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On the Cusp of Extreme Evil

by Kenneth V. Ryland

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I have always assumed that Jesus was probably speaking of nuclear warfare when He said in Matthew 24:22 that, at the time of his second coming, unless God were to intervene in the affairs of men, there would be no flesh saved alive. However, after reading the feature article by Bill Joy in the April 2000 (8.04) edition of Wired magazine, I have come to realize that my assumptions were premature and simplistic. It seems that some of our newest technology - nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and robotics - is bringing us into a whole new era of weaponry that could far supersede the terror of nuclear weapons.

In his article, Bill Joy, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems and chief scientist of that company, related his growing sense of unease with our plunge into this new era of molecular technology. And, his anxiety seems to be well founded since but a handful of the individuals involved in bringing into being these new magical, technological wonders show any concern that we are creating nano-machines and organisms that are too destructive for us to control.

It just happened that while I was in the middle of the article by Bill Joy, I ran across a story about goats in Canada producing spiders' webs. Yes, it's evidently true. According to a UPI story some Canadian scientists have implanted spider genes into a herd of goats. The goats now produce silky strands in their milk. These strands can be used for sutures and other applications. "In addition to sutures for eye surgery, the strands ... can be used to reconstruct tendons or ligaments and to repair bones."

As with many scientific breakthroughs, this one is being sold to the public for its great medical benefits. However, few are addressing the question: Do scientists know where to stop in their efforts to place genetic material from one species into another; or should they have even started doing it at all?


The four terms defined below are central to our new technologies:

1) Genetic engineering: "Scientific alteration of the structure of genetic material in a living organism. It involves the production and use of recombinant DNA [transplanting or splicing genes from one species into the DNA of a different species.] and has been employed to create bacteria that synthesize insulin and other human proteins." (American Heritage Dictionary
--"Alteration of an organism's genetic, or hereditary, material to eliminate undesirable characteristics or to produce desirable new ones." (MS Bookshelf's Concise Encyclopedia)

2) Nanotechnology: "The science and technology of building electronic circuits and devices from single atoms and molecules." (American Heritage Dictionary)

3) Robotics: "The branch of engineering devoted to the creation and training of robots. Roboticists work within a wide range of fields, such as mechanical and electronic engineering, cybernetics, bionics, and artificial intelligence, all toward the end of endowing their creations with as much sensory awareness, physical dexterity, independence, and flexibility as possible." (American Heritage Dictionary)

--The heart of our new generation of robots will be the "quantum computer" (see below).

Quantum Computers: "But a newly conceived type of computer, one that exploits quantum-mechanical interactions ... [R]esearchers have now demonstrated the feasibility of this approach. Such a computer would look nothing like the machine that sits on your desk; surprisingly, it might resemble the cup of coffee at its side." Scientific American.

Quantum computers are sometimes known as "qubit" computers. Qubits are defined as "quantum bits, i.e., bits of information represented by a quantum object, such as a single atom, ion, or photon."

It is believed that by the year 2020 or perhaps much earlier the basic memory components of a computer will be the size of individual atoms.

Truly, man is on the brink of become the creator god -- able to bring into being whole new species of plants and animals according to his imagination. I never thought of it this way until today, but can we apply Jesus' admonition about marriage here: "What God has joined together, let not man put asunder." We are indeed putting asunder God's creation in order to construct our own creation in our own image.

Joy states:

Each of these technologies also offers untold promise: The vision of near immortality that [Ray] Kurzweil [an inventor and futurist] sees in his robot dreams drives us forward; genetic engineering may soon provide treatments, if not outright cures, for most diseases; and nanotechnology and nanomedicine can address yet more ills. Together they could significantly extend our average life span and improve the quality of our lives. Yet, with each of these technologies, a sequence of small, individually sensible advances leads to an accumulation of great power and, concomitantly, great danger...

The 21st-century technologies - genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) - are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them.

Thus we have the possibility not just of weapons of mass destruction but of knowledge-enabled mass destruction (KMD), this destructiveness hugely amplified by the power of self-replication.

I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, [emphasis mine throughout] an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals. 

Yes, indeed, the perfection of extreme evil! Nonetheless, I do believe that scientists, in the main, do not intend for their discoveries and inventions to be used for evil. Mostly, they desire to plumb the depths of truth contained in our physical universe. Each would like to solve a mathematical problem or produce a formula that has never been seen before, and then see the result of their discovery made into a vaccine that will cure cancer or a grain that will feed the world. The exhilaration of discovery and invention drives them forward to reach the end they seek, but they cannot see beyond the completion of their own work to the moment when the product of their discovery is let loose on the world - either for good or for evil. Every scientist knows not what uses his work may be put to once it leaves his control, and that is the problem - and the source of great concern for thoughtful scientists like Bill Joy, who cringe at our god-like scientific powers: "It is this further danger that we now fully face - the consequences of our truth-seeking. The truth that science seeks can certainly be considered a dangerous substitute for God if it is likely to lead to our extinction."

There is indeed a problem in defining all "Truth" in terms other than spiritual and moral. Yet, in our materially-oriented world the idea of spiritual or moral truth is left to compete with scientific, economic, or social truth - as if they were all somehow equal. Modern man has become lost in the gears of the machinery of the physical universe with no ability to look from the outside upon the whole of creation. The totality of his "Truth" has become the things he can experience or discover - but not necessarily control.

