As the millennium approaches like an overloaded freight train--fat with metaphor--we shall see many attempts to peer beyond the veil of that magical number, 2000. (For purists, 2001.) Many try to do linear extrapolations from current trends. Others assume, like southern Californian weather forecasters, that tomorrow will be pretty much like today, only more crowded.
Perhaps the best approach to prognostication uses analogy: Could our century have been foretold in the 1890s?
First, recall that the 19th century was dominated by the metaphors and technological implications of two sciences: chemistry and mechanics. Wonders as striking as railroads and steamships conspired with humble revolutions like the use of artificial fertilizer to make the world new and bountiful.
To be sure, other themes were sounding through the serene Victorian atmosphere. At mid-century, the audacious Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution by natural selection began preparing the ground for modern biology and excited enormous public furor. Elsewhere in England, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell were laying the foundations of electromagnetic technology. Their discoveries promised much that could be used fairly soon in practical ways. Darwin troubled minds, but had no pragmatic implications.
While the older crafts and models of Newtonian mechanics and workaday chemistry drove the great economic and social engines of the Victorian era, in the waning decade of the century, Edison, Marconi, and others sounded the opening theme of the next, electric era. These inventors caught the public's imagination. Radio saved the Titanic's passengers; Edison captured movement and sound. The great, unsettling conceptual shifts of relativity and quantum mechanics followed later. By 1910, the transition was obvious.
For clearly, physics has dominated our century. It has altered everything, from wars to whores. Electromagnetic theory and experiment gave us the telephone, radio, TV, computers, and made the internal combustion engine practical--thus, the car and airplane, leading inevitably to the rocket and outer-space exploration. Indeed, the fateful wedding of rockets with the other monumental product of physics, nuclear bombs, led to the end of large-scale strategic warfare--as profound a change as any in modern times.
Even now, as the century wanes, physicists remain our scientific Brahmins. They dominate government committees, holding forth on topics far beyond their nominal expertise: defense, environmental riddles, social policy. And yet, far from the physics departments of the great campuses, a clarion call is sounding through our time, one that responds to hot-button environmental problems and that incorporates rapid advances in other laboratories: Biology has turned aggressively useful.
By analogy, we stand on the threshold of the Biological Century. Just as the 1890s hummed with physical gadgetry, our decade bristles with striking biological inventions. Conceptual shifts will surely follow. Beyond 2000, the principal social, moral, and economic issues will probably spring from biology's metaphors and approach, and from its cornucopia of technology. Bio-thinking will inform our world and shape our vision of ourselves.
The Easy Era
Even as particle physicists desperately, unsuccessfully tried to get their $10 billion Superconducting Super Collider built in Texas, a smaller initiative quietly proceeded: the Human Genome Project. This vast effort, eventually costing about $3 billion, will map the human genetic codeour DNA. (Researchers have already completely sequenced a bacterium genome.)
The Genome Project's first director was James Watson, co-discoverer, with Francis Crick, of DNA. The project is the largest job ever attempted in biology, but surely not the last foray of biologists into "Big Science," where physicists have cultivated their own plantations for decades.
DNA sequencing opens vast ethical issues. We shall be able to know who has defective genes. What will it mean when we can be sure we're not all born equal? Worked out, the implications will scare a lot of people. Insurance companies will not want to cover those with a genetic predisposition to illness, for example. Here lurk myriad lawsuits.
But these are short-term ethical questions, surely. The true solution lies in fixing genes, not merely reading them. If parents-to-be can have their problem genes edited into normal ones, most of the issues may evaporate. And this is just one of many advances that portends much. Will we stop at cleaning up what we see as defects? I doubt it.
As we all saw in grade school, once you learn how to read a book, somebody is going to want to write onethat's how authors are made. Once we know how to read our own genetic code, someone is going to want to rewrite that "text," tinker with traitsplay God, some would say.
True rewriting lies a few decades off, I believe. The first years of the Biological Century will probably be an Easy Era, much as physics enjoyed a period of largely uncritical acceptance of wonder after wonder, until The Bomb. Remember that radium was widely thought to be a general cure until Madame Curie died of her exposure.