May 2, 1993

THE FRANKENSTEIN FACTOR

“The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing will be impossible for them.'” Genesis 11:4

Dr. Victor Frankenstein makes the ultimate discovery:  he figures out how to give life to non-living tissue, and he decides to use what he knows to create a perfect human.  Dr. Frankenstein rummages around in various morgues and laboratories, gathering the best limbs and body parts he can find.  He works night and day to piece them all together, and at last, the body is complete.

However, as soon as the scientist brings his creation to life, he looks at it with horror.  What he expected to be the perfect man turned out to be a repulsive monster.  The monster murders Dr. Frankensteins’s loved ones one after the other, and he even kills the inventor’s new bride on their wedding night.  Eventually, the creature destroys Dr. Frankenstein himself and then takes his own life.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein back in 1818.  The story is fictional, of course, and nobody’s assembled a monster from various body parts and brought it to life, but the possibility of being destroyed by our own inventions is all too real.  That’s what I’m calling the Frankenstein Factor.  We’ve used modern science and technology to produce things that could destroy us.  Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, our inventions have a definite positive side and provide us with many good things;  but like Dr. Frankenstein, we face the possibility of being destroyed by what we’ve made.  To see what I mean, just look at four of the most significant aspects of contemporary science and technology:  the splitting of the atom, the invention of the computer, the use of genetic engineering, and the ever-increasing control that humanity has over the earth’s resources.

Consider the splitting of the atom.  This is the product of remarkable genius, and nuclear technology provides many benefits by increasing the world’s energy supply.  However, the nuclear age has also given us Three Mile Island and Chornobyl and the problems of radioactive waste.

Worse yet, nuclear power has been turned to military use, and the two bombs that turned Hiroshima and Nagasaki into mushroom clouds were primitive and puny compared to the weapons in today’s nuclear stockpiles.  With the end of the Cold War and talk of arms reduction, it’s easy to forget that more nations than ever have a nuclear arsenal and that the breakup of the Soviet Union introduces new uncertainties.  We can be glad that the nuclear threat has receded temporarily, but it hasn’t disappeared.  Humanity still has in its hands a technology that could make us extinct if it were ever used on a massive scale.

And nuclear energy isn’t the only example of the Frankenstein Factor.  Perhaps the most important invention of our time is the computer.  Closely related to the computer is the whole field of cybernetics, the science of information and control systems. And who can deny the benefits of computer technology?  It provides the basis for word processors, camcorders, compact discs, space exploration, automated robots, new methods of diagnosis and surgery, and much more.

However, the computer also opens the way to darker possibilities.  Perhaps the most extreme scenario is one where computers become completely autonomous and independent of human control.  If you’ve seen the film 2001:  A Space Odyssey, you’ll remember how the spaceship computer starts thinking for itself and decides to ensure its own survival by dispensing of the humans on board.  In the two Terminator films, director James Cameron portrays a grim world in which computerized robots think and act on their own.  These cybernetic organisms, nicknamed “cyborgs,” are trying to exterminate humanity.  Sound far-fetched?  Well, before you laugh it off too quickly, here are some things to keep in mind.

Already there are “learning machines,” computers that get smarter with experience and react accordingly.  A computer can be programmed to play games and to get better with every game it plays.  It constantly tries new strategies and successively eliminates old mistakes.  Each move and each outcome and each game becomes part of the computer’s memory bank.  By using cybernetic principles of feedback and computer learning, A. L. Samuel invented a checkers machine which could eventually beat him, its inventor.

Now, losing to your own invention at a game of checkers may be a bit humiliating, but it’s still just a game.  However, there’s a lot more to cybernetics than fun and games.  Consider how cybernetics got started.  During World War II, airplanes were getting so fast that human beings couldn’t react quickly enough or aim accurately enough to shoot them down with anti-aircraft.  That’s when Norbert Wiener of M.I.T. designed feedback systems so that the guns could be controlled and fired automatically.  He created guns that could calculate trajectories and learn from previous misses and constantly adjust themselves for maximum accuracy with minimum reaction time.  Norbert Wiener coined the term “cybernetics” to describe the theory behind these automated control systems.

