About the SA Blog Network

Guest Blog

Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American
Guest Blog HomeAboutContact

The Life Engineers: Prometheus Asks, Is a Culture as Stupid as Ours Ready to Create New Life?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

Photo: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Photo: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Pinning down exactly what Ridley Scott’s larger-than-life Prometheus means may be impossible. But it’s safe to say that the movie – the 3-D quasi-prequel to Scott’s seminal technoscience-horror fable, Alien – is self-consciously a myth for our scientific era.

Prometheus opens over the shoulder of an alabaster figure on the edge of a prehistoric waterfall. This alien, called an Engineer, drinks a poison and falls into the waters. Our camera-eye follows, diving into his cells, which are darkening and cracking apart. Then we dive further – into his very DNA, which is rapidly rotting and unwinding, but not disappearing. We are left unsure where his broken-down DNA is headed. Cue title sequence.

Why does Scott open with an act of alien genesis triggered by crumbling, black DNA? Regardless of what else the filmmakers want the opening scene to convey, this is a horror movie. Its opening suggests that something about DNA and DNA manipulation is a source of dread – even as society today embraces biotechnology.

The biggest questions Prometheus asks may be, if DNA is a type of code or a language, who wrote the code of human life, and what did they intend for us? Our discomfort with the fact that manipulating DNA is a technique like any other – something you can learn and exploit for useful, perhaps lucrative ends – is driven by concerns over the motivations of those doing the manipulating.

Photo: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Photo: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

If we were coded by authors with a motivation – the Engineers in Prometheus – can we be sure that we’re acting on our own volition? Our discomfort with being “programmed” is logical, because free will presents us with a reason to behave more responsibly (you can’t blame anyone else) and a gift of constant discovery.

The Engineers are not new to our trove of archetypes. In a way, they’re unknowable like God, but in another way they’re just a larger, paler version of ourselves. Scott makes this clear when his archeologists discover that we share genomes. Humans are the Engineers’ golems, Pinocchios, and Frankenstein’s creatures. The horror that comes with this discovery is that our makers are just about as ungodlike as we are.

The movie isn’t really about the Engineers, however. The Engineers are us. Do we want life to be given purpose by people as fallible, silly, vain, and stupid as we are? Of course, we’ve been bioengineering already. Since the advent of agriculture and animal husbandry, we’ve shaped the genetic direction that species take. Think: wolves into Pomeranians. But breeding has always been a slow, sloppy form of programming.

So here we are at the gates to the age of biotechnology, where scientists bioengineer yeast and bacterial cells to produce materials for us like medicines and plastics, where they use genetically engineered viruses to manipulate the brain cells of mice as if neurons were the strings of a marionette. The moment when bioengineering becomes indistinguishable from computing is coming. Companies like Autodesk are already developing bioCAD software, and undergraduate students are doing bioengineering for their summer projects. With the Engineers – humanity’s Gepetto – Prometheus offers a slant on where this all might lead.

Sure, just as the Engineers, we’ll weave our own messy psychology into the life we make. But will we also leave something out? That is, free will – the ability to desire, act, and react in new ways. When behaviors are programmed, free will gets lost. Perhaps that’s okay when we think about a lowly E. coli churning out fuel. But we feel disgust the more we can identify with the organism we’re programming. Imagine owning a bioengineered dog that never veered from its hardwired instructions; it would be more of an appliance than a pet. And a completely programmed human being? This is the stuff of horror.

Photo: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Photo: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Science fiction’s forecasts have many times hit dead-on (submarines, space travel, computer hacking). Stories that focus on biotech often come back to a central theme, perhaps the predominant question of our age: When DNA becomes just another toolset, what will separate us from any other object that’s made? And what’s transcendent about life if we can design it ourselves?

In the biotech era, the creation of new life may be the ultimate source of bio-angst-the feeling that there’ll never be a satisfactory reason for our existence. If life is just stuff to be worked into new forms, then nothing separates life from ore, plastic, or anything else we can manipulate with tools.

Scott’s Prometheus shows that – as a culture forced to make increasingly difficult decisions regarding science – we haven’t escaped the debate central to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or what she called The Modern Prometheus (no coincidence). Shelley’s creature – abandoned by his genius creator – asks, why did you make me? Scott’s movie just reverses the equation. In Prometheus, we are the creature, abandoned, and we want the Big Answer.

Prometheus is not simply the most recent, biggest-budget story of humanity’s bio-angst – it’s also the story that comes at a time when humanity is finally able to test the reasons for its angst empirically. Here at the opening of the biotech era, we’re both excited and afraid of what our future holds.

