The Doric Column
December 9, 1998
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
Two questions nag me with the approach of the Third Millennium:
Will Armageddon get underway?
How bad will the Y2K millennium bug be?
An affirmative answer to the first question, of course, diminishes concern about second.
But I wouldn't have a clue what to do in either case should catastrophe occur as the clock strikes 12 midnight that last day of the current millennium.
Actually I haven't been thinking much about catastrophe in the near term. I have been thinking about possibility in long term, in the distance, during the Third Millennium. Some things undreamed of, surely. Other things dreamed of only by a few.
Two centuries ago, in a farmhouse among the dark and forboding British moorlands, Samuel Taylor Coleridge composed the quintessential poetic dream, Kubla Khan.
A short poem, 54 lines, the most studied poem in history line for line. Yet a poem tainted, if you absolutely insist on considering the source.
Over the past couple decades neuroscientists have identified certain receptors in the brain that play a major role in recognition and transmission of pain. They are called opiate receptors.
Coleridge's opiate receptors were fully booked with their namesake, opium, the mother lode. The "anodyne" was prescribed, he wrote, to address "a slight indisposition."
Today that characterization would be called denial. Indeed, his letter to Joseph Cottle in 1814 is a vivid description of his "accursed habit" and a desperate attempt to find a way out by following a remedy reported in a medical journal.
But if Coleridge had managed to stay clean, would we have Kubla Khan ?
Upon waking from the deep opium-induced reverie in the English countryside, he recalled the dream and wrote the 54 immortal lines before being interrupted and losing his train of thought.
Kubla Khan "resonates with possibilities, touching on humankind's most basic desires--those of power, wealth, sex, death, and the creative impulse," writes Caroline Alexander in her book The Way to Xanadu.
Coleridge never traveled to the exotic landscapes he describes in his dream vision, not to Inner Mongolia, Florida, Kashmir, or Ethiopia. He borrowed from the accounts of noted travel writers of the time.
He considered that an epic poem would take him 20 years. "Ten to collect materials and warm my mind with universal science. I would be a tolerable Mathematician, I would thoroughly know Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Optics and Astronomy, Botany, Metallurgy, Fossilism, Chemistry, Geology, Anatomy, Medicine--then the mind of man -- then the minds of men -- in all Travels, Voyages and Histories.
"So I would spend ten years--the next five to the composition of the poem--and the five last to the correction of it."
An epic poem that two centuries later, on the brink of the Third Millennium, would have been no match for a poetic dream in 54 lines.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
The Third Millennium will begin with the completion of the Human Genome Project followed by the flowering of biotechnology.
Biotechnology--the very embodiment of the "possibilities," the power, wealth, sex, death and the creative impulse that Kubla Khan represented in verse two centuries ago.
The steam engine was hard at work transforming the British economy and society as Coleridge and his poet friend William Wordsworth took their walks in the wood. But that transformation, the Industrial Revolution, someday will appear as a historical artifact compared to what's coming down.
The news makes the point. Two scientific breakthroughs were reported today: Japanese researchers produced eight identical calves from cells removed from a single adult cow, octuplet clones; and South African paleo-anthropologists found what is believed to be the oldest complete skeleton of our ancestor on the African continent.
The human fossil was the consequence of millions of years of evolution and took millions of years to discover. The octuplet cattle clones were the consequence of laboratory manipulations undertaken over the course of several months.
It's no contest. Evolution has been trumped in the laboratory.
But are we ready for what's coming?
"Never before in history has humanity been so unprepared for the new technological and economic opportunities, challenges, and risks that lie on the horizon," writes Jeremy Rifkin in his new book The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World.
"The new tools of biology are opening up opportunities for refashioning life on Earth while foreclosing options that have existed over the millennia of evolutionary history."
By 2025 A.D., he writes, the world may little resemble what we see today.
That's 27 years from now. Do you remember 1971? That year I visited Glacier Park, Montana for the first time. I've been back seven times since, including last summer. Except for the congestion, Glacier Park is much the same, the pearl of our National Parks as Charles Kuralt once called it.
Will our most treasured landscapes really be unrecognizable in 27 years? Or just ourselves?
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
With Jeremy Rifkin and other bioprophets in tow, the revolution in biology and its offspring will continue to move ahead -- for economic and competitive reasons, for national defense reasons (biological weapons and protection against them), for reasons associated with human needs, and for the simple reason that biology today is an irresistible draw for the human imagination.
Last spring I found myself talking with a key state legislator about the University's capital investment request to build new laboratories that would focus on molecular and cellular biology.
We met in a small cafe in his district, which was once my district, surrounded by the finest soil in the state, deep, rich black soil that yields a bounty of cash crops.
