Paging Dr Frankenstein…

Picture: virus

I recently heard that scientists studying the H5N1 flu virus have altered it so that it has become much more contagious to humans. The story is available online from the New York Times via this link:

The virus in its naturally occurring form (avian flu) is not very contagious to humans, but about half of the people who have caught it have died. The mutated version is described as being “highly transmissible” between humans and could be “transmitted in aerosols”.

The two groups of scientists who conducted the parallel experiments, one in the US and one in the Netherlands, were planning to publish scientific papers explaining their results until the US Government intervened and asked the journals not to publish details on the basis that doing so might increase the risk of bioterrorism.

Here is a link to the public statement released by Nature (one of the journals) explaining that the scientists concerned have agreed to pause research for 60 days:

I must say that I find it very disturbing that scientists can take it upon themselves to conduct these experiments, assume some risk of the deadly virus escaping, and propose to publish an explanation – which would be publicly available – that would allow other people to replicate the experiment. Why do they think they have to do this, that they should do this?

I wish I could trust the scientists, but I have no idea who they are. I don’t know what their ethical positions or values are. Even if they have no intention of harming others, that doesn’t mean that harm can’t eventuate. Jim Garrison in his book Civilization and the Transformation of Power writes: “The next phase of human development will continue to reap the whirlwind of our God complex. Our Faustian Pact has not yet played out. We will continue to make incredible advances in science and technology and use our new-found powers for primitive, mostly selfish ends. The cruciform pattern of history desines us to re-enact new manifestations of our fallenness even as we continue laboriously to become more civilized.” (p342)

The word “fallenness” used by Garrison refers to the Christian theological concept of the Fall, but it is not necessary to believe in the Bible literally to apply the concept as a metaphor. Human beings have a dark side, which includes our egotism, selfishness, greed, fear, hatred and other ugly things, which warps our noblest intentions and affects our uses of our technical creations.

The “cruciform pattern” is a reference to the ideas of Carl Jung, who suggested, in the words of Garrison, that “everything in our experience is comprised of opposites, and all things evolve through time within a pattern of life, death and renewal.” (p.xxvii) That is why we find it difficult to be ethical. There are always competing reasons to do, or not do, any particular action, including a piece of scientific research.

Maybe I’m paranoid, but I think it’s just a matter of time before one of these virus mutation experiments goes wrong and most of us end up dead and whoever is left behind will be living in a dystopian hell that will make the Dark Ages look attractive.


Humanity and Force

I was struck by the images coming from North Korea of last week’s funeral of their leader, Kim Jong Il. The huge scale of the plaza in which the public service was held, with thousands of soldiers standing bareheaded in formation in freezing conditions, was an unforgettable image.

And yet, by all accounts, North Korea is a sad and poverty stricken country, ruled oppressively by an unprogressive Stalinist regime, an economic disaster where many babies die of hunger and most street lights are turned off at night to save power. So, what motivates such vast crowds of men and women to obey and support such dismal leadership? Is it fear? Is it years of demoralisation and brainwashing, of living in a society where dissent invites persecution and death?

That would be my first guess, watching from afar. But I suspect that there is an additional dynamic at work under the surface. People have a desire to survive, to live, to get by as best they can, and the leaders of North Korea have harnessed that force. The thousands of soldiers assembled in the cold in Pyongyang, even bare handed, and despite any security measures put in place, could likely have mutinied and overwhelmed their dictators in a few minutes. But instead, they bowed meekly and returned to their barracks and homes in the poorest country in their region.

To see this open display of the capture of the energy and force of the people of North Korea was stunning. It drives home the truth of the basic principle of constitutional law: that human force is powerful enough to set up a new government or group of rulers, but cannot maintain freedom over time. Only the establishment of a system where the force is channelled into balancing and inter-correcting parts can do that. It has been said that it is more difficult for a people to keep than to gain their freedom.

I am not referring only to John Locke’s concept of checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judicial parts of a formal government structure. There are other embodiments of human energy and force in our societies: the military, the banking sector, business and industry of different levels and sizes, organised workers, rural communities, womens groups, ethnic and indgenous groups, and religious groups.

If these groups can all make their contribution, then we might see a different result to when a society is dominated by one group only. But what does it take, really, to make the difference? A voice, a right to be heard? Respect? Compromise by others? Protections from exploitation? A fair share of our nation’s wealth?

Therefore, we must not forget to ask ourselves, as we view the images from Pyongyang: in our country, who controls the lives of others? Are we all truly free people, or do too many of us live our lives bowing to the dictates of the powerful? And if we think, on reflection, that our lives are being overly dominated by the interests and power of a few, then we can ask a further question: are we giving to those powerful ones the weapon they use to subdue us, our own force and energy?