Today, thanks to cybernetics, we have so-called “smart bombs” and cruise missiles, and all sorts of computerized weaponry.  In a full-scale modern war, the outcome depends not so much on which side has the most courage and physical combat skill but on who has the best computers and machines.  It’s more a matter of who has the best scientists than of who has the best soldiers.  The Gulf War is a prime example.

Computers are becoming more vital not only in operating weapons but even in developing battle strategies.  Computers are used to simulate various battlefield scenarios, and they’re also used to detect a nuclear attack and coordinate a rapid response.  What role they might play in future strategizing is hard to predict.  If computers are already capable of beating geniuses at various games, couldn’t they eventually replace generals and presidents in some important aspects of battle planning?

Maybe the automated killing machine portrayed by Arnold Schwartzenegger in The Terminator isn’t so far-fetched after all. Researchers in cybernetics continue to aim for computerized robots that are as self-sufficient and as much like organic life as possible:  machines that can control themselves and repair themselves and correct their own errors and reproduce themselves in an ever-improving form.  And it’s a proven fact that learning machines can develop strategies beyond anything their inventors imagined, and not just in checkers or chess.  Scientists may find these possibilities to be thrilling, but others find them chilling, especially considering the close ties between cybernetics and the military.

Another area where the Frankenstein Factor poses a threat is in biological and genetic research.  Maybe you’ve read Jurassic Park, the bestselling novel by Michael Crichton that Steven Spielberg is now turning into a movie.  It’s a story about what might happen if genetic technology ever reached a point where fragments of DNA from extinct dinosaurs could be used to produce dinosaurs that were actually alive.  Jurassic Park is a theme park, a sort of zoo, funded by a wealthy businessman who plans to charge people big money to see his live dinosaurs.  However, things take a nasty turn and the dinosaurs destroy the people who made them.

Obviously, that’s just a story, but whether anyone ever manages to resurrect dinosaurs or not, it’s a fact that scientists are already deeply involved in manipulating the genetic blueprints of existing species to produce new types of organisms.  The process may even generate new species.  It’s all done in the name of progress, of course, and there may be many benefits, but isn’t it possible that we’ll produce living organisms that are simply too much for us to handle?  The most serious dangers may not be in giant dinosaurs or deadly animals, but in tiny bacteria and viruses, new microbes for which we have no immunities and no cure.  When we tinker with genetic blueprints, who knows whether we’ll be able to predict or control the resulting life forms?

And then there’s a fourth concern raised by our technology.  All our machines and gadgets have given us more power over creation than humanity has ever had.  As a result, we’re able to utilize resources faster than ever before, and also to create garbage faster than ever before.  And yet we’re more concerned than ever to “grow the economy” and “double our standard of living.”

How long is unlimited growth possible?  If world population doubles to eleven billion in the next few decades, and if more and more people in less developed countries try to match the current living standards of the industrialized West (never mind trying to double them!), at least two things are bound to happen:  our resources will be depleted, and we’ll run out of places to dump our garbage.  Perhaps there will be ways to utilize new resources for energy and food and yet limit environmental damage, but that remains to be seen.  Right now it’s uncertain just how much damage we’ve already done to the earth’s atmosphere or how the destruction of forests and the extinction of so many species will affect the world’s ecosystem.

We might wish the Frankenstein Factor was just a creepy old story, but it’s not.  It’s as real as nuclear technology and computer systems and genetic engineering and toxic waste.  We’re in danger of being destroyed by our own technology.

We’ll begin to get a grip on these complex matters only if we get at the root issues.  And to do that, we need to know what God says about all this.  One valuable source of divine perspective is the Bible’s account of the tower of Babel, recorded in Genesis 11.  You might be wondering, What in the world does an old story about a tower have to do with today’s high-tech world?  Well, let’s take a look and find out.

