STEAM: Putting the Arts in STEM

Progress can take us in many directions. Well need the arts can help us choose the right path, argues Sol Kochi Carballo

“People come here from all over the world—they shop around. Gender, sexual orientation, height, colour of skin and eyes—it’s all on order, it can all be done or redone.” Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake.

Genetic engineering has been featured in dystopian and science fiction literature even prior to the technology being available. Often, these texts criticise the under regulation of science by showcasing the detrimental effects that could result from humans trying to play God. Significant scientific progress in the 21st century means that now, what was once speculative fiction could become reality. Accordingly, as our technological and scientific abilities become more complex, so do the ethical and philosophical questions surrounding them. Before it is too late, it is necessary to ask: where do we draw the boundaries?

Arguably the most important function of education is to prepare students for the changing social, economic and geopolitical circumstances that they live in. As Susan Blackley and Jennifer Howell explore in their article A Stem Narrative, the way governments are attempting to do this is through the promotion of STEM programs, a trend that started in the 1990s and has since spread worldwide. Indeed, Australia is no exception. Following a report from the Foundation for Young Australians detailing “The New Work Order”, a future severely affected by automation, globalisation and collaboration, Malcolm Turnbull introduced a $1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda. It is now widely agreed that STEM is a crucial part of building a sustainable future- especially in the face of unemployment, inequality, job instability and severe resource depletion. As Nick Blood discusses in Art vs. Science, from building bridges, artificial limbs, planes and even lab grown meat, STEM has many applied and practical uses that benefit society.

However, the rise of STEM has come at the cost of the Arts. Traditional subjects such as history, literature and philosophy are no longer regarded as respected pillars of academia but rather labelled “useless” and “impractical”. Art programs are increasingly being cut from schools, universities and communities. Contrastingly, according to the Department of Education and Training early learning and school STEM funding in Australia totals an impressive $64 million. This poses the question: is there room for the arts and humanities in our future?

Dystopian author Margaret Atwood sheds light on this topic through her novel Oryx and Crake, a speculative tale of unregulated science. Not only is there room for the arts, she argues, but necessity.

In Atwood’s novel, the over glorification of science at the expense of the arts means that anything is justifiable in the name of profit, efficiency or advancement. Consequently, the reader is invited to observe the resulting breakdown of morality, eventually paving the way to the end of all life as we know it. Although the story is exaggerated there are some alarming parallels between Atwood’s universe and our own, and, much like other pieces of speculative literature, it should be taken as a warning of the direction our society could be heading in.

One of the first topics Atwood introduces in her book is that of genetically modifying animals for companionship, medical purposes, or food. Whilst this starts innocently enough with cute concoctions of domestic creatures to create ‘the perfect house pet’, soon the audience is given an insight into the risks of meddling with nature. These include vicious, untamed and violent creations that not only pose a risk to people as they run rampant through cities but also outlive humans.

In our world, there has been genetic experimentation on animals in hopes of achieving better and more efficient livestock, though so far none has been approved for human consumption. Similarly, xenotransplantation, the transplantation of living cells, tissues or organs between species, has been in the works for years. In 2018 scientists made news when they claimed human trials of the procedure could begin as soon as 2021, after a baboon managed to survive for six months after receiving a pig heart. Even before this, the topic drew mass attention, predominantly ‘Baby Fae’ back in the 1980s.

The ‘Baby Fae’ case was a controversial medical story that hit the media in October 1984, when Dr. Leonard Bailey and his team in California implanted a baboon heart into a human child born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. The American Medical Association condemned the procedure as a case of “medical adventurism”, as did many other respected medical journals. ”There really is no ethical basis for using baboon hearts in a child at all,” said one health law professor at Boston university, ”What is going on here? Are we getting back to the old days when doctors just experimented (on people)?”. Dr. Douglas MacDonald, professor of philosophy at Furman University, brought up another valid point: “What is worrying a lot of people is: What does putting an animal heart in a person do to our understanding of a human?”.

The distinction of human versus animal and the value we place on human life are therefore two difficult questions facing humanity, and they must be answered if we want to integrate new science into our societies. For example, how do we know how much risk is too much? How much experimentation is permissible before a procedure is considered reckless? And how do we obtain patients’ consent, especially in the case of a child? These questions become even harder when we start talking about human genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering refers to the deliberate manipulation of DNA to alter an organism’s characteristics. This is introduced in Atwood’s novel through the character of Crake, a cold-hearted genius who personifies science. Admired by all and given free reign, he creates the Crakers, a group of physically perfect humanoids with no emotions, desires or capacity for thought. Not long ago, the idea of genetically engineering a human would have seemed ludicrous, but today, it is a very real and controversial issue. Most recently, in November 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui reported he had used CRISPR technology to ‘create’ a pair of HIV resistant twin girls.

