Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Modern Wilderness?

I wonder if anyone else out there feels like a voice in the wilderness. The experiences of the past couple of decades would seem to have increased our number. The collapse of communism, the Internet making our lives more virtual and alienated, AIDs, the rise of the neo-cons and their Machiavellian manufacturing of the Iraq war, migration on a massive scale, the spectre of apocalyptic disaster from climate change, the burgeoning of cities with their swelling ranks of urban loners and their increasingly fluid, insecure and dog-eat-dog job markets: all this and more have engendered a more or less constant state of isolated shock.

But is any of this really new? Sure, some things can be said to be unprecedented - the sheer scale of this latest population explosion, the democratization of instant global communication, a dazzling range of scientific and intellectual advancements. Yet before any kind of distinctive 21st century wilderness might have come into being, there were plenty of others no less formidable. Who's to say that they were any less traumatic? You only have to think back half a century, when the world was pondering deeply on whether humankind would ever recover from the ethical and spiritual catastrophe of the Holocaust.

Moreover, the assumption that we've really got most of it figured out, that all these technological advancements have somehow solved a slew of age-old problems, seems to me to be a fundamental mistake. A few hours ago, I was listening to the radio, and heard a university professor argue a case for genetic engineering. If a little tweak of the genes - just a little tiny one - would improve learning skills and otherwise advance social cohesion in a way that might reduce or even eliminate a plethora of society's ills, he said, then we should go ahead and do it.

How could you possibly believe such a thing? I cried in the wilderness. It would be such an obvious mistake. You have no idea what you are destroying when you manipulate genes. And are you not suggesting that we should destroy the wilderness itself - that pesky repository of the incomprehensible? Imagine a world without wilderness, without mystery, as the professor wants us to do. Go ahead. I don't think I could bear to.

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