people have been struck by it.

George Wald wrote:

Recombinant DNA technology [genetic engineering] faces our society with problems unprecedented not only in the history of science, but of life on the Earth. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, the products of some three billion years of evolution. .... It is all too big and is happening too fast. So this, the central problem, remains almost unconsidered. It presents probably the largest ethical problem that science has ever had to face. Our morality up to now has been to go ahead without restriction to learn all that we can about nature. Restructuring nature was not part of the bargain…

And from Erwin Chargaff:

…The principal question to be answered is whether we have the right to put an additional fearful load on generations not yet born. ... Our time is cursed with the necessity for feeble men, masquerading as experts, to make enormously far-reaching decisions. .... An irreversible attack on the biosphere is something so unheard-of, so unthinkable to previous generations, that I could only wish that mine had not been guilty of it. ...... Have we the right to counteract, irreversibly, the evolutionary wisdom of millions of years, in order to satisfy the ambition and curiosity of a few scientists? This world is given to us on loan. We come and we go; and after a time we leave earth and air and water to others who come after us. My generation, or perhaps the one preceding mine, has been the first to engage, under the leadership of the exact sciences, in a destructive colonial warfare against nature. The future will curse us for it.

    The variety of the research in progress is bewildering, and growing every day. Besides the old-fashioned cloning, scientists are transplanting pig organs into humans and  human genes into animals and plants. Plants are being genetically engineered to be resistant to pesticides, and insects are programmed to attack crop predators. Respected scientists publish books foreseeing a "utility fog" composed of nanobots, which - as an arabic Jinn - would fulfill our every whim and desire. Defense against hostile fogs would be provided by a protective shield of anti-nanobot nanobots - with every breath of air we would take in billions of these defenders. Medical nanobots will travel through your bloodstream to attack the specific cancer you were diagnosed with, and will cure it within weeks. And yes, these futurists indeed are respected scientists.

    That much power does not come free, you would think. And indeed: as the list of possible benefits is exhilarating, the list of risks is equally impressive - it contains the possibility of extinction of human race, even extinction of life on Earth. Some of the possibilities are enough to make your blood  curdle in your veins. In a widely read article, the Chief Scientist at the Sun Corporation, Bill Joy, quotes Eric Drexler's warning about the possibility that artificial bacteria could out-compete real bacteria: They could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Bill Joy then comments that such a distaster would surely be a depressing ending to our human adventure on Earth .... and one that could stem from a single laboratory accident. Joy's concerns were of course promptly dismissed by most of his fellow technologists. I am aware of only one detailed, technical investigation of this particular nightmare: the conclusion of many pages of equations is that we don't have to worry: "All ecophagic scenarios examined appear to permit early detection by vigilant monitoring [by detecting the global warming caused by the artificial bacteria eating the biosphere], thus enabling rapid deployment of effective defensive instrumentalities." This does not sound reassuring to me at all ....

    Reviewing the almost hysterical worries about "nuclear winter", "nuclear holocaust" etc. at the height of the Cold War, I am struck with the nonchalance with which the dramatic progress in biology is received. And yet: both the ease, and the potential consequences, of misuse (intentional or accidental) of nuclear materials pale in comparison with the micro-biological case. Today just about any Physics graduate student has the basic knowledge of how to build a nuclear weapon - but to actually do it requires large infrastructure. On the other hand, if not today, then in 50 years, every graduate student in biology will know how to manipulate the genes/genome/recombinant DNA/.... - and the required infrastructure will probably fit in a basement (a computer, some test tubes and centrifuges, ...). In the article mentioned above, Bill Joy speaks of this as "knowledge enabled mass destruction." Out of the recent tragic events, I consider the anthrax attack to be much more significant than the destruction of the World Trade Center. We can, and we will, defeat Osama bin Laden, Taliban, or any present or future rogue state or large criminal organization. But the anthrax attack was, quite possibly, commited by a single person, and, quite possibly, we may never find the attacker. And anthrax is nothing, compared to what is possible, and compared to what will be possible in just a few years.

    I am concerned not just about possible terrorist activities, but even more about mischief, accidents and not-carefully-enough designed experiments and policies:

[ ] Today, hackers attack  Pentagon computers, not in order to find out this or that secret, but just for fun and out of mischief. I imagine that in 50 years, similar hackers will hack, for similar reasons, the human genome information on WWW, and - with a few of those test tubes and centrifuges - it seems to me that the question is not if, but when, something new and deadly will come out of it.