CRISPR (pronounced “Crisper”) allows scientists to edit genes cheaper and faster than ever before, taking mere days compared to weeks or even months. With this new technology humans can control which genes are expressed in organisms, giving them the ability to pick and choose characteristics with precision and efficiency. CRISPR has been used in a variety of experiments, from reducing genetic deafness in mice to creating mushrooms that do not brown easily. Clearly, gene editing could prove to be a valuable tool across many different industries, from medicine to agriculture and beyond. The problem is that the technology is not yet perfect and poses great risk to human lives. Thus, when He Jiankui claimed he had edited the embryonic genes of twin girls he faced controversy and backlash both from the public and the wider scientific community.

He Jiankui’s actions are widely regarded as gross violations of medical ethics, if not as violations of the law. Nonetheless, Pandora’s Box has been opened. Genetic engineering in both animals and humans will continue to advance and push the boundaries of what we thought possible. The rapid development of technology in the past few decades combined with the questionable actions of some members of the scientific community forces us to ask serious questions about the future of our world. One must wonder- was the only thing wrong with He Jiankui’s experiment the risk he posed to the children by using new technology? If so, does that mean that once CRISPR is safe we should integrate it into our societies? Is it morally wrong to go ‘shopping for babies’? And is CRISPR a slippery slope to Eugenics?

It is ethics and our moral compass, strongly developed through study of the humanities, that constructs the idea we humans are more than just interchangeable shells and expects a system that behaves accordingly.

It is ethics and our moral compass, strongly developed through study of the humanities, that constructs the idea we humans are more than just interchangeable shells and expects a system that behaves accordingly.

So how do we answer these tough moral conundrums? Unfortunately, science alone cannot.

The humanities, as the name implies, are studies focused around the human experience, and they are crucial to the structure and functioning of our society. Both literature and history highlight the disastrous consequences of knowledge when used for the wrong reasons, whether corporate power, warfare, discrimination or some other purpose. It is critical to learn from these fields that genetic engineering and biotechnology could result in negatives. Further divisions in society based on a given groups’ ability to gain access to technology (economic natural selection), as well as environmental degradation and loss of ‘human-ness” are all discussions about the state of our society. As such, analyses of these issues rely on the arts, humanities and social sciences. Equally important is to acknowledge that advances in science, however sci-fi they may seem, have huge potential for improving quality of life through things like medical therapy and food security.

Philosophy, usually seen as an antiquated and pointless subject, nonetheless offers some hugely important insight for our future and even informs some STEM careers today. For example, philosophy of medicine is hugely important to ethical treatment and can find direct usages in doctors’ offices and hospital rooms across the world. As Garbero discusses in his article Philosophy Matters in Medicine, it can help the field by providing guidance into how medicine should be practiced. Furthermore, philosophy frames the discussion around ethics and moral duties, values and practicalities. This can be seen in the notion that humans must be treated as ends in themselves rather than as means to an end, a principle underpinned by the value of human life which rejects the utilitarian idea of doing everything for the greater good. It is ethics and our moral compass, strongly developed through study of the humanities, that constructs the idea we humans are more than just interchangeable shells and expects a system that behaves accordingly.

The ethics of science has become a hot topic in scientific communities. When thinking about the direction of human progress and the role of experimentation, traditionally accepted guidelines clearly need reform to reflect the modern and ever-changing context we live in. It is therefore crucial that ethical frameworks are built and adopted by the scientific and medical communities, with the help of experts from other fields including the arts. From discussions about motives, utility and ethics to learning from the past and being able to speculate about the future, the arts have a lot to offer to society, and they may just be the way to answer questions necessary for the future of our planet. Considering the nature of such questions it is probable that answers will be contested, but a critical and educated discussion is the best place to start.

Perhaps it seems farfetched to think that imagined realities can inform actual realities, but speculative fiction aims to do just that. As a genre, speculative fiction deals with common experiences and human problems with a focus on possible futures, some of which many argue have come true. From Aldous Huxley’s predictions of a world where antidepressants are as common as candy to Frank Herbert’s depiction of a resource war in Dune, there are many implications that fiction could soon become reality. Likewise, many novels have accurately portrayed the rise of technology; perhaps most impressively H.G. Well’s prediction of the atomic bomb in The World Set Free all the way back in 1914. This should encourage us to take on a multidisciplinary approach to technological advancement, and position us to think about the consequences of our actions. As Atwood puts it “Not real can tell us about real.”, and the world we used to read about in old comics and watch in science fiction movies could be closer than we think.

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