The story of Babel begins with a display of human ingenuity and innovation.  Genesis 11 says that early in human history, everybody talked the same language.  They found a fertile plain that looked like a good place to settle, but there was a problem:  the area didn’t have natural building materials, such as stones.  That didn’t stop them, however.  They figured out how to make their own stones.  According to the Bible, the people “said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’  They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.”

Now, turning mud into bricks may not be quite as complicated as turning silicon into computer chips, but the same spirit of technological innovation is there.  People have a remarkable, God-given ability to invent and improvise and shape raw materials to suit their own designs.  That’s the basis of all technology.

Unfortunately, good technology can be used with bad motives.  That’s what happened at Babel.  According to Genesis, the people said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”  They wanted a monument to their own greatness, and they wanted to centralize power and control their own destiny.  It was all about pride and power.

Technological skill isn’t bad in itself;  in fact, God is the one who gives us the intelligence and creativity that make technology possible.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with making bricks or building towers or designing computers.  But when we ignore our Creator and become obsessed with pride and power, constructive technology can become destructive.  We need to know our limits and to know our Creator.

Writing in Time magazine about the many recent advances in technology, William Henry says:

The underlying drive of all this change is increased human control:  over the environment, over other living organisms, over mountains of data, above all over one’s psychology and genetics and destiny.  The biggest intellectual battle of the future [says William Henry] is likely to occur between those who believe that this drive can be governed by humankind alone and those who contend that it must be subject to the restraints of nature and the divine.  The shape of things to come will depend heavily on who prevails in this debate.

That’s the ultimate issue in technology.  Is it something we do strictly on our own, to make a name for ourselves, or is it something we do in obedience to God and for his glory?

The people of Babel had only their own goals in mind.  God saw them starting their tower, and he saw the danger involved.  According to Genesis 11, “The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing will be impossible for them.'” (v. 6).  One people, one language.  Centralization and information were the key to power without any limits.  Long before cybernetics developed as the science of information and control, the Lord knew very well that organization and information are the keys to human power, and he decided to limit that power.

The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing will be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.  That is why it was called Babel–because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.  From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Ever since that time, God has kept people divided into tribes and nations, and he’s made it difficult for people to communicate. In many ways, this has been a hindrance to human progress and organization, but that’s just the point.  God knows the great power of the human mind, and he also knows the great evil of the human soul that separates itself from God.  He limits progress in order to limit the damage.  Technological progress is very dangerous when it occurs without progress in obedience to God.

We need to ask what the word “progress” really means.  Consider what the Bible says in Genesis 4 about a man named Lamech.  Lamech’s story takes place very early in history, even before Babel, and in one sense, it’s a story of tremendous progress.  Lamech’s oldest son was the first to domesticate livestock, instead of just hunting and gathering.  Another of Lamech’s sons was the first to use musical instruments.  A third son of Lamech says the Bible, “forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron.”  Metal tools marked a great step forward in the history of technology.  In short, Lamech marks a stage of tremendous innovation.

That all sounds very progressive, but on the moral and personal side, there was no progress at all.  The Bible tells us that Lamech took two wives instead of one, and even worse, he was a murderer.  Apparently, one day Lamech had a run-in with a young man and suffered a slight injury.  Lamech responded by murdering the man, and then composing a perverse poem about it, saying that anybody who messes with Lamech would get paid back 77 times over.

Lamech’s story is one more instance of the fact that progress in technology doesn’t mean there’s progress in human nature.  Too often, it’s just new technology in service of the same old sins and hatreds. Today, progress means that we no longer kill people one at a time with clubs and knives;  now we can blow up entire cities and nations all at once.  When we talk about progress, let’s not forget that the progressive twentieth century is the bloodiest on record.  When progress in technology and culture isn’t matched by progress in obedience to God, the world becomes more dangerous than ever.

