Robert Sinsheimer begins his essay “Genetic Engineering: Life as a ...


Dec 11, 2012 (4 years and 6 months ago)


Tristan Harward

Engineering 195, Spring 2006 Final Exam

The Question of Why

Robert Sinsheimer begins his essay “Genetic Engineering: Life as a Plaything”
with the line “In a process almost as old as the earth, a huge panoply of organisms has
evolved.” This

sentence sets up the essay
: w
e know from it that Sinsheimer understands
the importance of evolution and life in the same way Charles Darwin did.

is life so
? It is
precisely because

we don’t know why, or even exactly how it happened.
said “No one ought to feel surprise at much remaining as yet unexplained… if he
make due allowance for our profound ignorance.” This idea of



of life
captivated people since the dawn of humanity. We have a profound curiosity to know the
own and understand the why and how of everything. It is the driving force behind
both religion and science

the quest to quench the thirst of ignorance.

Often one comes to the realization that some things simply cannot or should not
be known, and he begins
to develop a deep respect

a reverence

for them.
The mystery
of the unknown, or even the unknowable, is its cause.
everence is a sort of
understanding; a balance between knowing something, and knowing enough of
something to know that it is bigger tha
n one’s capacity to know.


is respecting that
prospect of the unknown
with awe and humility.

, perhaps, are in the best position to be reverent

in this way
. Who better
to respect the unknown than those who search within it th
eir whole lives?

In “The Secret
of Life,” Loren Eiseley comments on the many attempts to create life in a laboratory

to understand it’s mystery
. “I do not think, if someone finally twists the key successfully
in the tiniest and most humble house of li
fe, that many of these questions will be
answered.” He believes that

is greater than its parts, and that even discovering

will not reveal its secrets. We know from his writing that he reveres life most
profoundly: it is the “most humble
house of life.” It is still a mystery to him, and he even
begins to use

mythological descriptions of matter having “dreadful powers” and
invokes a rather religious

Yes, this reverence is where the walls between science and religion

are lowered,
and in fact never existed. All men begin to think on similar terms when presented with
the right questions.

On the other hand, we have Carl Sagan and his essay, “Can We Know the
Universe? Reflections on a Grain of Salt.” In his conclusion, he

says “A universe that is
unknowable is no fit place for a thinking being.” Yet

Sagan still seems to revere the
universe itself, acknowledging that he does not know why the natural laws are what they
are. He simply uses them as a guide to learn more

h prohibitions… make the world
more knowable.” Sagan would still never like to know everything, and would probably
think it impossible. This idea of human ignorance, so key to the pursuit of science, stays
with him, and with it comes great respect for the
yet unknown.

Lewis Thomas wants to teach this respect. He says in his essay, “Humanities and
Science” that we’re teaching

the wrong way around

that one of our first
priorities as teachers should be to teach what is not yet known. One of the very re
asons he
suggests this is that the unknown is the source of the respect

and reverence of science
society needs to understand. He goes on to give wonderful accounts of these great
unknowns in all fields

of scientific study
, from biology to physics to

life itself. “Let it be
known… that there are some thing

in the universe that lie beyond comprehension, and
make it plain how little is known.” He wants to solve one of the biggest mysteries in
students’ heads: why learn about science? It is because ther
e is so much unknown, so
much to revere.

It is not only in the unknown that we see reverenc
Many scientists have a
for a
way of thinking that
we do

the scientific method, or even just the
way one reaches lo
gical conclusions about the world around them.

his essay

“On the
Scientific Method,” Robert Pirsig details this process and the kind of elegant
understanding it offers.
Pirsig, like most scientists,

reveres this process and its quality

Yet, perhaps we are reverent because of the underlying purpose of the process itself: it is
designed to discover secrets about the unknown, which only brings us closer to knowing
how little we know.

Why revere, then?
What do
es it offer us?

As a society, it is important to be careful
of our actions, lest we do something horribly wrong. A broad respect for
what we do not
know might help us take smaller steps into the dark unknown, rather than giant leaps into
pitfalls we cannot

yet see or understand.
It is also important for the advancement science
itself. A respect for the unknown gives a certain
care in

actual scientific work, making
accuracy, procedure, correctness, and understanding very important

allows us to

honor and value

the precious little we can understand

In ge
, reverence puts a person in his place

anything we revere is bound to
be larger than ourselves

even if it
s source

is infinitesimally small
, which makes us
relatively tiny and surprisingly special.

y becomes something to cherish
when viewed against a backdrop of vast empty space.

This respect for life brings with it a great appreciation for the
physical and
process which brought it about. We realize that the same process made the
earth a
nd all living things, and indeed the heavens above.
As we see in Loren Eiseley,
his brings a sense of great connect

to nature

is produced, by no hand of man,
incredible complexity and beauty.
Life gains i
mportance again, and we are humbled in its

This brings us back to Sinsheimer’s essay, where he asks the question “What
happens to the reverence for life when life itself is our creation, our plaything?” Of
course, the implied answer is that the re
verence disappears.
ecause reverence comes
from the unknown, and when we know how to create life, it becomes known. Or does it?
Surely, Eiseley would disagree: we still have not discovered the secret, and there is this
idea of reverence. As long as there
are minds to understand themselves and the universe
and be curious about it, there will be things unknown
things to revere

There is always the question “Why?” One could ask it over and over and in
circles like a child, and its inevitable answer, “I do
n’t know” is bound to spark thought.
The conclusion leads naturally to a growin
g respect for that great answer, as so many
scientists have shown us.