A world of extremes

Elissa Jobson

By 2015, it is possible that an interface between brain and silicon will enable paralysed people to walk again. We can expect the most basic bionic eyes to be functional by 2020, with artificial livers suitable for human transplant available just a decade later. Organically-based prosthetic limbs and the holy grail of biomedical science – a cure for cancer – are also over the horizon. 

Breakthroughs in tissue engineering and nanotechnology, combined with a better understanding of the human genome and the interaction of personal genetic factors, are opening up a world of healthcare possibilities that would excite even the most inventive science fiction writer. 

Initially pioneered to assist military casualties, bionic technology is starting to bring hope to injured civilians. In May this year, surgeons successfully transplanted a prosthetic hand capable of responding to signals from the brain. It is only a matter of time before technologies are capable of replicating sense perception and controlling fine motor-coordination, providing significant benefits for ageing populations afflicted by Parkinson’s disease and sight and hearing impairments. 

This brave new world of robotic limbs and silicon sentience is not without its ethical challenges. Professor Robert Winston provides a voice of reason in the passionate and polemical debates over the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research and the compatibility of religion and science. He warns against an unquestioning faith in science, saying:  “science is not the truth. It’s a version of the truth.” And he points out that among all this innovation, infection remains man’s most formidable enemy. 

Neil J. Kressel examines the epidemiology or a more sociological contagion. He delves into the psyche of the religious extremist, exploring the complex psycho-social factors that impel an individual to commit violent acts in the name of God. While it is impossible to isolate the motivations behind the tendency towards extremism at any given time or place, Kressel concludes that the clash between Western liberal values and the more conservative principles of deeply religious societies is at the root of the current explosion of fanatical beliefs and actions. 

Testimonies from Maajid Nawaz, a former recruiter for the radical Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir, and reformed white supremacist Timothy Zaal provide very personal insights into the process of radicalisation and remind us although extreme beliefs can destroy lives, they can also be a source of comfort and strength for the dispossessed and marginalised. 

This is an uncomfortable truth that needs to be grasped in particular by Europe. In recent national elections right-wing political parties have found a following in the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. And while the electoral gains of the British National Party have been modest, research indicates that one fifth of people in the UK would consider voting for the party in the future. Much of their success, suggests Elisabeth Carter, is due to a calculated move away from out-and-out racism and concepts of superiority to a more socially acceptable emphasis on alleged ‘cultural incompatibility’.  

There will always be those who are drawn to the extremes – to the left or the right, whether for religious or secular causes – and who are willing and able to cause destruction and take human life. There are also those, like the young men and women whose peaceful protests sparked the Arab spring, who are prepared to stand up for what they believe in, and even die in the process. But the line separating the two isn’t always clear: where precisely it should be drawn depends greatly on where you stand. 

One thing is clear, however: although breakthroughs in biomedical engineering may soon mean that broken bodies and failing faculties are consigned to the past, there is as yet no real solution for the fracturing of communities, strained by the complex and shifting pressures of demography, culture and economics.

About the author:

Elissa Jobson is the Editor of Global: the international briefing


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