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Courtesy of Victoria Vesna
an infant science that deals with matter on the molecular
level, nanotechnology is notoriously difficult to visualize
or intuitively grasp. To forge an intellectual connection
with the discipline, Jim Gimzewski, a professor of chemistry
and biochemistry, teamed up with Victoria Vesna, chair of
the Department of Design | Media Arts, to create this collaborative
image. Aptly titled “nano baby,” it signifies
nanotechnology’s early stages.
Will society come to embrace the idea that
we are not special but merely another species in an evolutionary
process — or a mere chemical reaction or process? I am not
sure we are capable of doing so. For example, I can accept at
one level that my daughter is “just another” chemical
reaction, but on another level I cannot help but regard her as
a very special human, with lots of spirit and special consciousness.
Some have suggested that Eastern thinking comes to grips with
these splits better than does our Western one. I am not certain
of that, but I am certain that it is difficult to accept at an
internal level some of the ideas that our rational science demands.
This necessarily leads to conflicts within us that may well be
ineluctable and a source of real insecurity.
That science fiction movies sometimes raise
these issues but ultimately come to reassure us of our inherent
human superiority illustrates the problem. In Star Trek,
Captain Kirk’s humanness proves superior to Spock’s
reasoning; in Star Wars, “trust the Force”
suggests that there is a power greater than ourselves. Other movies
such as Terminator, I, Robot, Blade Runner and the very
poignant A.I. exploit our insecurities about inherent
humanness, but also reaffirm that humans are unique. Such conflict
would have no appeal if we were really comfortable with our specialness.
The changes in our understanding about the
meaning of life and humanness will necessarily lead to changes
in the rights and responsibilities that we feel toward one another.
It becomes especially important that we have guidance and forums
for discussion like the UCLA Center for Society and Genetics.
It is important that we not automatically assume that these newer
positions offer only bleak, existentialist views. Darwin famously
concludes his Origin of Species with his belief that
“There is grandeur in this [new] view of life … and
that, whilst this planet has gone on cycling according to the
fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms
most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
One must agree with him. I would argue, further, that viewing
life and humanness from the newer perspectives is no less wonderful
or beautiful, perhaps more so, as we try to imagine one chemical
or abstract process reading this essay or contemplating the consequences
is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary