Stomach-Turning Science

By reputation, Davos is a pretty heady affair. Two thousand of the most powerful men and women gather in an Alpine village under the highest security (this year reportedly including surface-to-air missiles) to, one presumes, run the world.

I haven’t seen much sign of the global conspiracy at work yet; Day 1 tends to lean more toward billionaires squinting at their conference-issue PDAs, lost leaders trudging through the snow, and CEOs crammed cheek-to-jowl, listening to earnest talk about “building trust.” But while I waited for the power orgy to kick in, I happened to stumble on something altogether more surreal: a debate, featuring Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, on the meaning of “yuck.”

In fairness, that was not the scheduled topic; technology was. But the discussion had turned from Silicon Valley to the freaky frontiers of science, where the combination of computers and biology is producing moral and policy challenges at a dizzying pace. What to make of remote-controlled rats or of cloned cats? How many neurons can you grow on a chip before you call it alive? Should we ban self-replicating nanobots? And to what extent should scientists be stopping themselves from Frankensteinian extremes, as opposed to simply going where the science takes them and the law allows?

As the panelists admitted, we don’t have many good answers, or even good ways to find them. What makes it worse is that the new tools of science, from genetic engineering to nanotechnology, are so powerful that their use could transform life on the planet, including—in the view of some of the gloomier scientists at the session, such as Sun Microsystem’s Bill Joy—possibly ending it. (Read Bill Joy on this topic here, and read Robert Wright on Bill Joy here.) Thus this isn’t just a moral question, or even an ethical one; it’s potentially about the survival of the species.  

You don’t have to read Michael Crichton to see how this might all come to a sticky end, but the last time someone shut down science, we ended up with the Dark Ages. And these days cutting-edge science is global, like it or not. When the United States bans stem-cell research, it doesn’t mean the end of stem-cell research; it just means that the work gets done elsewhere, including China or India, where the scientists and technology are nearly as good but the regulations are looser. Too much regulation and the science goes feral; too little and it may run wild at home.

So what should Davos Man do? Follow his stomach, for a start. When it comes to thinking about how to regulate the science, the best test may be the “yuck factor.” This is, as you might imagine, a pretty squishy concept, something along the lines of using gut reaction as a proxy for a long and unproductive philosophical debate. Perhaps if people are grossed out by, say, vat-grown artificial organs, they may not be ready to use them wisely. Indeed, their gag reflex may be telling us something about the essence of human nature and what might threaten it.

Fair enough; plenty of laws attempt to reflect the sensibilities of society. But the problem with applying revulsion to science, explained Dr. Baltimore, an esteemed cell biologist who is the president of CalTech, is that it’s all awfully hard to pin down. The reason: “Yuck is culturally determined.”

This was a great moment, almost worth an international flight by itself. Perhaps recognizing the absurdist potential in the subject, the room responded. “What is yuck?” asked an audience member. (Rodney Brooks, director of MIT’s artificial intelligence lab, helpfully explained.) Another wondered if the word should be “yack” instead, suggesting a rather more physical response.

Dr. Baltimore bravely soldiered on, noting that yuck changes with age and generations; teenagers aren’t freaked out by the things their parents are. Indeed, yuck is as much learned as innate: An audience member cheerily volunteered that a 1-year-old will drink apple juice—”which is urine-colored”—out of a bedpan without complaint. Good point: Perhaps this is not the stuff laws should be made of.

Once we found childbirth too yucky for men to watch; now few fathers would miss it. Perhaps tomorrow’s parents will feel fine about designer babies. For some, life begins at conception, for others at birth. “According to Jewish law,” deadpanned Yossi Vardi, an Israeli software entrepreneur, “life begins when the fetus becomes a lawyer.”

Outside, the Swiss soldiers stood guard, protecting the leaders of the world as they continued their important deliberations.