The techno-scientific madness

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We live in a world where, in order to fight global warming, we are quietly considering sending sulfur nanoparticles into the atmosphere to reflect solar radiation, irreversibly altering the biosphere. A world where we « fertilize » the sea to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, which absorbs a lot of CO2, upsetting the physicochemical and ecosystemic balance of the oceans, again in an irreversible way. 

We live in a world where human beings and nature must be « augmented » or « improved » for greater efficiency and performance. As Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering and a prominent transhumanist, says,  » Aging, disease and death are problems thatwe can now overcome « , thanks to the deployment of ever more powerful and intrusive techniques, such as brain implants or nanobots that repair us from the inside. The sorcerers’ apprentices of synthetic biology have also undertaken to « improve » the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen by plants and photosynthesis, which is not considered efficient enough(sic). To do this, they are working on reprogramming entire sections of the genomes of cultivated plants. These scientists also invented the technique of genetic forcing, which involves genetically modifying a wild species and forcing the modifications to spread throughout the population. We can thus already force animal and plant species to be sterile and thus participate in their own extinction. The first candidate species are mosquitoes, whose disappearance will hopefully make the diseases they transmit disappear in the process, and the various « weeds » that have become resistant to the chemical poisons that have been dumped on them for too long. At the same time, the « progress » of genetic manipulations makes it possible to consider recreating extinct species: for example, there is a research program at the Massachussets Institute of Technology (USA) aiming at « de-extinguishing »(sic) the woolly mammoth. Other curious minds have succeeded in recreating extinct viruses, such as those of smallpox and the Spanish flu, whose victims numbered in the tens of millions… 

Man sees himself more than ever « as master and possessor of nature », to quote Descartes’ famous words. It not only has a right to life and death over all other forms of life, but is now engaged in a process aimed at producing nature, a nature useful to human beings. Thus, the new nature conservation policies are based on devices that allow the compensation of destroyed ecosystems by others that would be restored, or even created from scratch, by design. This is the field of ecological engineering. 

All of the above techniques borrow the language of complexity theories, but paradoxically display a distressing scientism and reductionism. We think we can instrument complex systems, made of an infinite number of interactions and feedbacks, such as ecosystems, genomes, or even the biosphere, denying the consubstantial unpredictability of their dynamics. For example, to test the effects of a new drug on the liver, the new discipline of microfluidics creates a « liveron a chip ». As this organ is composed of nine different types of cells, one of each type, thus nine, is placed on a microchip, each one being connected to microsensors to monitor its behavior. This artifact is supposed to allow the study of the way the liver will react to such or such substance, as if an organ was not also a system, therefore different from the sum of its parts… 

This is certainly not the first time in history thatHomo sapiens has shown excessiveness and a sense of omnipotence. The ancient Greeks already warned us againsthubris. But the gigantic technical means at his disposal today increase his power of intervention in nature tenfold, and the illusion of mastery that results from this leads him to pursue this technological path with no way out. We could live in a completely different world if we took the time to rethink our place in nature, not enthroned above all other forms of life, but with equal legitimacy with them, and in a relationship of reciprocal belonging with nature. 

Hélène Tordjman, economist, Sorbonne Paris-Nord University 

Priscilla Beccari
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