Category: Religion

Charles Darwin has a lot to answer for.  He saw the world with new eyes, fundamentally changed our understanding of nature, and upset a lot of people in the process.  200 years after his birth, Darwin’s work underpins modern biology.  His findings still challenge, stimulate and—amazingly—offend people the world over.  And his discoveries continue to teach us a lesson we are only now beginning to appreciate fully—that life is plastic; that it can change and adapt, and can therefore be manipulated and controlled. It’s this last point I want to write about on the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.  Because as well as possibly marking another critical step in humanity’s history, it also contains a delicious irony—but more on that in a moment…

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With apologies to Arundhati Roi for “borrowing” the title of her moving book, what—if anything—has nanotechnology got to do with religion? Barnaby Feder of the New York Times takes on this issue in his latest posting to the Bits blog: “There may not be a lot of agreement among the world’s religions on exactly what constitutes humans “playing God,” but you never hear a preacher or rabbi suggesting such behavior is wise or laudable. So you would think they might have a lot to say about nanotechnology. After all, nanotech involves rearranging not just DNA and the other building blocks of life — already a source of controversy in biotechnology — but the very atoms and molecules that make up all matter. If that is not messing around in God’s closet, what is?” The big issue it seems is transhumanism—the use of existing and emerging technologies, including nanotechnology, to extend and change what it means to be human.  Will nanotechnology give us the ability to do what only God should?  Can we somehow thwart God’s plans, and take control of our own destiny?  Or is there nano-knowledge that should be forbidden?

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Andrew Maynard is a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan, and directs the U-M Risk Science Center.  His interests focus on effective science communication; the responsible development and use of emerging technologies – most notably nanotechnology and synthetic biology; and how understanding risk can help inform smart decisions.  

As well as writing a regular column for the journal Nature Nanotechnology, Andrew posts regularly on his personal blog "2020 Science", and on Twitter as @2020science.  He also produces short (and hopefully entertaining) educational videos on understanding health risks on the YouTube channel Risk Bites

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