Technological & Genetic Determinism: If It’s Feasible, Is It Inevitable?

Since MiT7 I’ve been musing about the confluence of two powerful streams of thought that I will call technological determinism and genetic determinism. While these ideas are not necessarily the same thing, they are mutually reinforcing. One is used to corroborate the other. Both express a futurist perception, a kind of faith, that if something can be done, sooner or later it will be done, and it’s futile to try to stop it.

I’ve been on the lookout for examples of the confluence in everyday discourse. Here are two.

Science writer Michael Specter published a New Yorker piece last month about Test-Tube Burgers. He reports on tissue engineering research in North America and the Netherlands that is developing experimental processes for growing meat cells in vitro. In an interview with NPR Fresh Air, Specter explains that the new technologies eventually could transform the world’s food supply. It’s simply a matter of scaling up:

I really think… the most important if really is the will of people to do this. But if you look at other technologies, if you look at the human genome project for instance, that was supposed to cost more than $3 billion and take 13 years to sequence the genome of one man starting in 1986, I believe. We can now do that in an evening for 1,000 bucks. It’s not that many years later.

You look at computer processing, things that cost literally a million dollars 50 years ago, are cheaper than I would put in a $10 watch right now. So that kind of thinking happened with this technology but it would need the support -that only happens when people want to buy the stuff and when they want to invest.

It’s sort of a weird snowball. You have to get someone to get excited and then when someone’s excited other people get excited. But until someone gets excited everyone’s sitting there saying eh, who wants to do this? How can we do this? But scientifically, technologically, there isn’t any reason why this couldn’t be really significant. “ [Transcript]

Commenting on Specter’s article, Razib Khan wrote this on his Gene Expression blog:

Raising raw tissue in cultures may seem ‘yucky,’ a point Specter covers in assessing the reaction of some environmentalists and animal-rights activists who don’t seem as excited by the shift from conventional livestock raising to growing tissue as one would expect if they ran the numbers, but it is probably inevitable if it is feasible.

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