[ ] Accidents are bound to happen, and indeed, accidents are happening. The large scale contamination of the early polio vaccine by the SV40 virus (this is not related to AIDS - see http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2000/02/002bookchin.htm ; it seems that we were very  lucky!), and the accidental release of Africanized bees in Brazil are just two well known, early examples of biological accidents of relatively limited impact. In University laboratories, molecules that don't exist in Nature are  created by Applied Molecular Evolution,  and the Australian mousepox case is the first instance in which the virulence of a genetically modified virus turned out to be significantly greater than that of the naturally occuring strain. Biology is a complex and potent system, and we are poking at it with a stick. It will take only one accident in which a new agent against which there is no immunity, with long incubation period,  will be released, to produce devastating, perhaps fatal consequences to the civilization.

[ ] The third category is the most general one, almost philosophical, but also the most worrying. Our capability, as a species, of foresight, and of intelligent, deliberate decisions of long-term impact is dismal. The only reasonably successfull social system in existence at present is  Liberal Capitalism, where problems are fixed as they arise. This has worked so far, reasonably well, but it would fail in the metaphor of children with matches described above, and it is bound to fail when applied to the Basic Problem. The signs are everywhere. Just the other day, the World Health Organization issued yet another warning about the dramatic increase of the resistance of diseases to antibiotics. We eradicated smallpox; now we are facing the possibility of a smallpox terrorist attack, so are re-starting smallpox vaccine production in a hurry. We keep fixing problems caused by applications of technological fixes by new technological fixes. It would be bad enough if this was a frustrating infinite loop, but this loop cannot last forever: it is bound to break, with catastrophic consequences.

    With molecular biology, undeterred by any such considerations and worries,we are literally taking the future of our species into our own hands. Our attitude is nothing short of arrogance. The Czech President/amateur philosopher Vaclav Havel, in a speech at the 1992 Davos Economic Forum, said:

The modern era has been dominated by the culminating belief, expressed in different forms, that the world and Being as such is a wholly knowable system governed by a finite number of universal laws that man can grasp and rationally direct for his own benefit. This era, beginning in the Renaissance and developing from the Enlightenment to socialism, from positivism to scientism, from the Industrial Revolution to the information revolution, was characterized by rapid advances in rational, cognitive thinking. This, in turn, gave rise to the proud belief that man, as the pinnacle of everything that exists, was capable of objectively describing, explaining and controlling everything that exists ....

As a cure, Havel advocates to "rejuvenate forces such as a natural, unique and unrepeatable experience of the world, an elementary sense of justice, the ability to see things as others do, a sense of transcendental responsibility, archetypal wisdom, good taste, courage, compassion ...". This, to say the least, will be difficult. In fact, it is a regrettable but not entirely surprizing fact that even people who do see the problem, have no realistic proposals for a solution ....

    Unless I missed a whole series of publications and University and Government programs, there is not much thought, and very little money,  devoted to these issues. Before the first atomic bomb was set off, physicists worried that it may set the atmosphere on fire, and some of the best people were charged with an evaluation of that danger. Today, driven by the (understandable) desires to prolong life, eliminate hunger and disease etc., we are running full speed into the future, spending just a tiny fraction of the research money on risk assessment! The Genome project sets aside just 3% of its budget for Ethical, Legal and Social Issues - and most of this amount, small to start with, funds investigations into questions like who should own a patent for what, or whether it is "ethical" to use embryonic stem cells, clone humans etc. In the field which really matters - safety and risks, there are guidelines such as the National Institute of Health  Guidelines on Recombinant DNA, but the worst thing that can happen if you violate them is to lose your NIH funding (if you had any to start with)! United Nations is doing what it can - which is very little. The gene genie is out of the bottle: a researcher in China [sic] is putting human protein genes into vegetables, for better ripening! We are living, both literally and figuratively,  on top of a huge underground of microorganisms inhabiting the soil and the oceans, and when we discover how much damage we have done, it will be too late.

