9.4 C
Niagara Falls
Monday, February 26, 2024
Dr. Brown: Science and the gods of the 21st century
Emmanuelle Charpentier. WIKIPEDIA

Science, the study of the natural world, evolved early, possibly in nascent forms long before the emergence of modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Enabling traits would have been curiosity, imagination and learning by observation about the natural world of the sky, weather cycles, plants and animals — then, trying to make sense of everything.

This was coupled with a growing capacity for symbolic thinking and language, which they used to share what was learned with others of their kind. 

Since those early times, human understanding of nature steadily evolved.

With important nods to the achievements of Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler and others, it was in the last two centuries that science began to move with unprecedented breadth and speed.

Major achievements of the 1800s included electromagnetism, thermodynamics and in biology, Charles Darwin’s hypothesis that species evolve in response to natural, and sometimes sexual, selection. 

The pace picked up in the 1900s, with Albert Einstein’s masterpiece, general relativity, which related mass to space-time.

If that were not enough for one century, a new field that described the nature of the atom and subatomic particles and forces emerged: quantum mechanics.

The latter proved highly predictive and precise and underpinned the development of digital computers and lasers and how abundant energy is produced by nuclear fusion in the sun.

Similar fusion-based methods, now under development, offer the possibility of near-limitless energy without risky nuclear or carbon waste products. 

In 1953, the structure of DNA was revealed, which provided the foundation for how heritable characteristics are passed from one generation to the next.

In the decades that followed, the mysteries about how cells sustain themselves, communicate with other cells and create copies of themselves, opened the door to developing and using stem cells to create mini-brains or other organ tissues.

Were it not for off-the-shelf messenger RNA technologies, many more millions would have died in the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was a third theme, the world of the digital computer and the realization of prophetic scientists in the 1950s that computers might someday become powerful enough to solve problems and questions that humans are unable to solve.

Artificial intelligence offers many benefits but also threatens many current jobs in the much the way industrialization previously. 

In 2020, a Nobel Prize was shared by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for developing a method for editing genes of any cell, including human cells.

In less than two decades, the whole field of genetics was upended because the method, called CRISPR, offered a cheap, precise way to selectively silence genes or introduce genes into the genomes of cells, from bacteria to humans.

The problem with such advances in science is that they sometimes carry risks. 

Eventually, scientists may understand which genes underpin desirable physical, cognitive or behavioural traits with the intention of endowing humans with extraordinary powers.

Given that such efforts are underway now and may soon become widespread, policing them will probably prove impossible.  

On the biological front, the list of intriguing technologies continues to grow such as the use of stem cells to create mini versions of the brain or embryos without parents or even a placenta.

Within this century, there is the very real risk that humans could upend evolution by natural selection to evolution by designer technologies to create new versions of humans.

We’ve heard how threatening AI can be in China these days as a means of tracking dissenters using data on smartphones and facial recognition technologies.

The advent of quantum computers will make the invasion of privacy much more powerful and end any privacy we have on digital computers.

Those are just a few of the looming threats posed by advances in science and engineering, some of which (such as quantum mechanics) were initially undertaken in innocence without thought to their consequences.

The worry is that private companies and governments will soon possess powers well beyond our imagination even a few years ago. And they will be mostly unregulated.

Like the mythical gods of Greece, our species has acquired enormous powers without the wisdom to manage those powers responsibly. 

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the InfoHealth series at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.  

Subscribe to our mailing list