Desmond O’Neill: A rare scientific hiccough at the science gallery

Desmond O'NeillDespite a surprisingly large scientific heritage [1] , the Republic of Ireland has no science museum. Nature abhorring a vacuum, an innovative avenue for celebrating science was created by the opening of the Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin in 2008. This flexible if modest space has been a runaway success under its gifted director, Michael Gorman.

Eschewing a historical approach, the focus has been on the links between artistic creativity, everyday life, and the sciences. Over a three year period, capacity crowds have enjoyed interactive and varied presentations covering topics from Music and Biorhythms, through crochet Coral Reefs to the worlds of Infections and Love. The gallery has spiced up the popular image of science, and will play a pivotal role when Dublin is the European City of Science in 2012.

In general, the science component has been robust and evidence-based, with the artistic components allowed to take flight and opening different vistas. However, the current exhibition – HUMAN+ – breaks the trend, appearing to take transhumanism quite seriously. Having filed transhumanism previously in the drawer containing homeopathy, Christian scientology, and alchemy (even allowing for the fact that Carl Jung was a devotee of the latter), I delved a little deeper when invited to take part in a debate at the gallery with a “transhumanist philosopher.”

The more I read, the more I realised that the transhumanist movement is just that – more akin to a belief system than science. I was uncertain whether to giggle at its scientific naïveté or to tolerate this quasi-religion in a tolerant pluralist spirit. Yet some of its assertions need answering, epecially that of “eliminating ageing.”

On the surface, its core tenet of using technological advances to enhance the human condition seems almost unremarkable, and no different from the mainstream of human scientific endeavour. However, a narrow focus on certain kinds of technologies carries an unhappy whiff of scientism (an excessive belief that the life sciences are the primary form of knowledge, rather than a part of knowledge), and the creation of “post-humans” seems to suggest a lack of awareness of the improvements that have already happened to humans, and in particular the origins of these advances.

Our increased longevity and well-being have relatively little to do with the direct application of technologies to individuals, but rather originate in improvement in social circumstances such as education, wealth, housing, and sanitation, as well as human organization and economies of scale. Almost the only “technology” that counts is vaccination, and even here there are important social elements such as herd immunity.

The focus on the application of technology to the individual also ignores important determinants of well-being and function, such as the social gradient – the difference between poorest and the wealthiest in a society. This is most dramatically seen in the USA, where more widespread use of high-tech medicine and appliances in individuals occurs in the context of an unspectacular average life-span.

The abolition of ageing, one of the tenets of transhumanism, would be droll if did not contain the seeds of ageism, portraying ageing unidimensionally as a time of loss: all would like to see a reduction in the diseases and disabilities of later life, but not recognising what we gain in terms of maturity and wisdom seems an extraordinary own-goal.

The last elements of our particular debate revolved around the point at which one remains human if advances in biotechnology increasingly replace our organs. This is where the organisers missed a trick by not making The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien the star exhibit in the show. Decades ahead of transhumanist visions of techno-utopias, O’Brien created a fantastic world in the rural Ireland of the 1930’s where man and machine merged .

In his Molecular Theory, prolonged contact between iron bicycles and humans on rough country roads leads to an interchange of molecules so that the bicycles become more human, and the humans more cycle-like. Complete with extensive footnotes from the philosopher de Selby, we are led through scenarios whereby a man can fall in love with a bicycle, and where it becomes difficult to distinguish between murder and damaging property.

The application of this Irish literary heritage to the science of our future selves would have given a truly transformative perspective to this rare scientific hiccough at the Science Gallery. It would also have reminded us that a sense of humour is vital in science, allowing us to get a grip on ourselves, see the wider view, and protecting against seduction by narrow and hubristic visions of technological advance.

 1] Mulvihill M. Ingenious Ireland. London, Simon & Schuster UK, 2003.

Desmond O’Neill is a consultant physician in geriatric and stroke medicine, Dublin.