Peace and Tech: Part 4
The Life-Shaping Hands of Prometheus -
A Metaphor for Genetic Engineering
  • Humanity has unlocked five technological powers that people in the ancient world seemed to think only gods could possess.
  • For humanity to make sustainable progress toward peace, justice, survival, and prosperity in the twenty-first century, our five god-like technological powers must be recognized as critically important peace issues.
  • Metaphors from Greek Mythology show how the ongoing escalation of these technological powers requires an even greater escalation of our Peace Literacy.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a divine sculptor who creates humans out of clay, molding their biological form with his skilled hands. The life-shaping hands of Prometheus are a metaphor for genetic engineering, which gives humans the power to sculpt, in fine detail, the genetic structure of life.

Humans have been sculpting life for thousands of years by intentionally breeding plants and animals. Conventional breeding of plants and animals is a slow process that can require many generations. In the picture below, the distant ancestor of corn is on the left, which was bred by humans to create the various kinds of corn that we eat today.

Prometheus

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But genetic engineering gives us the ability to sculpt life in much faster and potentially far more powerful ways than conventional breeding, by allowing us to directly edit the genetic code.

In Frankenstein, the nineteenth-century novel written by Mary Shelley (pictured here), Frankenstein is not the name of the monster. It is the name of the monster’s creator. In Shelley's novel, Victor Frankenstein is a scientist who wants to sculpt life in ways that go far beyond conventional human powers.

Mary Shelley depicts Frankenstein as unlocking a god-like power. This is emphasized in the original title of her novel: Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus.

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his illustration from 1831 depicts Victor Frankenstein on the right, and the “monster” he created on the left. The text reads “By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull, yellow eye of the creature open. It breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. I rushed out of the room”

This engraving from 1831 depicts Victor Frankenstein at the door, looking with horror at the “monster” he has created. The caption below the engraving is a quote from the novel, where Frankenstein expresses alarm upon seeing his creation for the first time: “By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull, yellow eye of the creature open. It breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. I rushed out of the room.”

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Through genetic engineering, human beings are unlocking a god-like ability to sculpt life that is much broader in scope than what Mary Shelley imagined in her science-fiction novel Frankenstein.

This 24 min documentary raises a number of ethical concerns around CRISPR, a widely-available gene-editing technology.

 

What happens when our god-like technological powers are combined with our human fallibility, trauma, and vulnerability?

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As humanity further unlocks the god-like power of genetic engineering, which is represented metaphorically by the life-shaping hands of Prometheus, we will need to further unlock the full power of Peace Literacy.

© 2021 Paul K. Chappell

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