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Eric Cheyfitz, A. Pagden (1994)European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism.
The Journal of American History, 81
R. Carlson (2010)Biology is technology: the promise, peril, and new business of engineering life
A. Pagden (1993)From renaissance to romanticism
A. Ananthaswamy (2013)Earth's poles are shifting because of climate change
New Scientist, 220
E. Carlson (2010)Biology is Technology: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life . By Robert H. Carlson . Cambridge (Massachusetts) : Harvard University Press. $39.95. vii + 279 p.; ill.; index. 978‐0‐674‐03544‐7 . 2010 .
The Quarterly Review of Biology
K. Redford, W. Adams, G. Mace (2013)Synthetic Biology and Conservation of Nature: Wicked Problems and Wicked Solutions
PLoS Biology, 11
S. O'Donohoe, Adam Ferrier (2012)Thinking, Fast and Slow
International Journal of Advertising, 31
Seeking to foretell the future has long been a passion of humans. We have invented countless forms of augury—looking for signs of what the future will bring—many of which involve turning to the natural world for omens. In fact the word augury is derived from looking for omens in the flight of birds. Omens were sought from other aspects of nature as well including lightning and thunder, figs, shoulder bones (scapula), fire, the shape and configuration of entrails and even the color and movement of mice. Humans feel compelled to try to determine what the future will bring but we appear to be notably bad at it. Psychologists have taught us that humans often try to predict the future by sampling from the past and projecting that sample onto the future—a behavior that works only in the unlikely event that the future repeats the past. Using a set of elegant experiments, the Nobel Prize winning economist, Daniel Kahneman ( ) has shown that humans are not very good at thinking rationally about the past or the future. As he observes “… the core of the illusion is that we believe we understand the past, which implies that the future also should be knowable, but in fact we understand the past less than we believe we do” (2001: 201). And Kahneman makes it clear that even when the future presents itself to humans we are not good at recognizing it. This we know from historical experience. For example, Pagden ( ) has demonstrated the European intellectual establishment had great trouble grappling with the challenges posed by the discovery of the Americas. It often ended up shoehorning the new discoveries into existing systems of classification, assigning European names to American species or stretching their ways of knowing to accommodate the unthinkable facts of this totally new world. It was too novel to know how to deal with it. So humans really want to know what the future brings, are not very good at thinking about it, and have trouble recognizing it when it does arrive. What does this have to do with conservation? I think that we in the conservation community are currently living in a time and place that has its closest analog in the Spanish and Portuguese port cities when the first ships were off‐loading the novelties discovered in the Americas. We are being faced monthly with brand new things, many of which we don't recognize as what they are, ambassadors from the future, bringing news of change and challenges to our ways of knowing and doing. I have come to this conclusion based on my engagement with the field of synthetic biology. Under the auspices of the Wildlife Conservation Society and in collaboration with Bill Adams and Georgina Mace we organized a meeting in April, 2013 with the mission to bring together experts from both synthetic biology and conservation to learn from each other, exchange views, and explore how both disciplines might best help each other ( http://www.wcs.org/news‐and‐features‐main/synthetic‐conservation‐biology‐conference.aspx ). Synthetic biology is a broad and fast‐moving field of innovation involving the design and construction of new biological parts, and the re‐design of existing, natural biological systems to address real world problems. In other words, writing novel genetic code and inserting it into new or existing cells to produce goods and services of interest to humans. New forms of life—most of which are not related to any other form of life on earth—the start of new evolutionary chains. Billions of dollars/euros/yuan are being spent on synthetic biology and new developments are occurring by the week. The field is predominantly driven by evolving technologies and the potential to produce more and better things that humans want. And it is based on a view that biology is inefficient and in need of a reboot. As Rob Carlson's book title succinctly puts it: “Biology is Technology” (Carlson ). My journey of discovery led me beyond synthetic biology to other fields which are creating machine–organism hybrids, using cockroaches, snails, and moths; transgenic monkeys (for brain and immune disorder research), and meat that is grown in a laboratory setting. Humans have built robotic fish that real fish will follow, and we're producing artificial leaves that can photosynthesize and artificial trees that will sequester carbon. As far as I can tell there is virtually no consideration of conservation on the part of those engaged in these new fields. I think it fair to say that most of us in the conservation community do not want to have to deal with the things I've listed above. There is something distinctly “un‐natural” about them and we are in the business of saving the “natural.” But these developments are the ambassadors from tomorrow. They bring us news about tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and perhaps the rest of the days of life on Earth. The conditions of life on earth have changed forever as humans have increasingly seized the levers of global change, and now even evolution. We must recognize that we are effecting these dramatic changes with little knowledge of what we are doing and what it will mean. Synthetic biology is here to stay and the changes it brings will alter human kind and the natural world, wittingly or unwittingly. The conservation community must engage with this change and attempt to inculcate our values into these enterprises and use their tools to help us solve our problems. Early involvement is occurring in some areas such as the efforts of the Revive and Restore initiative that is working with synthetic biology tools to “to enhance biodiversity through the genetic rescue of—endangered and extinct species” ( http://longnow.org/revive/what‐we‐do/ ). This is an excellent start but it is only a small piece of the broad and sustained engagement we need (Redford et al . ). Humans used to seek news of the future from nature but now nature must seek its future in the discoveries of humans. This is a disturbing assertion that to some signifies that we have lost our bearings. Unfortunately, our ability to keep a reliable compass bearing is changing—another omen from the natural world. As climate change is melting the glaciers and ice caps, it changes the distribution of mass on the Earth's surface causing the Earth's axis to shift. The North Pole is moving (Ananthaswamy ). And we must move as well. It is time for us to change our ways and engage actively with synthetic biology and other technologies to try to instill our values in these developing technologies and seek ways to get their help in addressing some of our wicked problems and keep as much of the non‐human world as we can. This is not a time of despair but a time of hope. I would like to thank Andrew Knight for the invitation to write this piece and Steve Sanderson for his inspired reimagining of the importance of Pagden's book.
Conservation Letters – Wiley
Published: Mar 1, 2014
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