Friday, March 20, 2009
Back when I started college, I decided to major in genetics. This was for a couple of reasons: 1) I thought it sounded cool, but more importantly, 2) it accepted more of my placement credit than other majors I was interested in, so I wouldn't have to take introductory classes and could go straight to advanced stuff. Probably not the best reasons, but you really can't expect much from an eighteen year old who went to public school. When people asked what I was studying, my answer would frequently get the evil-eye response. "You're one of those people who wants to "play God," with our DNA aren't you?", it said. No, not really. At least I didn't consider it "playing God." I went on to graduate school, where I studied biological chemistry, and actually did end up manipulating the DNA of living creatures. They were only bacteria, though. In the course of my "experiments," I transferred the DNA of one species to another, synthesized completely new sequences and stuck them in, too, and even modified the actual genome of one bacterial strain by removing a gene to change its color. Pretty cool stuff. Most of it didn't work very well. But I never really felt like I was "playing God," even when I was successful and everything turned out as I had predicted. That is not to say that I never felt that I was playing God in graduate school, however. The situation that led to this feeling was just in a very different setting: teaching. I taught several different laboratory sections over the years. At one time I was very enthusiastic about teaching. But after a time, it wore on me, especially when I began to recognize the whole "playing God" element for what it was. After that point, I found it revolting. One particular lab really brought it out. It was a very, very large course, with over a thousand students per semester, divided up into probably 50 individual sections. Being so large, it presented formidable logistical challenges, and in getting students through each lab everything had to work like clockwork or the whole system would back up. To deal with this, the people in charge had devised a fairly complex set of policies and rules, and enforcement was often achieved through incentives in the grading policy. Basically, you broke a rule, turned in a paper late or what-have-you, and you lost points. They were trivial amounts, usually two points out of a thousand total or so, with a curve at the end, but they helped keep students focused on getting things done on time and getting through the lab in an organized fashion. At least, that's how they were supposed to work. Not really agreeing with a lot of the rules, or even in having a lot of rules to begin with, but still being somebody who believes in rule of law, I decided to be a Nazi about enforcement. I didn't really have a choice about the rules, but I didn't think it was right to be arbitrary about them, either. I figured it was the only fair thing to do: not care about excuses, or reasons, simply enforce the rule as written and be done with it. It really wasn't any of my business, anyway; to me, making a lot of arbitrary judgments of "leniency" would be an overt act of "playing God," and an extremely arrogant and condescending act. It would just be wrong. Everybody got treated the same, and besides, there was a curve at the end. There wouldn't be any fewer A's or B's because of it. Overall point totals would just be lower. Seemed reasonable to me. I figured, well, if it had to be this way, that's how I'd want to be treated, and so would everybody else. Boy, was I wrong. My students hated me. For the most part, at least. Every so often, I'd get a really good review about how cool I was because I didn't give in to the crybabies, but for the most part I wasn't well liked. What got me was when I actually confronted them philosophically about this stuff. Somebody would show up late, and I wouldn't take her prelab, and she would complain that it wasn't her fault, the bus came by earlier than usual, or whatever, and I should take it without any loss of credit because it "wasn't fair." Life wasn't fair, so I should take that into account. One guy even argued that since he had a job, but other students got tuition from their parents or from scholarship, it just wasn't right that he got lower grades because he had less time to spend studying, and there should be some way to take this into account. There were a million versions of this, every stinking day it seemed. I would ask these students if they really wanted me to be arbitrating what was fair, suspending the rules and making allowances for some but not for others, according to whichever whim struck me at that particular moment. Didn't that strike them as a bit arbitrary? What if the judgment went against them because of an "unfair" advantage of theirs next time? Was that fair? And furthermore, wouldn't that represent an act of "playing God" if I were to actually do so? Wasn't that actually a bit scary? I can't tell you how many stunned expressions I got for this line of questioning. They were speechless. Well, at least for a few seconds, anyway. But very few really seemed to ever change their line of thinking. Finally, I realized that for the vast majority, they were simply incapable or unwilling to think in any other way. The didn't want a set of rules, however fair. They could not fathom such an existence. They WANTED me to play God for them. I suppose it was just too scary for them to place their fate in the hands of a relatively impartial set of rules. They didn't want to live under a set of rules, they wanted someone to rule over them. "Fairly," I suppose. Maybe "compassionately." I don't know. I wonder how much thought they gave to that proposition. But I guess I shouldn't be too harsh on them. I was in their shoes once, too. Which brings me to one of my usual subject: politicians. If you ask me, these are the real people "playing God." Scientists can do some pretty scary things, but they only try to do things like split atoms and change the DNA of living organisms. They at least know that they are beholden to the physical laws of the universe, even if they don't necessarily know or understand them all. Politicians are far and away more frightening. They try to change the moral order of the universe, and they think that they can. This must surely be the truest definition of what it is to "play God." This must be far more grievous an affront to "the proper order of things" than DNA tinkering or atom smashing. Changing the moral order has become almost the entire purpose of government. It surely is the entire purpose of the FED. An honest, open market and a society governed by proper ethics just isn't good enough. It doesn't give people what they want. They think they can do better than honest money, better than liberty, better than what they are supposed to get by honest means. Politicians tell them they can. They call it "progress." They call it "compassion." It comes under many other names. Desirable outcomes supersede proper means, and an abomination is born. The problem is, they are all wrong. Very wrong. Now we are reaping our just reward. Again. When will we learn? There are rules. God wrote them. They are best obeyed. At worst, they are broken with penalty. But they are not rewritten.