Daniel Grushkin and Wythe Marschall About the Author: Daniel Grushkin is a cofounder of Genspace, a community biology lab and education space, and a science journalist who covers the intersection of science, business and culture. Wythe Marschall is the co-author of Suspicious Anatomy, an illustrated book of fake science, and the co-founder of the Hollow Earth Society. He is also a member of Observatory, an art-and-science event space in Brooklyn. His stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Ninth Letter, Salt Hill, The Brooklyn Review, and elsewhere. Follow on Twitter @hollowearths.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 11 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. WRQ9 2:23 pm 07/2/2012

    I suppose the big questions are how well we identify sentience, and whether we can control it. Things like the difference between consciousness and spirit are things present science doesn’t allow for.
    Thank you for pointing out how selfishly we have acted regarding dogs. The acceptance of limited assimilation by mistake is one thing, by design it something different altogether.
    I, personally have never been able to rule out the possibility of reincarnation, so I am exceptionally wary of such endeavors. The notion that the chalice of my next manifestation would be devised by some overachieving sociopath is but a pathetic side note in your “science fiction” analogy. Concern? Oh yes.

    Link to this
  2. 2. racer79 4:52 pm 07/2/2012

    IF we were “created”, that is, if our genetic code were actually manipulated to be the way it is now, then the likely conclusion to be drawn would be that we were created to serve whatever being created us, seeing as how that is the reason we “created” dogs from wolves. However, we still use dogs, they still actively serve us in some way or another today, thousands of years after their creation by us. So if we were created to serve, then where is our creator? What purpose could we possibly serve for our creator if that creator is no longer present? Personally, there is only one explanation that really jumps out at me, and that would be that we have less in common with the dogs which we have created to actively serve us, and much more in common with the algae we have created to be harvested for fuel, or perhaps the E. coli the author talks about, who’s only purpose for existence is the by-products of its existence. Engineered to behave a certain way, then left to our own devices in a beneficial habitat, to be harvested later, or to have the by-products of our existence harvested later.
    If all of this is true, and I know that all of this would be a long shot at best, but if it is true, then perhaps the best way to discover what the purpose for our “creation” is, or was, would be to examine what our functions seem to be. Since we don’t seem to be actively serving, most likely either A. we were created to be harvested for some reason or another after our population reaches a certain size B. we were created for the byproducts that we produce (think anything from CO2, to livestock, to the metals we tend to be good at getting out of the ground, even down to technology) or C. we were created for the affect we have on our environment (think mass extinctions, or global warming if that is your cup of tea).

    Link to this
  3. 3. Sarah B 5:35 pm 07/2/2012

    Some say, and with some authority, that the purpose of creation has nothing to do with our current function or possible future use but for us to become more like the Creator. Check out

    Link to this
  4. 4. Michael M 6:10 pm 07/2/2012

    Methods of adding foreign genes are crude: What was once called “junk” DNA has components which regulate gene expression.
    In the face of this and other, epigenetic, processes, the complexity of creating and proliferating organisms which have not been cooperatively shaped by evolutionary interaction within real, complex, persistent ecosystems merely causes yet another domestic which “requires” “management.”

    I enclose those terms in quotes because the arrogance of present and past simple attempts at preserving domestic species, does require hugely destructive programs to allow the survival of those domestics.

    I do not believe that long-term validity exists in programs which required the eradication of vital keystone species which preyed upon domestic species not coevolved. It took down too many species in a domino-like effect which (to mention only one result) produced such problems as the immense erosion and soil loss of the 20th century, which native ecosystems held and increased before the advent of industrial agriculture and cattle farming. We are now undergoing a loss of native pollinators (temporary, of course) which will cause yet-stronger ecosystem change.

    Racer79 above overlooks the fact that industrial human activity impoverishes, poisons, and sequesters large areas of the biosphere, under inorganic armor. Without constant application of energy (ever-more costly in all senses)and compounds poisonous to life, even that armor would erode and be covered and collapse into a natural balance. This effort shows the weakness of a great proportion of the engineering ideal of management.

    Looking at what we know of hominid history, our own evolution developed along increasing lines of social complexity: larger brains are mostly social in use, having to deal with the deception innate in symbolic language. Finer manipulative ability through motor skills involving both forelegs (hands) and descent from primates who inhabited and escaped danger through climbing, and complex toolmaking, as well as social coalition, accounts for that overvaunted brain size. Understanding uncertainty is even more rare in our species that the other failures of comprehension of complexity.

    Mass culture itself has gone in size beyond our ability to remotely comprehend, and is always cracking and bursting violently at unending new seams. But to return:

    Domestication allowed larger populations within a world previously saturated by our species. Surmises – educated guesses – have homo sapiens 10,000 ya at around 7 million when the world was fully occupied. We now have 3 orders of magnitude greater numbers, with our effervescent mental dispersal allowing massive inquiry into the kinds of questions which our evolution has allowed us to pose.

    But that failure to understand complex uncertainty through dependence upon superstition, gods, faith, determined ignorance, and other manifestations of fantasy, persists. It even appears to be one of our most prominent characteristics, when viewing the blame tossed about in popular politics everywhere.

    We, in this culture shy away from our relationship with the totality of other species, even while we exhibit exactly the same life history processes, both as individuals and as a species. We commercially extinguish them (collapse toabout 10% of historical unexploited levels tends toresult in commercial extinction), and in doing so, cause the rise in uncertain, unpredictable (generally), unstable new living systems. Within our individual lives we may not well detect many or most of these instabilities, although we have isolated one – the excessive release and prevention of reuptake, of CO2. Science detects and infers results of this aberrance, while engineering posits simplistic ways of dealing with it. Many basic ocean organisms, for instance, will decrease, and you have no idea whatsoever of what balance will arise in response.

