THE BLOG
10/09/2015 12:07 BST | Updated 09/09/2016 06:12 BST

The Refugee Crisis and the Spider-Goat: Editing the empathy gap

The boundary of Human Possibility is a soft-edged thing, really. It changes for all of us, at different rates, as our personal universes expand and contract around what we choose to do, read and learn - or to ignore, deny and bury. Because of this, acquiring knowledge can feel like Schrodinger's cat hanging around in perpetuity: a constant realisation that the world you knew has already been and gone. You just didn't know it yet.

But sometimes, you discover that the hard edges of Human Possibility - the unshakeable chromosomal realities you thought we were stuck with at least until The Future happened - have already been reset in the most fundamental way imaginable by those who control these vanguards: the scientist, coders, and visionaries.

All this you learn in the time it takes to read about the CRISPR technology now capable of erasing flaws in the human genome with find-and-replace accuracy; or to watch a goat, genetically crossed with a spider, produce milk spun with silk that will soon be stitching organs; and synthetic biologists, like coding hipsters, casually edit the building blocks of existence in a New York coffee shop. And your mind is blown in the most profound way, and you wonder, feebly, if maybe this is what Yeats meant when he wrote that all is changed, changed utterly. And then you notice all this happened in 2012.

For my edges of possibility, this has been a month of sharp awakenings. And a reminder: that humans are capable of extraordinary things. That we should not underestimate our capacity for extraordinary acts.

But if this has been a month of awe and wonder, it has also been a month of stark and shameful contrasts.

Because if we can author our genetics; if humans can smooth our imperfections with a MacBook and a flat white; I wonder how long it'll take us to harness our empathy into something more than a break-point reaction that only seems able to galvanize, en masse, when the tenuous veneer we call Our Way of Life is directly and repeatedly intruded upon by those for whom dying to live is now a better option than living to die.

I wonder what it would look like, as code, when they erase the bits that make us so able to ignore human suffering until it lands on our shores in the form of a tiny human child, captured in a pose of perfect, incoherent tragedy, that every one, everywhere, can no longer deny as one of their own.

We know that empathy - the ability to imagine and share the feelings and experiences of another - is responsible for most good things ever. In this time of mass refugee crisis, we think of WWII; of Nicholas Winton and Oskar Schindler, and multitudes without Hollywood recognition besides. The last few days have also seen incredible shows of kindness, from the army of volunteers at Munich, to millionaire Christopher Catrambone saving migrants from the seas, and the countless British volunteering their homes.

But we also know that empathy is a fault-switch in naturally selfish wiring; an autocorrect triggered latterly by our right supra marginal gyrus and not so effective, after all, from the lap of luxury. On a synaptic level, our comfort makes us callous.

Which is something of a relief, right?

Because, too often, our minds are simply not blown in the way they should be. Sustained responses to injustices do not come: a phenomena dramatically exacerbated by the mediated experience that defines western living; the moral dichotomy - and really, really awkward truth - in which the more we know - the world absorbed, at home, over gourmet takeout set against tasteful modern interiors - the less we connect with what we encounter, and the less we intervene.

But this crisis has come to us: closing the gap between our worlds on foot and by sea, forcing a mass response that toppled our government's resolve in a single day. And while our empathy, shaken out of its stupor, has been heartening, we shouldn't rest for too long in the warm glow of our reaffirmed humanity clutching soft-lit pictures of Merkel.

Because our personal and political response - nudged into action at the very last hurdle, and in some quarters not at all - continues to fall short. And when we stop looking at this spectacle - for those of us still regarding this crisis through a screen - it's likely that our leaders will follow suit.

But here's the good news. We don't have to wait for CRISPR to work its magic on our supramarginal gyrus. We can redefine our own boundaries of possibility. As neuroplastic beings, we can rewrite our own empathy: reshaping our brain's neural circuitry simply by imagining ourselves into other people's shoes; by ritually venturing out of our comfort zone. Empathy is a habit that becomes an impulse.

And we all need to start practicing. Starting here.

Or maybe there's an app for it?