Thursday, May 8, 2014

Doing and Undoing

There are lines that you can cross back over once you’ve stepped across, but there are others that by definition can only be crossed once. In and of itself, this might sound like a rather ordinary observation: who doesn’t know that you can buy a shirt and then “unbuy” it by returning it to the store (ideally without having worn it in the interim), but that you can’t unring a bell or unlearn a secret someone has whispered into your ear (particularly when it is a big juicy one that you were probably better off not knowing)? Still, it never struck me to apply this principle to law and to use it to analyze blocks of text. Let’s start with the second five of the Ten Commandments. You cannot unkill. But you can unsteal. You cannot uncommit adultery. But you can unperjure yourself after lying in court. With enough therapy and self-control, you can probably learn to uncovet your neighbor’s riches too. Or maybe not.

There were, at any rate, interesting examples in the news last week of both kinds of lines.
Christie’s, the world’s largest auction house, is sending its Pandava home. The real Pandavas—the real unreal mythological characters, I mean—are the five sons of Pandu in the Mahabharata, the great Sanskrit epic that, as the world’s longest epic poem, is about ten times as long as the Iliad and Odyssey put together. (Why the great classics of Indian literature—and particularly the Mahabharata and the Ramayana—are not taught, or at least not taught regularly, in our high schools and colleges is a mystery to me. I’ve loved these stories even since I first started reading them in college, and I still hope actually to learn Sanskrit one day and revisit them all in the original. Interested readers can start best of all with the late R.K. Narayan’s abridged prose version of the Mahabharata published by Viking in 1978 and now reprinted by the University of Chicago Press.)

Gorgeous statues of these mythic characters once adorned the great temples of Cambodia, but they, and many other pieces of priceless art, were stolen when the temples were pillaged during that nation’s eight-year-long civil war in the 1960s and early 1970s. Then, as happens, the pieces were separated and sold in different countries across the globe, generally (I’d like to think) to buyers unaware that they were purchasing stolen merchandise. But, amazingly, the tide has turned as these statues have become successively unstolen and successfully returned to Cambodia. It began last year when the Metropolitan Museum agreed to return two statues called the “Kneeling Attendants” that many New Yorkers knew well because they came to flank the entrance into the museum’s gallery of South Asian art, but which had originally been stolen from the Koh Ker Temple about two hundred miles north of Phnom Penh. Then Sotheby’s agreed to return a huge sandstone sculpture of Bhima (one of the five Pandavas mentioned above) that too had once been stolen from the Koh Ker Temple.  This week, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena announced it would return a different statue of Bhima that had been looted from the Prasat Chen temple. And now, just yesterday, Christie’s announce that it will send back its Pandava statue as well, also stolen from Prasat Chen, and at its own expense.

For those of us who have been following the stories connected with Jewish art work looted by the Nazis all across Europe, seeing justice done for others is very satisfying for two reasons: first, because it is a pleasure to see people acting justly, and, second, because gestures like the restitution of the Cambodian statues make it that much more likely that the world will behave as nobly and fairly with respect to Jewish property stolen during the war. In that regard, the death last week of Cornelius Gurlitt, seems relevant. Gurlitt was the reclusive German art dealer who at his death was in possession of over 1,200 works of art by the likes of Picasso, Chagall, and Matisse, many (if not all) of which had been stolen by the Nazis—primarily, but not solely, from German museums and from Jewish private owners—only to end up at war’s end in the hands of Gurlitt’s father, an art dealer whom the Nazis used to sell the art they stole for profit.

The situation is far more complicated than simply shipping paintings back to their original owners, however, almost none of whom are still alive. The Nazis stole artwork from every country Germany occupied. Fifteen years ago, it was estimated that over 100,000 items had yet to be returned to their owners and that among them are hundreds of paintings in American museums for which the “chain of ownership” during the years 1939-1945 remains unclear.  Much has been returned since then, although the legal battles undertaken by the heirs of the original owners seem likely to drag on for years and years. Many may never be resolved at all, let alone to the satisfaction of the heirs, yet the will to restore purloined art to its rightful owners does seem to be gaining momentum. German law, for example, now specifically mandates the return of “cultural assets lost as a result of Nazi persecution,” which includes paintings sold by Jews who emigrated from Germany to support themselves after they had no other means to earn their livelihood. So that is encouraging, at least in a preliminary sort of way.