    Bacteria, by the way, have an interesting method of exchange of genetic material which eukaryotes (us, for instance) do not, and cannot generally comprehend outside of science: they can and do exchange genes among different species.

    This ability causes uncertainty; this uncertainty is nothing to fear, nor is it something we can control. It is evolution, quite ancient.
    Along with emergent E. coli, other organisms can, do, and have taken advantage of this information sharing. MRSA, species-jumping diseases, and other manifestations are merely nature showing us that we cannot do the final controlling here (unless, of course, we want to constantly engineer new poisons from inorganic compounds or toxic products of a few organisms).

    So, this human growth culture wishes to extend itself, and can or will through training new generations of engineers, for a while; but uncertainties multiply over time.

    For now, the continuing aberration of science into engineering (without sufficient training in the complexities of ecology) seems to many like promising career. You will learn much in hindsight.

    Link to this
  5. 5. jack.123 6:51 pm 07/2/2012

    Maybe we were created by life it’s self,a lifeform that can save the planet,and spread life to other worlds.Before our Sun dies,or the next great deadly event.

    Link to this
  6. 6. CliffClark 11:48 pm 07/2/2012

    Make no mistake about it, this movie is a piece of anti-science propaganda. Lines like, “So what about 300 years of Darwinism?” or something to that effect. No, the movie doesn’t “believe” in Darwinism. Do the scientists act anything like scientists? No. Who are the heroes? The Captain of the Prometheus, who is just the truck driver, and doesn’t know much about anything. A woman who is supposedly a scientist, but “believes” without evidence. And who are the bad guys? the aliens, for one. And the people who are the most intelligent, who for that reason must be evil. This movie tells you that science and scientists are dangerous, and that the people who are the salvation of mankind are the good-hearted everyday people who don’t understand all that science. In its way, the movie takes aim at evolution and global warming just as much as those who are working to get intelligent design into the classrooms.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Laroquod 3:54 am 07/3/2012

    I don’t know that it has anything to say about climate change, but there is no doubt that Prometheus is part of a distinctive and disturbing trend in modern science fiction (see: Battlestar Galactica, Lost), in which the actual science are not taken at all seriously, and the idea that they have positive meaning for humanity is lightly and arrogantly dismissed in favour of a bunch of weak-minded mystical intelligent-design claptrap which is taken superseriously despite being based on nothing but wishful and/or fearful thinking. It’s part of the stupidification of a genre I used to love. Where can I find science fiction made by people who actually like science?

    Link to this
  8. 8. Knyaz 6:29 am 07/3/2012

    От Иоанна.1.1.Возможно в начале была Мысль(информация)а потом слово (способо передачи информации).Главный способ передачи информации это ген.Возможно ген с искажённой информацией при информационном переходе из одного измерения в другое разрушается (судный день).Работа генный инженеров неминуемо приведут к созданию генетически модифицированных людей,что является самой ужасной карой которую может придумать для себя очень умный но потерявший разум человек.

    Link to this
  9. 9. hines1957 11:11 am 07/3/2012

    People have struggled with free-will vs. determinism for millenia, and are not likely to stop any time soon. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is a strong argument against any simplistic notion of determinism, or the ability to perfectly predict the future given a complete set of initial conditions and infinite computing power.

    As usual, it is likely that we poses a combination of the two traits — we freely make choices, but our preferences are determined by our physical and memetic make-up. Given “perfect” information (as perfect as Quantum Mechanics permits), we can predict what people will do most of the time with a high degree of confidence, but never with certainty. The same goes for all phenomena.

    As for this “programming” notion — IMO the definition of sentience is “the ability to self-program”. A sufficiently complex organism will demonstrate emergent behavior going beyond any initial programming and, if it reaches the level of sentience, will have the ability to accept or reject pre-programmed behaviors based on its self-conscious assessment of its situation.

    And finally, this quest for “the meaning of life” is just tilting at windmills. It’s time we get over it. Our purpose is to pass our genetic material to the next generation. That’s the purpose for which our DNA built us. If we wish to have any other purpose, we must create it ourselves.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Egads 12:19 pm 07/5/2012

    Prometheus teaches us the reason the Engineers want to destroy Humankind is that we had a substandard Space Jockey as progenitor. He was supposed to pull the little spoon from the underside of the lid on the cup of ichor, do a simple epithelial scrape of the inside of his cheek, stir it in the cup and dump the infusion in the waterfall, but NO…, our never-read-the-instructions Space-Bozo-Ur-Father drank the Panspermia Helper (patent pending) instead. Sadly, breeding tells…

    Link to this
  11. 11. openeyes999 4:41 pm 07/6/2012

    “When behaviors are programmed, free will gets lost.” Causality and a deterministic universe do this already.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article