Monday, August 24, 2009

My Case Against Conscious Evolution

("abstracted" from a note to David Koepsell)

By no means considering myself qualified to enter scientific or legal debates about patenting genes, I do consider myself a reasonable analog for a policy maker (definition: interested citizen). I believe this is a critical matter, and far too important to be left to professionally amoral scientists and lawyers for resolution. We all must get involved.

I find that most of any waffling which remains in my pathologically open mind (I'm flattering myself, of course) focuses on this "isolated and purified" concept. That is how patenters have distinguished what gets patented from what might occur in nature (and remain, therefore, unpatentable).

I need to state up front that I am already entirely convinced that genes should not be patented, likely for reasons extraneous to most of the polemics. I have a reasoned conviction (kind of mitigates my claim of open mindedness for sure) that the fundamentally Christian-descended Enlightenment project toward scientific understanding was actually finished - as in hitting up against a terminal stumbling block - at about the time the standard model of [quantum] particle physics was fully articulated (let's say late 20th century).

That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of scientific work left to do, puzzles left to solve, nor certainly technologies left to engineer. We are indeed, however, at that Kuhnian final stage of normal science, when everything seems on the brink of completion. This time 'round, it ought to make us suspect. Like nervous readers at a seismograph, surely it feels to careful thinkers as thought the paradigm has become shifty.

Now for scientists to dodge choice as if there were some clarity yet to come feels rather like continuing to work on the second story of that famous burning building. As if our choices were still a function of uncovering some kind of bedrock reality, rather than of our responses to reality as we already understand it. By this time of cloning and artificial life, that postponement has become an immoral dodge (if it hasn't been always and already).

Hard determinable physical reality following universal law was always a stand-in for eternal God. Clearly, I think Richard Dawkins goes way too far, simply because he's the ground for which the religionists are the figure (or vice versa), though I haven't been interested enough to read someone I already know I'll mostly agree with. (To almost the very point of his conclusions.) There are other ways to construe the cosmos, which implicate the knower rather more.

I am skeptical that there will or can be an end to discussions which argue where to place a boundary between the literal and the metaphorical - the thing and its refined abstraction - beyond the point where non-instrumental perception has long stopped being possible, or denotative words could do justice to some thing itself. No end other than on the battlefield - in the courts and in the legislative bodies (not to mention in the marketplace, where size does matter).

There will or at least can be an infinite regress between and among various ways for putting boundaries between what is found "in nature" and what could never be found without certain very sophisticated ways of looking. It isn't at all far off from the nearly running CERN supercollider.

To say that the Higgs boson might be "detected" there will be a stretch, just as it would be to say that it might be "created". Instead, there will be a huge scaffolding of accumulated knowledge (actually understood by a diminutive few, and understandable by only an order of magnitude more), embodied in techniques and technologies, which may or may not engender agreement about its products (which will be abstracted readings for sure, and not any things themselves). Which may end or perpetuate the road we're already on. Or which might not even seem to work right.

So, back to the isolation and purification thing. I am assuming that there is a kind of Waterloo here of great consequence to our future civilization. (I'm not so convinced of the importance of medical breakthroughs - I might even be horrified by them, not, believe it or don't, because they might unbalance our natural ground, although that might be part of it, but more for what they might do to our sense of lived life.) Certain boundaries, and the one for mortality certainly, are absolute and must remain so. Well, they logically will remain so, since immortality - filling up all time - is the same absurd possibility as filling up any one dimension of physical space. You'd be pinned and crashingly boring. Like a rock, I suppose.

Gene patenting fans may prevail for so long as they can maintain that the thing that's patented would never occur in nature, without its having been - not sure if this is the right word here - abstracted from the actual stuff. But all instrumental perceptions are somewhat unnatural in that sense. At how much remove from literal touch must you be before you've "invented"?

I see anything like "conscious evolution" as an abomination, not against God (although that might make perfectly good shorthand, which is an odd thing for a presumptive atheist like me to say), but as death against life.