I talked earlier about the Frankenstein Factor, the possibility of technology spinning out of our control and destroying us.  A similar danger, and a more immediate one, is that even if technology doesn’t go beyond our control, it’s in the control of people who are sinful and may use these new powers for evil purposes.

Take the computer.  If you’re an average citizen, there’s information about you in 59 different government or private sector computers, information about your finances, your medical history, your police record, and even more personal details about you.  All this information is stored in the name of progress and efficiency, but it’s not hard to imagine how centralized access to this information could be a deadly weapon in the hands of a totalitarian government.

Or consider genetic engineering.  The Human Genome Project, with a budget of $3 billion, is seeking to map out the exact segments of human DNA that correspond to the various inherited traits.  Some hope that a thorough knowledge of human DNA will make it possible to cure inherited diseases by gene therapy, replacing the defective gene with “healthy” DNA.  In this and other ways, gene mapping could lead to tremendous benefits.

But we need to face some hard questions and frightening possibilities.  For example, just how far is it morally permissible to tinker with the genetic identity of human beings?  And how will genetic information be used?  Will insurance companies require a genetic test for tendencies toward cancer or other diseases before insuring you?  When women get pregnant, should doctors read the gene map of every embryo, and abort those that are less than ideal?  And once your genetic fingerprint becomes part of a computer file, who should have access to it?

Scientists and engineers need to ask, Is our technology advancing faster than our ability to think about the dangers and moral implications?  Too often the tendency is to act first and ask questions later.  The real problem isn’t too much technology, but too little dependence on God.  When we develop and use technology outside of a relationship to God through Jesus Christ, it becomes more of a curse than a blessing.

If we treat technology simply as the race to control our own destiny, our destiny is destruction.  At Babel God frustrated the grandiose designs of humanity, but the Bible warns us that Babel, or Babylon as it’s also called, is a recurring problem.  Babylon represents human culture in its passion to centralize and dominate and control everything, to create our own future independent of God. When we do that, we create a future where the possibility of self-destruction looms larger and larger.

According to the book of Revelation, Babylon will reach its final form near the end of history.  The Lord frustrated the original Babel and continues to keep human power within certain limits, but near the end, he will allow human power and human evil to run its course.  Revelation 18 describes Babylon as a concentration of knowledge and wealth and power in opposition to God, united under one central governing power.  This Babylon, so advanced in technology and economics and political power, will collapse under its own sin and under God’s judgment.  It will bring upon itself dreadful plagues that culminate in final destruction. Only Jesus Christ can save us from this.  He can rescue us from ourselves and from the things we’ve made.  But we must repent of our pride and self-sufficiency, and not let ourselves get sucked into the Babylon mentality of trying to achieve great things while declaring our independence from God.  We must submit ourselves to the Word of God.  All things were created through Jesus Christ.  All things hold together in him.  By his coming into this world as a man, he has already begun a new creation, and he will complete it when he comes again.  Babylon will collapse, but the kingdom of Jesus Christ will flourish for eternity.  Our past, present, and future are in his hands, not our own.

But what about technology, then?  Do we reject it completely?  Not at all.  What we reject is sin and pride and rebellion.  We recognize our limits, and we see the dangers of any technology that isn’t guided by the fear of the Lord.  But once we submit to the rule of Jesus, technology can take its proper place in our lives.  We can begin to use the abilities God has given us for his glory rather than our own.  With the help of God’s Spirit, we can explore the amazing secrets of God’s creation and utilize its vast potential in a way that honors God, that affirms the dignity and freedom of people created in his image, and that recognizes the value of everything God has made.

PRAYER

Lord Jesus, you are the Source of all wisdom.  All things hold together in you.  Save us from trying to create our own future apart from you, for that is the way of death.  Save us from our sinful rebellion.  Give us faith in you.  Fill us with the divine life of your Holy Spirit.  And give us your wisdom to apply the truth of the Bible to the complex issues we face today.  Glory be the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.