V. Relevance to Environmental Semester

  1. Relationship to Nature
  2. Three Faustian Technologies
    1. Germline Genetic Engineering
    2. Artificial Intelligence & Artificial Life
    3. Nanotechnology
    4. Others

A.    Relationship to Nature

Goethe's ideas, as expressed both in his Faust and in his scientific writings, suggest a different relationship to nature from that typical of contemporary science, technology, politics, economics, and even ecology.  By coming to understand his ideas better, we may be able to enhance our relationship to nature, or to shift it somewhat, and perhaps redirect the trajectory of our society to avoid the many environmental problems that concern us.

B.    Three Faustian Technologies

To focus our attention in this seminar, and keep our discussions relevant, we will consider three "Faustian" technologies that are currently under development.  They all have the characteristic that they promise many improvements for human life and society, but they also raise disturbing questions.  These are certainly not the only Faustian technologies, and in a sense all technology, as well as many other aspects of contemporary society, are Faustian.  Nevertheless, these technologies are particularly stark in their possible benefits and threats.  In any case, I invite you to think about other cases in which our society has, or may soon, make "Faustian bargains."  We will have opportunities to consider them throughout the semester.  Here are the Faustian technologies I propose for our consideration:

1.    Germline Genetic Engineering

We are all familiar with the idea of genetic therapy: altering a person's genes, for example in their blood or bone marrow, to cure a genetic disease.  This is a very exciting area of research and promises to alleviate the suffering of many people.  However, somatic gene therapy (SGT) of this sort can only cure one person at a time.  If the person's genetic disease was inherited from their parents, then they will carry it in the chromosomes of their germ cells (sperm or egg) and quite likely pass it on to their offspring.  Germline genetic engineering (GLGE) attempts to solve this problem by altering the genes in a person's germ cells.  Then, any change will also be passed on to the patient's children, grandchildren, and so on, forever.  Thus, the promise of GLGE is that certain undesirable genetic conditions (such as sickle cell anemia or cystic fibrosis) might be eliminated from the human race once and for all.

Part of the difficulty of this technology is that it can be used for modifying any genes, and what is a "genetic problem" is somewhat in the eye of the beholder.  We may all If agree that sickle cell anemia is a genetic disease and should be cured.  But what about below-average intelligence?  If your children have below-average intelligence, they will be at a disadvantage in many ways and probably a shorter life on average (due to having a lower paying job, poorer health care, etc.).  And why shouldn't well-to-do parents pay for GLGE that will give their children above average intelligence?  Or why shouldn't they have genes altered to increase muscle bulk or blood oxygen carrying capacity, so that their children have greater athletic ability, and are more likely to get a scholarship or succeed in professional sports?  If germline therapy is good, why not germline enhancement?

Many people are disturbed by these possibilities, for many reasons.  For one, it could amplify socioeconomic differences into genetic differences.  Since, in principle, any gene can be changed and then passed on to all descendents, this technology could permit us to change what it is to be a human being.

Some discussions of germline genetic engineering (just a sampling):

2.    Artificial Intelligence & Artificial Life

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the investigation of how computers exhibiting human-like can be designed.  When AI first arose as a discipline, researchers were very optimistic and thought that computers with human intelligence would be designed within a couple decades. 

AI is my own research area and I am awed by the complexity of brains (animal as well as human) and about how little we know about how they work.  Therefore, I do not expect to see artificial human-scale intelligence any time soon.  Nevertheless, many researchers argue that we are on verge of breakthroughs, and soon will be facing the prospect of computers with more than human intelligence.  (See, for example, Hans Moravec's articles at <>.)  Are we designing our replacements?  Some advocates of this technology argue that we should feel sad if humans are superceded, for by designing our successors we are fulfilling our role in the evolution of intelligent life on earth.  In "Robots, Re-evolving Mind" <>, Moravec writes:

"Rather quickly, they could displace us from existence. I'm not as alarmed as many by the latter possibility, since I consider these future machines our progeny, “mind children” built in our image and likeness, ourselves in more potent form. Like biological children of previous generations, they will embody humanity's best chance for a long-term future. It behooves us to give them every advantage and to bow out when we can no longer contribute.

"But, as also with biological children, we can probably arrange for a comfortable retirement before we fade away. Some biological children can be convinced to care for elderly parents. Similarly, “tame” superintelligences could be created and induced to protect and support us, for a while. Such relationships require advance planning and diligent maintenance: it's time to pay attention."

A related discipline, in which I also work, is artificial life (AL), in which we attempt to design artificial systems that act sufficiently lively (whether they are "really" alive or not is mostly a theoretical matter at this stage).  In this case we may not be so interested in machines with human intelligence as in robots with the size and intelligence of insects or small mammals (e.g., rats).  Such systems would have many applications, including planetary exploration, waste cleanup, and warfare.  If you think about an application such as planetary exploration, it becomes clear that in the long run would like these robots to be able to heal (like living beings), to learn and adapt, and perhaps even to evolve to adapt to changing or unpredicted conditions.  (Already, we routinely simulate evolution in computers, and researchers have developed simple systems in which the hardware itself evolves.)  We can see the benefits of such systems, but there are also dangers.  Such an evolving, self-perpetuating population of robots, if released in an environment, could have the same unpredictable impact as releasing a non-native natural species into an environment.

Again, it might seem we are quite far away from this, but researchers are already genetically engineering bacteria so that may be introduced into environments for some purpose (e.g., cleaning up pollutants).  UT researcher Gary Sayler (Center for Environmental Biotechnology <>) has done widely-acclaimed work in this area.  Such genetically modified microorganisms are not artificial life per se, but they are artificially-enhanced life, and raise similar issues.

3.    Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is a rapidly expanding field in which systems are designed at scales measured in nanometers (millions of a millimeter).  Much of the work going on in the field now is devoted to the development of new materials that have been designed at the atomic level.  However, researchers are also planning more active nanostructures, for example microminiature robots, which could be injected into the bloodstream to detect and remove blood clots or plaque deposits.  Further, there are long-term projects directed toward the design of assemblers, which can be programmed to assemble any desired structure at the molecular level.  Once implemented, such assemblers could be used to assemble other assemblers, in fact, to create self-replicating assemblers, which would continue to produce copies of themselves so long as raw materials were available.  Since self-replicating assemblers could be programmed to scavenge commonly available materials from their environment, some well-respected researchers have expressed concern that they might eventually pose an environmental hazard.  Like a scene from a science fiction movie, one can image a spilled batch of self-replicators eroding the surrounding land to create an ever-growing mass of self-replicators, engulfing the earth in what has been called "gray goo."  Far-fetched, perhaps, but researchers have already produced nanoparticles, too small to be trapped by filters, whose health effects have not been evaluated.  Recently I saw a presentation from a scientist who had isolated the protein that a virus uses to pierce a cell wall, and she showed now it could be controlled to create a microminiature robot arm.

For a discussion of some of these nanotechnology issues, see:

4.    Others

There are, of course, many other Faustian technologies, of greater or lesser importance, including email, pervasive sensor systems, atomic energy, and steroids.

A good presentation of many of the issues, especially in regard to the three technologies highlighted here, is McKibben, 2003.

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