By Gordon Chaffin, LSA 2010
Have you heard of Craig Venter? He’s a pretty big deal. In 2010, his team created a single cell organism — the world’s first “synthetic life.” That may not mean much to you, but here’s something that should matter: this technology will change the world forever. The great breadth of biodiversity that sustains every ecosystem on the Earth is built on tiny microbes that can metabolize nearly anything and in turn produce nearly anything. From the anaerobic heat of the deep sea to the minimally dense upper atmosphere, tiny microbes run our world.
Now, there a paragraph went by and I didn’t say anything about a liberal arts education. Or did I? We’re creating life now, strictly speaking, so what should we say about the ethical application of this technology? What should be legal and illegal about this technology? Beyond the law, what are the social, psychological, economic, political, and philosophical implications of synthetic life? These questions won’t be left alone to the experts — they shouldn’t be in a democracy — so it’ll be up to us to vote in an informed way. We English majors, abnormal psych concentrators, and even that PhD track philosophy student will have to understand this innovation.
Okay, so Sophocles doesn’t have much to say about the synthetic microbes we’re using to develop clean biofuel technology. But I have great faith that we can navigate the more complicated ethical questions as long as Michigan Men and Women continue to graduate from the College of LSA — as long as an inter-disciplinary, robust liberal arts education continues to be a force in American higher education.
You probably haven’t guessed my LSA major yet; it was Political Science, with a minor in philosophy. I work in Public Relations now, and this isn’t the first time I’ve written a blog that lead with science. I learned of these microbes in a natural science elective class I took my last semester in Ann Arbor. I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the microscopic organisms that run our world. Those cool things can do anything, and they lit a light bulb of curiosity above my head. A light bulb I just can’t turn off.
Craig Venter (whose facial hair I envy) is just one example of a liberal arts education put to good use. I rely on natural science all the time in my work, and in my current public policy graduate program. Did you know that advanced economic models borrow from special models of astrophysics, or that companies like Facebook forecast user activity with models that incorporate the maxims of natural science, like the Laws of Thermodynamics? It’s all math, really — math that changes the world experienced by every liberal arts student or alum. (Disclosure: I almost failed Calc II.)
I just Can’t Turn It Off: my curiosity burns bright and I can better contribute to the world, affecting positive change, because I’ve experienced diverse coursework. A liberal arts education is the best preparation for a career and for what’s more important than that: a fulfilling life marked by keen exploration of the world and dedication to something bigger than ourselves. I’m honored to be a part of the LSA Dean’s Young Alumni Council. Craig Venter lit a light bulb, and now I #CantTurnItOff.