While in my last piece I celebrated 2018 as a landmark year for humanity as CRISPR, a powerful gene-editing tool was used to change genome of a living human being; I found something else, a small gift I received that made me reconsider what I feel made the year really memorable.
CRSPR gene-editing of a live person means that we are about to leap out of the constraints of our inherited biology. As we move from being “created” and venture into the unknown of becoming creators of new humans, we now face an existential question.
What part of us that we want to retain to remain humans?
My answer arrived in form of a wonderfully knitted pair of socks from a complete stranger.
Dinaben is 93 and we have never even met. There is no direct social bond that emotionally connects us, and yet, here is a grand old lady investing the most precious possession she has at her age, i.e. her time in making something nice for a complete stranger. It is a thought worth holding on to, especially now as science is questioning the core idea of human-ness.
We have been constantly struggling to define us, or rather differentiate us from the rest of the life forms. There have been many suggestions ranging from tool-use, language-use, intelligence, consciousness or even ability to indulge into suicide/genocide, but each has been defeated as we see other creatures manage most what we do at least in some proto form.
But Dinaben has provided me with a beautiful insight about a quality that we have rarely looked at as uniquely human. Not just us, but many animals can be greedy for self-gain and even altruistic for social gain, but our strange ability to be nice to each other for no reason or gain is an unmatched human quality.
Making socks for a complete stranger has nothing in it for Dinaben, but she is old enough to understand life lot better than most of us. At 93, she is above all human transactions and hence a way of thinking uncluttered by cost-benefit calculations. She shows that as we rise above the baser human state of mind, being nice to fellow humans is equally native and innate state of mind buried within each of us.
Though xenophobia is core to our psyche, and we are making this world a worse-er place to live everyday because of it, the reason why any human lost at sea or in desert finds signs of human habitation to cause euphoric sense of relief is because we are the only creatures who have innate ability to be nice to a fellow being, even if a complete stranger.
This rare human quality is not just worth cherishing, but now worth protecting, as we are on the verge of a very dangerous phase for humanity.
Let us understand that science is just an amplifier. So, it is important how we use this new found empowerment.
At this point, we seem to have offered it our greed and desire for abject gratification to amplify, so the world that we are building using science is no longer resonating with the old age wisdom of Dinaben.
Through the warmth of the socks comes a deep evolutionary wisdom that we must never lose. Greed is the engine that biology has gifted us as a drive and altruism has helped us put together the massive machine we call society.
We may feel that it is these two traits that have helped us come so far today, but bigger truth is, we are here because we are also gifted with the lubricant of unconditional niceness, without which we would have self-imploded out of internal friction.
So, Dinaben has not just sent me socks, she has shared her wisdom of life. If this wisdom is lost to science-amplified greed, we may survive as weird machines, but humanity will be doomed.
While we have Chinese years named after various creatures, let this New Year be a year of the Human, a nice animal that may get extinct if we are not careful.
Happy New Human Year to all!!