   I should point out that molecular biology is, by far, not the only field in which the Basic Problem manifests itself. Everywhere you look, you see fantastic technological advances used in a way which ranges from careless to frivolous to criminal. Television programs pander to the lowest common denominator, the most frequently visited WWW sites are the most awful porno exhibits, etc. etc. However, in these cases, one may say that such misuse is the price of freedom which we can and should pay. More seriously, my own discipline - Physics - is still capable of being instrumental in disasters of enormous magnitude - just imagine even a limited nuclear war, say between India and Pakistan. Ecologically, we are literally fouling up our own nest with the amount of waste which is not even remotely sustainable in the future. And the ever increasing dependence of our society on computers will inevitably make the civilization fragile, vulnerable in case of major natural or human-made disasters. Everywhere you look you see that we have, or are about to have, truly  god-like powers, unfortunately accompanied not by wisdom but by shortsighted enthusiasm, greed and  foolishness. This is the Basic Problem.

    Coming back to  Physics: many of the physicists participating in the development of the US nuclear weapons later experienced profound soul-searching, regrets and even despair. We have not learned anything from that.

   Imaginary Historian of Cosmic Civilizations.

    The attitude which I find helpful is to imagine being a historian of Cosmic Civilizations, analyzing why some  lasted longer than others. In this sense, I note that the hypothesis of short-lived Civilizations provides an answer to the famous Fermi question: "Where are they?" The answer is: they (the aliens) are all dead now  (and we will be dead soon, too - and some other Civilization will appear somewhere, briefly) ....

    In general, on this view (with Civilizations lasting for a few thousand years, out of billions of years since the Big Bang), intelligent life in the Universe appears as brief sparks emitted here and there, now and then, from the heap of ashes which was a large fire. This view is not without its grandeur: recall the celebrated passage from George Lemaitre (1951):

    “The evolution of the world could be compared to a display of fireworks just ended—some few red wisps, ashes, and smoke. Standing on a well-cooled cinder we see the slow fading of the suns and we try to recall the vanished brilliance of the origin of the worlds.”

     Or, to add a little religion to our discussions, consider the amazing passage from  "An original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe", by the discoverer of galaxies Thomas Wright, in 1750 (!):

     "In this great celestial creation, the catastrophy of a world, such as ours, or even the total dissolution of a system of worlds, may possibly be no more to the great Author of Nature, than the most common accident in life with us, and in all probability such final and general Doomsdays may be as frequent there, as even Birthdays or mortality with us upon the earth."

    So these grand visions of the Universe do have a place for God. But, as Sagan writes in Pale Blue Dot:

"In some respect, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded: 'This is better than  we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed. .... A religion ... that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge."

    Yes, I believe that in religion we are not at the end, but at the beginning of History. Unless we destroy ourselves first.

   Can we do something about it?

    After raising the possibility of intelligent life destroying itself, Hawking continues:

"This would be a very pessimistic conclusion. I very much hope it isn't true."

    All hopes and wishes aside, and attempting to apply objectively whatever skills and scientific instinct my work in Physics may have given me, I conclude that the fatal outcome may be inevitable. The Basic Problem is too deep, technical attempts to fix it may only make it worse, and attempts to fundamentally change our attitudes and ethics have been going on for millenia, with little results. It may just be too late, or even the demise of the civilization at this stage may itself be a natural law, as Hawking suggests. Besides,  actions which possibly might have even the slightest chance of influencing the outcome are much too drastic to be realistic. Such actions are more likely to be readily accepted - even called for - in case of 'preliminary' large scale disasters affecting significant fraction of the population: we just may have to wait for something really terrible to happen to wake us up (in that case, of course, the reaction may well be an establishment of draconian, authoritarian controls, and significant reduction of civil liberties ...).

    So it may be quixotic to try to do something, but once I realized the nature and magnitude of the Basic Problem, I feel that I simply have to contribute. I have no illusion  that I have anything even close to a solution. I general, I would propose that much more money and effort has to be dedicated to detailed, professional, technical study of risks of our many activities, and of the consequences of our actions (or inactions). In the political domain, I believe that major, intense effort should go into a substantial reform, and gradual strengthening, of United Nations and other international organizations; this does not seem to be the focus of United States policy at present. As a University professor, the main contribution I can make is to help increase public awareness of the scope, and of the urgency, of the problem. I hope that someone will come up with a convincing list of precautions being taken which will show that there is no Basic Problem - with just a little care, everything will be all right. But I am not holding my breath.

     Then again: we might be able to figure it out. If we do manage to find our way through the bottleneck, the future may be spectacular indeed. In the sparks-out-of-the-fire metaphor, if we succeed to keep our spark to last long enough, it may catch the grass on fire, and we will colonize the galaxy with wisdom and foresight, justifying the name of Homo Sapiens we so expectantly gave to ourselves, and realizing the promise which seems to have been, somehow, so mysteriously given to us.