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Technology: Unnatural or a Consequence of Nature?

Posted on 17th Sep 2015

I have no idea what's going on. Everywhere I look, someone is wearing a Fitbit or a Jawbone or an Apple Watch. It's the fitness tracker craze of mid-to late 2015. It's weird how technological fads are coming in quicker and shorter waves these days and how much more integrated into our daily life technology is becoming. Sitting in class the other day, I wasn't able to take my attention off of a tiny blinking green light reflecting off of a girl's wrist from her fitness tracker.

As technology becomes a larger part of our daily lives, we begin to see how much of an impact it's having in our world. But is technology taking over? And is this a bad thing? I recently read an article on SingularityHub.com, created by the notorious Ray Kurzweil, about the nature of technolgy titled "Is Technology Unnatural - Or Is It What Makes Us Human?". It begins by discussing the typical viewpoint that activities like genetically enginering new forms of life is seen as artificial, synthetic, unnatural. Counteracting this perspective is the fact that a large quantity of the food we eat comes from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). As another example, what's the difference between breeding generations of dogs to get the perfect combination of traits versus genetically engineering a dog with those traits? Many people would declare the act of synthesizing a new species of dog from different combinations of DNA as unethical, however every dog owner that doesn't own a mut is part of a system that genetically engineered their animal, albeit through a different mechanism. Maybe, then, it's just the mechanism of technology that distinguishes whether something is natural or unnatural.

The article's author, Jason Dorrier, focuses on genetic engineering a lot in his writing and talks about the difference between chance evolution and directed evolution. What's interesting is his idea that sexual selection, the basis of natural evolution, is actually a type of directed evolution. Animals choose their mates based on certain criteria and on a large scale, this leads to evolution of new species. This seems to suggest that there really might not be much of a difference between natural evolution and the directed creation of new life.

I'm taking a class this semester called "Theology and Biotechnology" in which lately we've been discussing Christianity's view of creation and whether Christianity declares creation as having been completed by God in Genesis or if He left it unfinished for us as a race to complete. It is clear to see that creation still takes place all around us on a "natural" level - new people are born every day, we are still discovering new species all the time, and we can witness the generation-to-generation evolution of microorganisms in the laboratory. I personally side with the unfinished perspective, and that creates a lot of interesting questions. If we as a species are meant to continue the process of creation, how are we supposed to do that? What rules and guidelines should we obey in our creation of new life? Refering to a point I made above, all of the techniques scientists use in the lab to modify or create new life (e.g. implants, vaccines, surgeries, genetic engineering) use the properties of natural phenomena. In other words, scientists are not using black magic to restore eyesight in a blind person. They're using machines created from natural materials to manipulate cells using the laws of physics. If we're using natural phenomena to commit these actions and create these products, only in ways that nature would've never done, is that still unnatural? What does it even mean to be natural? Our species was created by nature, after all, so shouldn't everything we create by extension by deemed natural? Ray Kurzweil, who was recently appointed as the Director of Engineering at Google, believes that technology is a natural paradigm shift from biological evolution, just like how we shifted from using vacuum tubes to using transistors or from radio to TV.

Ultimately, it's not practical to think of technology in terms of natural or unnatural, as everything in this world today is a product of evolution, a product of the creation of Earth, and ultimately a product of the Big Bang. Perhaps the proper way to look at technology is to determine whether some technologies are moral or immoral. In this week's Theology and Biotechnology class, my professor spoke about generic and teleological relationships with regard to creation. Generic relationships are two-sided, equal give and take relationships in which both parties have the same level of dignity. Teleological relationships are one-sided, in which there is a creator and a subservient being. A mother's relationship with her son is generic; a scientist's relationship with his hybrid monkey-fish is teleological. Although we have the power to direct evolution and direct creation, we have to do so ethically, using laws that we've created based on our ecological and sociological morals. This is the true distinction between natural and unnatural. After all, what is the future of our world "supposed" to look like? Is there even a right answer? Now, more than ever, when analysists are saying we are at the turning point of an exponential explosion in technology, is when we have the power to decide what direction we go in.

 

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” – Carl Sagan