One of the greatest traits of humans is their never-ceasing ability to question its surroundings, its science and even itself. The ability to innovate – Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison’s work in radio and electricity, Albert Einstein’s work with theoretical physics…all have expanded our knowledge of the world and, at the same time, expanded the knowledge of ourselves. But at what point does that innovation go beyond the expansion of human knowledge and enter into realms that shouldn’t be explored?
A recent article at BusinessInsider.com discussed the issue of what the next great innovation will be in technology. It won’t come in any grand leap in computer technology or even in some areas that would be truly fascinating, such as virtual reality. According to those who were surveyed, the next great “leap” will come in the arena of genetics.
This research, as related by BusinessInsider.com’s Kevin Loria, would be the ability to look at the human genome – the basic building block for the traits that make everyone individualistic – and be able to manipulate particular segments of the DNA code. Through the analysis, it is predicted that debilitating diseases could be found and cut out, potential errors in the DNA sequence could be reversed to prevent mental illness and even the creation of the “superhuman” resilient to all diseases could potentially be created.
This process, called gene-editing (also known as CRISPR), is something that has scientists in a frenzy as to the possibilities. “We’re basically able to have a molecular scalpel for genomes,” Jennifer Doudna, a biologist credited as one of the co-discoverers of CRISPR who has used the technology, is quoted by Loria. “All the technologies in the past were sort of like sledgehammers…This just gives scientists the capability do something that is incredibly powerful.”
The ever-inquisitive nature of humans reaches into every aspect of life, even (believe it or not) the 2016 Presidential campaign. A question in New York Times Magazine that was blasted over the internet – “Could you kill Baby Hitler?” – has become an intriguing experiment with the human psyche (according to the Times statisticians, 42% of people responded “yes,” 30% responded “no” and 28% “not sure”). The question, when posed to GOP Presidential candidate Jeb Bush, brought no hesitation in his reply.
Asked if he had the opportunity to kill an infant Hitler – if he knew what that baby would become but not what effect his death in infancy would have on the overall world – Bush responded to The Huffington Post, “Hell, yeah, I would! You gotta step up, man!” After some contemplation on the potential ramifications of such an act, Bush doesn’t change his mind, instead doubling down by repeating, “It could have a dangerous effect on everything else, but I’d do it – I mean, Hitler,” Bush concluded.
In essence, the question has become “If you could change everything, would you do it?”
People may hear the word “existential” in their lives but not really have an idea as to what it actually means. Many may hear the term “existential threat” and conjure up something that is a threat to their very existence. This is the literal definition of “existential”; for example, if a politician says “Vladimir Putin is an existential threat to the United States,” it literally means that Putin is a threat to the U. S. and its citizens.
When people use the term “existential questions,” they are actually pondering the meaning and thought behind the practice of living, the very essence of being. There is actually a branch of philosophy dedicated to existentialism, with the founders being the philosophers Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (among others). There are different branches on the Tree of Existentialism, but basically they all come back to the individual being the starting point for pretty much everything.
Finally, an “existential crisis” sounds like something that might come out of deep introspection through Existentialism, but is actually a tool used to joke about someone who is thinking too deeply (normally about themselves). If you’ve heard the term “navel gazing,” then this is what they were talking about.
In looking at these two circumstances, there is plenty to think about in these two “existential questions.” With the first subject, mankind would have the ability to pretty much eradicate any issues that may face humanity. Conditions such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, neuromuscular diseases (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis (MS) and others) could be an afterthought in the future if doctors could identify in a single strand of DNA those “trigger points” and remove them from the sequence rather than let them reach actual life.
Then there would be the “other side” of the equation, however. With the ability to manipulate the genome to take away disease, people could also ensure that they have a blonde-haired, blue-eyed child (boy or girl), cause mutations in musculature or height, even perhaps remove the ability to feel pain or maybe even block emotional feelings. While the ability to edit the genome may be a breakthrough that leads us into a bold new future, it could also lead us down a dark path to manipulation.
In the case of Governor Bush, the question has been the subject of plenty of alternate history and science fiction tomes. The killing of Hitler – whether as a child (the preferred theory as he would supposedly be defenseless) or before he reached the apex of his power in Nazi Germany (the theory here is during his service in World War I) – would have theoretically prevented the horror that was World War II and additionally the ghastly philosophy that Hitler inflicted on the Jewish race, the Final Solution (or the Holocaust). If this were to be done from OUR future, however, what would be the ramifications?
The theory on this part is the “Butterfly Effect” which basically says even the smallest action has bigger ramifications (the “butterfly” flapping its wings causes a hurricane thousands of miles away). With the death of Hitler, would WWII have been avoided? At what point would you kill Hitler, in his youth or as an adult? If you waited until he was an adult, would that be too late?
The existential questions continue…if Hitler hadn’t come along at that particular point in history, could someone else who lived in that time simply taken his place? What if one of the people who died during WWII actually went on to discover a cure for cancer or significant breakthroughs in another scientific field? Add into this the fact that, no matter how many times people may use the term “I could kill you,” the ability for one human to kill another isn’t as easy as it sounds, there is plenty to think about.
For myself, the first question is surprisingly easy. As a general rule, I would be against any manipulation of the human genetic code, but as a way of eradicating disease it would be a viable idea. If the debilitating diseases that plague mankind (yes, even the Plague) could be controlled and/or eliminated, think of the improvements in people’s lives (and the ability to bring down medical costs and spending on disease control)! We would be tremendously advanced as a species if we could improve on our basic genetic code and its inherent imperfections to the point of eliminating them completely.
Where I would have a problem, though, is when it is done for simply cosmetic or aesthetic purposes. Don’t like your eye color? Changing your genetic code (or doing it to an in utero child) just so you can satisfy your own vanity is about the most narcissistic thing imaginable. In my mind, we don’t come up with tremendous breakthroughs in our existence to simply use them to change what we see in the mirror, we come up with them to improve mankind and its world.
The second question is a much thornier one. Besides being one of the pivotal moments in human history, not just the 20th century, World War II and its players had a seminal impact on how the world is shaped today. By eliminating Hitler from the equation – and, in theory, eliminating the catalyst for the start of WWII – what effect would that have on the world today? You may not think that is a big deal, but (using the “Butterfly Effect”) what if the lack of WWII caused your grandfather to not enter the military, where he would meet your grandmother at a base dance that led to their marriage and the birth of your father/mother? The resulting theory would be that YOU do not exist.
I would have to use one of science fiction’s greatest creations in musing over killing Hitler or not. In the Star Trek universe, the Prime Directive is the governing philosophy of the United Federation of Planets. In that codified theory, representatives of the Federation aren’t to have an impact on developing societies or their historical direction. With this in mind – and the potential ramifications, both good and bad, in the historical sense – I would have to say that I wouldn’t kill Hitler if given the chance. There is simply too much that could occur otherwise – and in some cases, could be even worse – than even the genocide, hatred and pain that Hitler’s short existence brought about.
Where would you land on these subjects? And what does it say about you? If you could change everything, would you do it?