Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World
Lee M. Silver
William Morrow, 1997
317 pp., 24.21
Writers are a thrifty lot. They like nothing better than to salvage an old piece for a new readership. (Sometimes even for the same readership, as Erle Stanley Gardner did with bits of boilerplate in his Perry Mason books.) The latest moves in the stem cell debate reminded me of something I wrote for Christianity Today several years ago. I am using it again here, slightly altered.
In 1997, when a mention of embryonic stem cells would elicit blank stares from all but a handful of readers, a Princeton University biologist, Lee Silver, published a remarkable book that addressed head-on the issues raised by the prospect of "engineering life." The title of Silver's book is instructive: Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World. Let's be done with the old superstitions that would have us in thrall to a fictitious divine Creator. Weâ€”human beingsâ€”are as gods, and we had better get on with the job.
Silver must be a superb teacher; his explanations of "reprogenetic technologies" are exceptionally lucid. He is certainly an unabashed enthusiast, exulting that "we have gained the power to control the destiny of the species," and he impatiently dismisses the fears and moral scruples that might hinder the march of "research" in any way. Hence his book offers an invaluable opportunity for the reader to see these issues through the eyes of the typical mainstream scientist, whose collective authority our national opinion-setters invoke in countless references to that infallible oracle, "science."
After all, as Silver remarks while brushing aside arguments from the Vatican about the status of human embryos, "Most people do not want to admit that their views are based on spiritual beliefs because in an advanced technological society like ours, with its foundation in science, arguments based on faith alone are not given much credibility. Scientific arguments are required for a cloak of respectability."
And to have a little fun, to tickle knowing secularists and provoke hidebound believers, Silver introduces his first chapter with an epigraph from Genesis 1 and begins his epilogue with a verse from Revelation: "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last." Clever!
But surely this mocking appropriation of religious language is rare in serious science writing? Well, no. Of course there are many scientists who don't go in for that sort of thing, but many others relish the opportunity to take a jab at the pious and the faithful.
Such mockery can turn up in the most unexpected places. Consider, for example, the extremely influential 1966 book, Adaptation and Natural Selection, by George Williams, one of the preeminent evolutionary biologists of our time. Unlike Silver's book, written for a popular audience, Adaptation and Natural Selection was intended in the first instance for Williams' peers and students. Here is the very last paragraph in his book:
Perhaps today's theory of natural selection, which is essentially that provided more than 30 years ago by Fisher, Haldane, and Wright, is somewhat like Dalton's atomic theory. It may not, in any absolute or permanent sense, represent the truth, but I am convinced that it is the light and the way.
This lightly mocking appropriation of Scripture ends the book on an urbane note: no blunderbuss blast at the dunderheaded creationists but rather an artfully ironic allusion that flatters the reader: We're in the same club, you and I.
Not all appropriations of religious language in science writing are intended to mock. In the same year that Lee Silver's Remaking Eden appeared, the distinguished cosmologist Lee Smolin published a book called The Life of the Cosmos. Smolin is not a religious believer. In his conclusion, he compares the universe to a city, "an endless construction of the new out of the old. No one made the city; there is no city maker, as there is a clockmaker."
It follows that "there never was a God, no pilot who made the world by imposing order." But this is no cause for despair, for existential angst: "Nietzsche now also is dead," Smolin writes. Instead of brooding, he wants us to celebrate the evolutionary "logic" at the heart of the cosmos: "the logic of life is continual change, continual motion, continual evolution."
Still, Smolin is not as naÃ¯vely utopian as Silver. Here are the last sentences of Smolin's book:
All we have of natural law is a world that has made itself. All we may expect of human law is what we can negotiate among ourselves, and what we take as our responsibility. All we may gain of knowledge must be drawn from what we can see with our own eyes and what others tell us they have seen with their own eyes. All we may expect of justice is compassion. All we may look up to as judges are each other. All that is possible of utopia is what we make with our own hands. Pray let it be enough.
Pray? And to whom shall those prayers be directed?
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