March 28 Catalyst Conversations Reflection

A Catalyst Conversation on a damp, late-March evening, at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center: the dark side of evolution looms large, as do hopes that music can offer a model for mechanically aligning evolution’s processes with moral purpose.

Kevin Esvelt, leader of the Sculpting Evolution Group at MIT’s Media Lab, presents the problem: we have the capability now to alter and/or enhance genetic traits of entire wild populations. Though evolution itself is amoral, we—this species that has developed the ability to read and write genetic code or “nature’s language”, as Esvelt puts it—can reflect and make choices about where, when, how and especially why to intervene. His concern is that the techniques are so simple and the “arms race of technology” so pressing, that science will have sweeping effects on the natural world before the ethical implications are fully sorted out. Here, the title of this conversation, “The Boundaries of the Possible”, are a set of nature-imposed parameters that we are keeping ourselves within at the moment, but are poised to exceed.

Coming not simply from the other side of the spectrum, but from a different spectrum altogether—that of sound—is Tod Machover, leader of the Opera of the Future Group, also at the Media Lab. Machover paints a portrait of experimentation across all of the different axes involved in making music: the boundaries of the possible in terms of sounds having emotive resonance; the boundaries of the possible in terms of capacity for a composition or a performance ensemble to incorporate limitless contributions; and the boundaries of the possible in terms of the technical capacity of humans and instruments to create musical sound.

Immediately the two get into a discussion of transhumanism. Are there any biological or cognitive constraints on what we can find musical? Could we/should we engineer better or other kinds of ears? Does science have any imperatives to apply its resources to resolving inequalities in the distribution of hearing before it focuses on augmenting hearing? There is also spirited discussion of the value of open source models in science and music as a means of both expanding a knowledge/experiment base and adding transparency/increasing access. Can the open source-ness and lack of predetermination in musical improvisation offer any tools for thinking about the problems involved in adapting scientific practice for a changing landscape? None of these questions are resolved, just raised and debated with earnest audience participation and sometimes laughter.

My take—which drifts a little bit over towards an anthropology of science perspective—is that we can’t trust our perception that we are ethical beings capable of assessing what’s right and wrong in the long run, any more that we can trust evolution to be moral. Evolution is a human-identified and articulated law, we can’t stand outside of these definitions, and our explanations of what is moral are rooted in historical time and space, which cannot rationally be applied universally.

Coda: Best of all was the time that was taken to celebrate a few specific artists that we’ve lost—recently and not too, too long ago—for their radical musical experimentation. Names that rang out like bells still pealing included Pierre Boulez, David Bowie, Marvin Minsky and Charlotte Moorman.


Heather Kapplow ( is a Boston-based conceptual artist. Her work involves exchanges with strangers, wielding talismans, alternative interpretations of existing environments, installation, performance, writing, audio, and video. She has also written about art for ArtDependence, Hyperallergic, WBUR’s ARTery, WGBH’s World Channel, Big Red & Shiny Magazine, BDCWire, and Transgender Tapestry.

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