I, along with Julian Jaynes and at least one or two other people, see what we mean by consciousness as a quality not of man, but of literate civilized man. Prior to these recent tumultuous several thousand years, we might have been capable of rather more ciphering than your ordinary beast, but we certainly weren't, in any meaningful sense, conscious.

Therefore conscious evolution would be an extinguishing of the human substrate, in favor of something we already possess and know and fully understand (a machine, by definition), which will always be so much less than what we should or will or want to or could understand if we let the substrate, well, evolve.

Evolution based on knowledge is not the same as conscious evolution. The (latter) one entails a choice. The other entails just more knowing, which will naturally entail differential evolution, so long as we haven't yet destroyed our living context - collectively our Earth. (Can you sense the Zizekian parallax non-distance between those phrases, since there are always choices about what one wants to know?) There is always a difference between acting based on what you already know, and acting based on what you'd like to find out, and it might be a bigger difference than we'd ever supposed.

Yes, I am enamored of surprise. I oppose space flight simply because it's such a clutzy technique to get us beyond our limits. We are nowhere near ready to choose where we want consciousness to lead, nor to be sure the big surprises are outside this corner of the cosmos.

Finally, I take corporate will to be a manifestation of the very same kind of dangerous (call it sociopathic if you like, as that Corporation documentary did) immoral disembodied money motivated (selfish eating machine, just like unconscious biological forms always are) machine-think which is all that would ever motivate "conscious" evolution. It's what humanity is distinguished from.

I am horrified, therefore, not of the gene patents directly, but rather that certain patent processes now favor the large investor. The race to market has been replaced by a race to the patent attorney, where it's just silly to expect a bicycle to out-pace a Lamborghini. It's a different game in a different time, and invention doesn't mean quite what it used to, now does it?

Congress represents the commonwealth or nothing at all. Bush (and meltdown) should have taught us the dangers of mistaking "business" for "big business" and "big" from "too big to fail". This is a matter for statute.

So, is there a way, I want to ask, to simply make the point that if only super-funded entities can get there in the first place, then patent law simply has no useful or defensible function in that particular arena? I know the marketplace of ideas, just like the marketplace in general, has no patience for questions to the premises of business as usual (Galileo among the temple elders). But at a certain point, the commons must be preserved, especially when the gated communities push out every possible other foothold.

Let them patent their processes. Just not their raw discoveries. There is semantics here of a very dangerous sort. When is a business no longer a business? (when it's a public utility, for instance). Corporation law needs modification. Starting with IP law doesn't make a bad choice.

For my part, the boundary for where things started going horribly wrong goes all the way back to plastic and maybe even transistors. But for all that, I'm certainly not anti-abortion. I'm not terrified of cloning, and I certainly am not directly terrified of invented life forms.

I just think all these things have dangers to them, and need to be approached cautiously. For at least the past 40 years there has been an extremely dangerous corporate ascendancy, which has been allowed to burgeon simply because our language is so freaking imprecise, abused, and well, almost to the point of 1984 redux again and again. Do we wage war literally any more?

Corporations are not governments, but they have each been allowed to become the other.

Our problems are political, but lawyers should not be allowed to own the political territory. They are far too much like scientists, thinking that there is no moral quality to their choice of work. A threshold has been crossed.

It is a different, boundary-less, world now, which is precisely why good definitions for words matter more than ever. Old words from old worlds shouldn't be expropriated.

We may actually have to wrest the definition of "gene" from the scientists. They already understand that these encodings determine rather less than was originally thought. There are rather fewer of them than they'd guessed. They interact in more wondrous ways than had been imagined at the outset of their mapping.

So any gene, so called, so isolated, so enumerated, might be both too much and too little as determinant of anything. Rather like an atom, or a subatomic particle which doesn't even have individual identity at all. The word "gene" may having nothing to do with what we thought was its most basic unit. And what they've patented may be more like a meaningless set of letters. As mistaken in the granting as a piece of Florida real estate which actually denoted swampland. Or would.

Grant them patent on what they once called a gene. But when it turns out that what they'd thought it was good for has nothing to do with what you end up doing with it, wag your tongue at them. Tell them you meant something different by your usage. You were only screwing around with nature.

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