It wasn't part of my job, but I believed in the wisdom of the investment. Biotechnology promises the most for three areas of endeavor: medicine, agriculture, and the environment. No state, I argued, is better positioned to reap the benefits of such an investment than Minnesota.
Down the road from the cafe, earlier this century, one of my uncles was the subject of talk because of his determination to experiment with a new type of seed. Some considered it pretty risky back then, during the Great Depression. But the seed took and the crop flourished and pretty soon everybody was growing hybrid corn.
Today some of same fields grow genetically engineered corn with built-in resistance to the European corn borer. The seeds contain genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, a natural biocontrol agent that poisons pests like the corn borer.
So what can you do if you believe in giving the next generation the best tools to build its future with? What can you do if you believe in the promise of biotechnology but admit that its risks are real, that the economic forces behind it operate in self-interest and not in the commonweal?
All new technologies run the risk of misuse. But with biotechnology, the stakes are higher. If it should take an ugly turn, to do nothing is to invite disaster.
"The wisest thing in the world is to cry before you are hurt," wrote G.K. Chesterton in his book Eugenics and Other Evils. "It is no good to cry out after you are hurt; especially if you are mortally hurt." Most tyrannies have been made possible "because men moved too late."
Chesterton was writing in 1924. At the end of his book, he takes on the Prussian state with its "scientific enthusiasts" and "evolutionary idealists" who finally had the opportunity to see their "Paradise," their "Utopia at work" during the Great War. "And they were very silent for five years."
A stately pleasure-dome transformed into a chamber of horrors.
"It may be," he wrote, less than a decade before the rise of the Third Reich, "that gradually these dazed dupes will gather again together, and attempt again to believe their dreams and disbelieve their eyes."
So what do we need to do? We need to be vigilant, we need to be involved, and we need to be informed. We need to know when to say no. And we need to be able to make distinctions.
At the beginning of Silent Spring , Rachel Carson wrote that it was not her contention that chemical insecticides should never be used. "I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm."
Carson herself advocated the commercial development and use of Bacillus thuringiensis and other natural biological controls to minimize or eliminate the need for chemically based pesticides.
She notes in Silent Spring that it was Erasmus Darwin, around 1800, who first suggested that an insect might be controlled by encouraging its enemies.
Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin, a physician-poet who greatly influenced the Romantic Poets. Especially Coleridge.
Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Erasmus Darwin. The Temple of Nature. 1802
Coleridge was a good friend of a fellow named Thomas Wedgewood, a patient of Dr. Darwin's. It is known that the good doctor prescribed opium for his patient. Did he prescribe the opium anodyne for Coleridge?
Or did Wedgewood give a little help to his friend?
A damsel with a dulcimer
"The imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception," Coleridge wrote.
After traveling to the lands that inspired Coleridge, Caroline Alexander concludes that "whether it is the world that has changed or our perceptions of it, we do know this: It is unlikely that, ever again, a Xanadu will be yielded from contemporary descriptions. We know now that the tomorrow will never come."
Alexander traversed the landscapes of a dream dreamt in a farmhouse and came away uninspired by the contemporary scene.
The past year I set out in search of my ancestors and found myself looking out the window of a farmhouse in Tarn-et-Garonne deep in the heart of France.
My journey into history took me to Old Montréal where I visited with a cousin, a former premier of Québec.
It took me to Québec City and the Plains of Abraham and across the Atlantic Ocean to La Rochelle, the French port from where my ancestor sailed to New France in 1665 as a member of the Carignan-Salières regiment sent by Louis XIV to shore up Québec.
Then to southern France and the land of troubadours and the Templars and valuted abbeys and cliff-side cities like Rocamadour where countless pilgrims came in search of a miracle, and before that the land of Gaul, of Roman roads and fortresses, of Celts and Druids and sacred groves.
One day my cousin and his wife and I drove along a picturesque country road to the site of a megalith.
Megaliths pepper the countryside in that part of France. They are remnants of the Stone Age. This one was a dolmen, a ponderous tabletop capstone supported by two equally ponderous upright stones tilted slightly toward each other.
Dolmens are open-air tombs. They are monuments infinitely more enduring than sunny pleasure-domes, places where ancestral voices echo through history.
Not fantastic caves of ice but funerary chambers of the human family.
The contemporary scene that disappointed Caroline Alexander in her search for Xanadu still has a place for "forests ancient as the hills," for enfolding greenery shot through with silvery streaks of dawn's mist.
You can see it from the window of a farmhouse.
The contemporary scene still has a place for well-groomed vineyards along a country road. It has a place for people harvesting grapes in much the manner they have for hundreds of years, maybe ever since the Romans introduced the vine to Gaul just before the beginning of the First Millennium.
You can see those people coming up the path right now, clasping great purple clusters of them to give to the américaines.
You can see all that today from the window of a farmhouse in Tarn-et-Garonne.
--William Hoffman email@example.com