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Oscillator

Oscillator

Notes, thoughts, and news on synthetic biology.

"What if I told you I was a genetically modified human?"

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Megan Daalder -- Project Eureka

Megan Daalder's Project Eureka is a shape-shifting and multidimensional narrative about life, science, and technology after the end of the world. At her work-in-progress exhibition at the UCLA Art|Science gallery, which opened this week, she invites us to visit Eureka's future, set in the year 2050. In this future "the 'Naturals' have won," and society aggressively defends an idea of Nature and Natural Selection that is full of conflict, with room only for the naturally genetically fit. In this world, Daalder's Eureka is an outcast on the run from a society that resists all technological interventions in Nature's plan. She is the world's first and last designer baby, engineered to be "futureproof" in a world wracked by climate change.

The specifics of her genome edits and the structure of her society are left open-ended. We're asked to speculate and fill in many of the gaps in the world hinted at by the exhibition's two intertwined interviews. On one screen, Eureka talks to my favorite bioethicist, Laurie Zoloth, about Nature and the morality of genetic technologies. As Zoloth discusses purity, ethics, religion, and history, the other screen features an interview with Gizmo Joe, a resident of Slab City, discussing the dangers and hopes that are embedded in all technology. As Zoloth questions which concept of nature we wish to return to and what we define as truly "natural," Gizmo Joe, at first wary of an engineered human, welcomes Eureka into his desert world, littered with the artifacts of past technologies in various stages of being recycled into future machines.

Project Eureka isn't meant to simply warn us of a future climate apocalypse or to propose a desired path of progress, but to open up new spaces and times for asking how we can live more effectively together on this planet, with other entities both human and non-human, natural and artificial. Likewise, Eureka's genetic modifications don't point the way towards Daalder's vision of an ideal future human, optimized for any given future scenario. Rather, in her conflicts with a society set on one definition of DNA-inscribed human nature, Eureka shows us that we must transform ourselves in many different ways in order to compose a better future world. In proposing a genetically engineered basis for Eureka's altruism and kindness--her humanity--Daalder blurs the natural, cultural, and technological in a character that can't be defined by any one trait or behavior, but is shaped through her relationship to the people she interviews and the world she creates as the project grows and shifts.

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

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