Apart from the myopia of most scientists, there is the casual acceptance of new discoveries by the public and news media as almost daily fare. Technology is changing so fast that the nontechnical public, traditionally very suspicious of change, has become uncritical of the potentially dangerous nature of new discoveries and technologies and of the harm they might produce. Most presume that new vaccines or new high-yielding grains are just around the corner and suppose that all new discoveries are potentially good. However, when it comes to nanotechnology or genetic engineering, we cannot automatically assume that the best is yet to come. Bill Joy once again tries to put the inherent dangers of GNR into perspective:

It is most of all the power of destructive self-replication in genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) that should give us pause. Self-replication is the modus operandi of genetic engineering, which uses the machinery of the cell to replicate its designs, and the prime danger underlying gray goo [the problem of uncontrolled, life-destroying self-replication] in nanotechnology. Stories of run-amok robots like the Borg [in "Star Trek"], replicating or mutating to escape from the ethical constraints imposed on them by their creators, are well established in our science fiction books and movies. It is even possible that self-replication may be more fundamental than we thought, and hence harder - or even impossible - to control...

In truth, we have had in hand for years clear warnings of the dangers inherent in widespread knowledge of GNR technologies - of the possibility of knowledge alone enabling mass destruction. But these warnings haven't been widely publicized; the public discussions have been clearly inadequate. There is no profit in publicizing the dangers.

The nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) technologies used in 20th-century weapons of mass destruction were and are largely military, developed in government laboratories. In sharp contrast, the 21st-century GNR technologies have clear commercial uses and are being developed almost exclusively by corporate enterprises. In this age of triumphant commercialism, technology - with science as its handmaiden - is delivering a series of almost magical inventions that are the most phenomenally lucrative ever seen...

The more money involved, the more inclined are the developers to overlook the dangers. Greed: One of the most powerful and dangerous elixirs known to man. It is a spirit that can turn charity into a vice. It drunkens the imbiber and turns his good intentions into transparent pretexts for gain at the expense of those who are sold the products he peddles.

Even as I write this piece, the door to the knowledge of the human genetic code is being kicked open with the completion of the Human Genome Project.

(Excerpted) LONDON (BBC) - Tuesday, 27 June, 2000

Genetic revolution work begins

Scientists are now unravelling the code for life.

Scientists are beginning the work of understanding the "book of life", after unveiling what has been described as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time.

In the future, the data will make it possible to banish inherited disorders, screen people for their vulnerability to diseases, tailor treatment to an individual's genetic make-up, create thousands of new drugs and extend human lifespan.

"Wondrous map"

US President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed the rough draft as "the most wondrous map ever produced by human kind".

They said society had a duty to use the new information responsibly and for the benefit of all humankind. Critics expressed the fear that the new knowledge would be used to discriminate against those with "inferior" genes or to create "designer people".

Mr Clinton and Mr Blair saluted the efforts of the scientists

But those behind the landmark announcement said it was unlikely that knowing the human genetic code would lead to people's inherited characteristics - the germline - being manipulated.

As was to be expected, the announcement of completion of the genetic mapping of DNA was heralded with the justification that it represents the cure to many now-incurable diseases. In making the announcement to the world, president Clinton even went so far as to invoke the name of God, as if the whole Genome project were some kind of divine miracle. Of course, it is always good to have the imprimatur of the Creator of the universe to advertise any project you might undertake -- especially if it is potentially worth multiple billions of dollars.

What is not mentioned are the other possible uses of this genetic information. It is true that some birth defects and diseases might be eliminated. It is also possible that knowledgeable scientists financed by aspiring megalomaniacs might seek to create a whole new class of human slaves -- deficient in certain mental characteristics that contribute to independent thinking. Or, there is the possibility of creating or cloning human beings who are perfectly loyal, virtually invincible soldiers -- perfect men of war who are perfectly expendable. The key to genetically engineering the next generation of human beings is contained in the 3 billion letter genetic code that makes up human DNA, and now scientists have cracked that code like a burglar cracking Buckingham's security to get at the Crown Jewels. The smell of hubris is in the air while the scent of danger is far removed from our senses. As former statesman McGeorge Bundy once said: "There is no safety in unlimited technological hubris," or, as Proverbs 16:18 states: "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall."

I asked previously whether or not GNR technologies should ever have been pursued in the first place. That is really a moot point since the genie is already out of the bottle. A more pertinent question would be: Can arrogant man of this 21st century live with his creation? Can we put moral and ethical limits on ourselves that would prevent our own destruction? I do not believe we can. We have reduced the notion of God to our own most inspiring personal feelings. Certainty about anything, including what is right and wrong, has escaped our grasp. Yet, if we cannot know for certain that there is One who will judge the living and the dead, and that all will appear before the judgment seat of Christ, then there is no reason for us to believe that God would ever make any difference in a world in which it is believed that all ideas represent equal, competing interests.

Whether man will destroy himself with his new technology or by more "conventional" means, like nuclear weapons, no one but God Himself can say. What I can say for certain is that man has never possessed any potentially destructive technology that he has not eventually used to destroy his rivals. It is not in mankind to be purely good. At best man is a mixture of good and evil, and at worst he is Idi Amin, Joseph Stalin, or Adolph Hitler. There have always been many more aspiring to the status of Ivan the Terrible than those seeking the quiet way of service of Mother Teresa. As the Scripture says: "Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!" (Deuteronomy 5:29), and "The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their ways; they have made themselves crooked paths; whoever takes that way shall not know peace." (Isaiah 59:8) 

We can be thankful that there really is a Messiah in heaven awaiting His Eternal Father's order to return to earth and save mankind from himself. Come Lord Jesus!

Email Ken Ryland at kvryland@yahoo.com!

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