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A Re-Evaluation of All Values?

William Robins on genetics and Nietzsche’s Will to Power.

It was recently reported that Craig Venter had achieved a monumental breakthrough in biology by creating a genetic sequence from lab chemicals alone. Although he claims to have created artificial life, he has not created life artificially; that is to say, he is not yet able to create life from scratch. But by implanting the artificial genetic code into a living bacteria, the artificial genes will take over and the creation of an altogether new kind of lifeform will have been achieved.

In some ways this is nothing new. Genetic modification of any kind – from breeding corgis to mutant corn – produces new varieties of life forms, each in a sense unique or distinct from their predecessors. Yet Venter’s breakthrough is unlike previous genetic tinkering. It paves the way for achieving in a single bound what would otherwise take lifetimes to accom plish.

Venter describes his achievement as heralding “a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things we never contemplated before. ” This is not a case of one small step for a man and a giant leap for mankind. It calls for the replacement of our little steps with an altogether different stride.

Research like this unleashes new power. Venter has been accused – as scientists in his field usually are – of getting carried away with progress for the sake of progress, before properly thinking through its ethical, sociological and other implications. Power can be variously defined as the ability to control, to manipulate, to decide a matter one way or the other. However, power is ethically neutral. But humanity has rarely – I want to say never – embraced a new power for purely good purposes. Dynamite was invented by Alfred Nobel to speed up the mining process, to save labour and boost industry. Its use as a weapon of destruction prompted its inventor to found the peace prize. Nuclear power may well save the planet from global warming, but the creator of the atomic bomb despaired that he had become “the destroyer of worlds.” The internet gives us power in the form of access to knowledge and information which can be used by educators and terrorists alike.

But if the application of power reflects both the virtues and vices of humanity, then can it in principal go beyond even these values? The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believed that our will for power was the most fundamental principal governing human life. For Nietzsche, the will to power went beyond the categories of good and evil. The ultimate value ends up not being goodness or happiness, but vitalism – how clearly this will to power is expressed through one’s life. Hence Nietzsche called for individuals to free themselves from cultural mores and reinvent themselves: to become living works of art. Nietzsche described himself as one who philosophized with a hammer, and we can hear the echo of his pounding in Venter ’s declaration that: “We are trying to create a new value system for life. When dealing with things at this scale you can’t expect to make everyone happy.” So Venter seems to believe that an ability to create genetic code will require us to draw up a new table of values. In this he and Nietzsche are in agreement: Nietzsche also believed that to pursue power to its proper expression we would have to abandon old ways of evaluation. It would be though this that an altogether new kind of human could come about: the übermensch, or over-man.

Whereas Nietzschean self-recreation was spiritual and philosophical, Venter’s recreation is physical. But what is most worrying here is the recurrence of a pernicious attitude towards progressing the human condition. The National Socialist Party claimed Nietzsche’s philosophy as their own and embarked upon a project of ethnic cleansing and bizarre experimentation that promised to improve the human condition through isolating a desirable genetic code – that of the Aryan race – as well as indulging in unrestrained expressions of imperial and authoritarian might.

Venter is no Nazi, but the desire to alter nature by asserting power over nature is pure hubris. The truth is that such power will never transcend our existing values, for it is only from within a world shaped by these values that we create our new powers.

Nietzsche’s last literary act was to write an autobiography of his life through the lens of his previous works. Venter’s own book A Life Decoded does the same thing, for it is “the sum of 6 million base pairs of my DNA struggling to understand itself.” Yet this attempt to deconstruct a life is not science. Turning life into literature – finding a story, a pattern, a code in amongst the chaos of existence – must involve some falsifying. Events are reinterpreted, mutated into steps towards a goal, or as necessary conditions for one ’s present existence.

Indeed, it is easy to find solace in this view of life – that nature and nurture conspired in some determinate and determinable way to make you what you are. But it is just not so. In the end we are just what we make ourselves: we become what we are. There is no pre-existing pattern we are destined to fit.

But in a sense, the choice of what will be done with this technology has perhaps already been made. It is one power among others, and like any other power it will be used to further goals we have already decided. It will only be after we do use this power that we shall learn about ourselves, for this use will reflect back on us once more what is best and worst about humanity.

© William Robins 2008

William Robins is a postgraduate student at Bristol University.

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