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Beware The Mad Scientist
by Serge Kahili King

The first caveperson who discovered how to create fire at will (it could very well have been a woman) was probably chased out of the cave for daring to meddle with the perogatives of the gods. Something like that no doubt gave rise to stories like the Greek tale of Prometheus who suffered eternal torture for having dared to give the secret of fire to humanity. Continuing with our caveperson scenario, once the practical value of self-made fire overcame the fear of trespassing on sacred ground, later cavepeople probably deplored its invention because fire which cooked food could also be used to burn property and people.

It's possible to see a related pattern throughout human history: invention, peaceful use, destructive use, though not necessarily in that order. Spears were invented, used to hunt food, and also turned against other humans. Gunpowder was invented and used for fireworks, and also for bombs and guns. Cars were invented, used for transportation, and also for tanks. Planes were invented, used for thrills and communication, and also for fighters and bombers.

Some things are designed for a good purpose and then a few people learn how to use them destructively. A knife can cut up food or kill people, a hammer can drive nails or kill people, television can be used to entertain and inform or manipulate. Other things can start out with destructive intent and can then be used to help and heal, like lasers, atomic power and submarines.

Any discovery or invention can stimulate fear in some part of the population, either fear of potential misuse or fear of transgressing unseen boundaries. Even the most innocuous discoveries and inventions can produce this reaction. The first popular automobiles used a hand crank to start the engine. When a starter button was introduced many people refused to touch it because they thought that only the devil would think of making it so easy to start an engine. Once I owned a bookstore and I had set up a large framework pyramid in one section. I remember a man who came in and asked me if it were from the devil. I said no, it was eight pieces of copper pipe from the home improvement store down the street. It seemed to make him feel better. When computers were invented some people thought they would end up ruling the world (the judgement call is still out on this one).

Unfortunately, the fear-based resistance to new discoveries and inventions is all too often justified. Countless lives have been lost or harmed and immense amounts of property have been damaged and destroyed by their misuse. The problem does not lie entirely with the discoveries and inventions themselves. I say "not entirely" because a fair number of discoveries and inventions are improvements to things that are already dangerous. Weapons sitting idle may not kill people, but it only takes common sense to see that fewer people would be killed if the weapons weren't there in the first place. The main problem, however, lies with those who misuse discoveries and inventions, intentionally or not. In modern society, beginning in the nineteenth century, discoveries and inventions have been primarily associated with a class of people we call scientists. While scientists as a whole have a pretty good reputation, everyone knows that the most dangerous kind of human being is a mad scientist.

The classic mad scientist is the fictional Dr. Frankenstein, who created a monster with dead body parts and electricity. He had good intentions, but his ignorance was greater than his knowledge and disaster happened. Since then fiction stories have helped to create the popular conception of a mad scientist who either plays with forces beyond his understanding, with destructive results, or is willing to destroy the world in order to control it. I can't think of any real life mad scientists of the second type, but there certainly have been some, and may still be some around, of the first type. To be fair, some of those mad scientists may be engineers, who might or might not consider themselves to be scientists. Regardless, sometimes the results of their discoveries and inventions seem like the work of madmen: nuclear weapons capable of destroying all life on earth; nuclear and other toxic waste capable of making large areas of the earth uninhabitable; poison gas, land mines, artificially produced infectious diseases. It takes madmen to produce those, much less use them.

Recently the announcement was made that a virtually complete map of the human genome, the entire genetic make-up of a human being, has been mapped. There are those who are very excited, with good reason, and there are those who are frightened, with good reason.

The mapping itself, made possible with the use of supercomputers and peripherals, is a tremendous achievement in terms of human motivation, ingenuity and determination. The beneficial potentials are likewise tremendous: curing of diseases, enhancement of physical attributes, targeted drugs, and lots more money for scientists, investors, pharmaceutical companies and lawyers. The destructive potentials, for those who care to think about them, are also tremendous: intentional or accidental inducement of disease, enhancement of an elite, employment and social discrimination based on genes, monopolistic business practices, a bottomless well of legal issues and suits, and unscrupulous experimentation.

The vice president and general counsel at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, Thomas E. Jurgensen, said in an interview after the announcement of the mapping, "There is an ability to abuse it. I am not saying that people will abuse it, per se," he said. "It may not be malicious intent; it may just be blind ignorance."

Virginia Postrel, editor of Reason magazine, has expressed a sort of scientific positive thinking viewpoint: By pursuing dangerous technologies we develop their antidotes.

I'd like to express a sort of shamanic positive thinking viewpoint. Because the potential for good uses of the human genome mapping project is so great we must not let fear of the possible misuses get in the way of those good uses. The only way to do that, of course, is to act in some effective way to help guide the process. Fortunately, in the shamanic view, we are not limited to writing, protesting, and fighting. Since we can work in more than three dimensions, it might be useful to set up a resort in the inner world and invite scientific spirits to training sessions in love, compassion, and respect for life. After all, what makes a mad scientist mad is his or her deep sense of separation from the living universe.

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Copyright by Aloha International 2001
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