Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Code Breaker


The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human RaceThe Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn't really read the Kindle edition. My library only had the EPUB on offer. What a thrill, really, to discover that reading on the web (on the Overdrive reader) is smoother than reading on a Kindle. Will wonders never cease!

Well, no, I suppose they won't, in the brave new universe of code in the cloud. Writing code is a new sort of artifice; one that we can't really see or feel or interact with directly. Even coders can't really read what they wrote, which might fill volumes if it were printed out. But at least they can parse it word by word if need be.

Any sort of code requires embodiment before it can be naturalized. It is otherwise purest abstraction; meaningful only to a select few.

Coding has triggered a cosmic change now that we can edit nature's code. That's why I think everyone must read this book. Really. The book is up to the literal minute, and desperately important in this time of plague.

It is also a cautionary tale, but gently so. The caution engages questions about what "improvement" might really mean. As one of the lucky ones, who might resemble what parents might wish for their designer babies, I would amplify those cautions, as I have done here. I may be immodest. I do strive for humility. I'm not looking for any prize.

Code, remember, is what priests used to pretend they understood. Hidden - occult - truths. Truths that can't be touched, that can't be read, that can only be, well, intuited.

Don't be fooled. Those priests are no better than you are. That is one of Isaacson's main burdens in writing this. He wants us all to participate in the debates, and we can't if we deny the fact that genes can now be edited and that editing them makes a difference.

I, for one, am excited by the prospect of anti-virals which are as effective as anti-bacterials, and even more so by the vague promises that we may even learn to eradicate the antibiotic resistant bacteria that we so blithely created in our earlier enthusiasm. I am excited by the prospect of no more plagues, even as I ponder the place of viruses in our evolution. I am just a tad bit concerned about the fungi, though.

No matter how much we may think that we understand nature's laws, we are novices about the overall balance.

Isaacson can't seem to help a good-guy/bad-guy narrative of bacteria against viruses, though he moderates that by footnote. CRISPR refers to what bacterial genes have, to combat ever-morphing viruses.

Aren't they both bad, from our point of view as humans?

Well, no, not exactly. Just sometimes.

Maybe when all of us can understand what code is, and can even write some of it, we may be ready to conduct the germline editing which is promised by CRISPR technologies. Until then, you're being asked to trust the priests. Hmmm.

My question is about whether code can ever be naturalized in the way that every other feature of our built environment is. Is there a point when our tools are too powerful? When they reach too far? When we are too detached from our own creations?

We can't know that from here. What we can know is that, so far, these pursuits have been accomplished by very decent human beings. It's the decency which should be celebrated as much as the accomplishment. Would that it were ever so.

The plague moderated the forces of unregulated (predatory?) capitalism during COVID19, and we were saved. Those forces, as the book documents, have invaded even the Academy. Where is the anti-viral for that sort of consumption? It requires no decoding to see what's going on, and yet we do nothing about it. True believers all.

The mind, once opened, can never be closed again. Science is a one-way street that way. It doesn't go backward, except in the details, which are often in need of correction. Mind opening happens only upon what Thomas Kuhn dubbed "paradigm shifts." But the whole concept of paradigm shifts undermines any scientific certainty.

Surely natural laws don't move backward, even as they are refined and modified. Is religious belief - is belief of any sort - a mind opening or a mind closing event? That is the live question of this book, and it should be asked of nearly everything.

What profiteth mankind to gain advantage upon nature if there is no nature anymore? Of course, the absence of nature is but a fever dream, no matter which side you're on.

Nature is what is. Code is but its tracing. A trace can never be the whole. Copyright or patent, Martha, copyright or patent? Money shot takes on a whole new meaning when you're encoding life.

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