But the fact that some lines can be crossed back over after the fact does not mean that there aren’t lines that, once crossed, can never be renegotiated. In that regard, I am thinking this week of the almost unbelievable announcement the other day that scientists have succeeded in creating, for the first time, artificial DNA code that contains genetic variations not found in nature.  Explaining what this means is very complicated, and it would probably be even more so if I truly understood the whole thing. (Andrew Pollack’s article in the NY Times on Wednesday did a good job of explaining the basics.) But gleaning what I can from what I’ve read, the basic concept has to do with the fact that DNA is made up of different combinations of four basic units called nucleotides, each usually represented in scientific literature by a single letter: A, C, G, and T. The specific way these nucleotides are arranged dictates the kind of protein the cell that contains this specific version of DNA manufactures. In turn, these manufactured proteins are responsible (if that’s the right word in this context) for regulating what the cell does within the body’s tissues and organs.

Now, for the very first time in history, scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, have created two entirely new nucleotides, which they have labeled X and Y and which they managed successfully to insert into the E. coli bacterium. (Are you with me? As noted, I hardly understand this myself, not in the way I wish I could, but it still seems fathomable at least according to the basics.) The bacteria then self-reproduced along the normal lines, however that works, but because they were artificially endowed with a genetic code of six nucleotides instead of just four, they proceeded to manufacture proteins that hadn’t ever existed before.  Work on the creation of artificial DNA is not new and has been going on for at least thirty years. Man-made nucleotides have been used in experiments for years, in fact. But this week marked the very first time scientists managed successfully to get artificially manufactured nucleotides to function in a living cell that retained the ability to self-replicate.

What remains to be seen is whether cells endowed with six nucleotides instead of four will actually produce proteins that themselves also have never before existed. If they do, the scientists will have to address themselves to the complicated question of how these new proteins could be used. Clearly, the ideal would be to use then to manufacture new antibiotics, vaccines, medicines, or industrial products of various sorts. But whether that will actually happen or not is not as clear just yet. And, of course, there is some reason to speculate that the presence of four nucleotides is not arbitrary but specific, and that the living cell functions—or at least functions best—with precisely four for a reason…even if that reason remains unknown.

The howling from the bleachers has already begun. Scientists shouldn’t play God! We are opening a Pandora’s box! No one should alter what our Intelligent Designer in heaven has intelligently designed! Only bad things can come from, in effect, tampering with the basic building blocks of life, with how God made the world. But do we really think that?  Isn’t all of modern medicine, in a sense, “tampering” with the normal course of events? Isn’t it “meddling” with nature when doctors labor to prevent cancerous cells, all of which have occurred naturally, from replicating? Certainly you could describe vaccination against disease as fiddling with the Designer’s design (we are, after all, “designed” to get measles when exposed to the measles virus), as tinkering with what appears to have been the original plan for humanity!  Yet somehow we all seem to be entirely fine with doing what it takes to keep nature from taking its natural course when we ourselves are ill, or our children or our parents are.

I wrote about a year ago to you about stem cell research in a similar vein.  (If you are reading this electronically, click here.) We serve God best, I truly believe, when we allow the gifts God has given us—insight, intelligence, curiosity, industry, creativity, patience, inquisitiveness, daring, and the ability to reason deductively, astutely, and cleverly—to guide us forward towards the creation of a finer, better world, one in which disease, decline, and frailty are not seen as inevitable consequences of living, but as challenges to be met both philosophically and scientifically. To conquer death entirely may be an unattainable fantasy. But to create the best world we can with the tools we have—that hardly seems like folly at all. In fact, it seems like a genuine celebration of the single greatest of all God’s gifts to humankind: the ability to do good in the world.

Yes, we will never cross back over this line. It will permanently now be possible to create versions of DNA that haven’t ever existed. Those “new” kinds of cells may well produce “new” kinds of protein, which will be put to uses that even just recently would have seemed like just so much science fiction. The world, in a profound way, was altered last week. Unlike the Matisses in Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich flat, there is no reset button to push to set things back how they were. The paintings can be returned. So can most stolen things. But knowledge, once out there, can never be unlearned. Only a fool would imagine otherwise. The challenge, however, is not merely stoically to nod to that fact, but thoughtfully and ethically to devote ourselves to using what the world knows and cannot unlearn for good only, thereby making its un-unknowability an ongoing blessing for us all.

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