Many believe we can engineer solutions to human, social and environmental problems. Often we can, but sometimes these solutions cause incidental changes that outstrip the benefits. For example, dams curb flooding and provide electricity and water for irrigation. However, in so doing, dams displace people from their homes (what were we saying about curbing floods?), destroy fisheries and forests, prevent the redeposition of fertile soil that natural flooding causes and alter riverine ecosystems to allow, for example, as after Egypt’s construction of the Aswan Dam, the proliferation of parasitic vectors of schistosomiasis. And, although they neglected to tell us this in grade school, irrigation destroys soil. So even the purported benefits are oversold.
Nature can seem like a Rubik’s Cube too complex for anyone to “solve.” By moving one row, the whole thing changes. Only when you mess it up, you can’t throw the planet at the wall.
While many tout genetic engineering (GE) as the means to a world of abundance and free of disease, in The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World (1998), Jeremy Rifkin explores some of the downsides of GE. (Incidentally, while many vilify Rifkin, “the techno-critic,” I heard him question, in a speech, why it’s OK to be an art or music critic—or, for that matter, a political “commentator--” but it’s somehow intrinsically disreputable to be a critic of technology). Maybe GE will eventually allow us to produce more food or end some diseases. But the longer term consequences of these technologies may be catastrophic: crop blights facilitated by increasing plant genetic uniformity, lethal bioweapons, social discrimination and individual alienation.
For example, entomologists have discovered that the introduction of corn seeds genetically engineered to continuously release the bacterial pesticide, bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), kills beneficial pollinating insects such as monarch butterflies on their epic migrations. Simultaneously, exposure to this same seed strain may be causing insects to become resistant to Bt, a safe pesticide that farmers have long relied upon with good results because it ordinarily biodegrades several days after it has been spray-applied. Remove spray-able Bt from their arsenal, and farmers will spray megatons to insecticides, with all of the attendant consequences.
Rifkin tells what has been happening in labs for the past twenty five years while we’ve been distracted by car ads, sound bite politics, journeys of self discovery and indispensable cell phone conversations. Recombinant DNA technologies have enabled scientists to chemically excise gene sequences from some organisms and splice them into others. While these efforts often fail, they sometimes even allow some animals to be crossed with some plants. For example, fireflies have been crossed with tobacco plants to cause these plants to grow in the dark. Now, people can smoke fireflies. Forget Joe Camel: this will make teenagers think they really look cool. But, then, luminescent tumors might be easier to find.
Scientists have suppressed muscle growth-regulating genes in mice to create super mice. (Whoever though of this definitely watched too many cartoons). They have proposed deleting the spawning genes of salmon to prevent them from swimming upstream and dying at a paltry eighteen pounds instead of the seventy they’d reach if celibate. (They’d better hurry with this one; because of human activities—such as damming rivers—there may not be too many salmon left to sterilize). They have also tried to put cold water tolerance genes from coldwater fish into warm water fish to expand their range. And so on. Systems ecology be damned, the theoretical possibilities are limitless. And ridiculous. Moreover, unlike good, ol’ chemical pollution, genetic pollution, whether borne by crop pollen or mobile animals, migrates and proliferates freely.
Rifkin observes that lab-induced transgenicity differ fundamentally from field hybridization of crops or from traditional animal husbandry. In the past, pant and animal breeding were more subtle and were bounded by nature. The vast majority of transgenic exchanges don’t occur in nature because the organisms won’t accommodate these changes. This seems a good natural safeguard. These natural boundaries would seem to limit unintended side effects. Some genetic diseases that researchers propose to eliminate, such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell, may be caused by genes that appear to protect against other diseases, like cholera and malaria, respectively. What broader, unintended consequences might flow from other efforts to manipulate a system that works well for the vast majority?
If something doesn’t make sense, look at the economic dimension. Corporations have invested heavily in biotech. Since a very unsound United States Supreme Court decision in 1980, corporations have been authorized to patent life forms, from oil-eating bacteria to seed genes (which often have been developed over millennia of by ingenious peasants hungry for food, not profits) to body parts. The entire human genome may be patented in the next ten years, giving rise to another inflationary spiral in medical care and insurance costs.
Aside from the profit motive, Rifkin postulates cosmological/evolutionary bases for GE. He says Post-Darwinian evolutionists have replaced the notion of natural selection with the notion that species survive because they process information well. According to them and our computer-obsessed society, human not only process information, we are merely information: DNA base pairs. Thus, the post-Darwinians say, if both our genome and our consciousness can be re-arranged and encoded on disks, we can be re-programmed to achieve earthly immortality. It’ s hard to be optimistic about a future guided by such questionable notions and such a fundamental restlessness.
No matter how much our enlightened political leaders can improve our school math and science programs, we can’t engineer our way out of our biggest problems. Despite-- and, in part, because of-- the application of sophisticated agricultural technologies, we still have over a billion hungry people. Not coincidentally, we also have declining rural economies, tremendous soil erosion, profound water and groundwater contamination from agricultural runoff and record numbers of overweight people. Similarly, while many are homeless, others have multiple homes. Human problems are best solved by addressing their basic human causes. But, as sharing with others, and our own earthly mortality, are unacceptable we seek technological Band-Aids.
Our world has immutable environmental characteristics that we can’t simply engineer around. Changing animal and plant genes will render these—an other—organisms less suited to this world. And if these technologies “succeed” in extending some lives and altering biomes, we’ll render the planet less able to sustain the organism living on it. Unless another Richard Nixon shows up with a secret plan to ship us all to a parallel planet, we’ll have to live within the web of life that already exists here.
GE will create winners: scientists, corporations and the occasional medical wonder initially come to mind. It will be slickly marketed to the public on that basis. But, just as certainly, it will create losers, and probably more of them: consider the vanishing small farmer and the poor, generally, because resources will be spent disproportionately on therapies to help the wealthy and on enriching their perhaps unnaturally extended lives-- or at least that’s the undisclosed plan. And the alienated masses, who are no longer people capable of empathy because of our mutual imperfections but are increasingly products of engineered design. Instead of having intrinsic value, we will increasingly be valued by our utility. And, one might wonder, our utility for what purpose?
But, especially given the unknowable consequences, it seems impossible to advocate for GE as beneficial to, or required by, the larger group. Species don’t typically become extinct because some individuals get cancer or other genetically-influenced diseases. Rather, they become extinct because we deprive them of their habitats. If we preserve our environment, most humans will do fine. Accelerating the pace of genetic change will pit us in a perpetual race against the clock in the world we’re try8g foolishly to remake. We’ll perish as a species if we can’t stay ahead of the changes we’ve wrought.