Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Here Be Monsters

In the final years of the twentieth century, we turned the key and threw open the door to the mind-boggling world of genetics, the four colors of Legos that when combined in a specific order tell the body to become cockroach or human, wolf or sheep. The men and women who have forged the paths in thi unkown territory are the Copernici, the Galileos, and the Keplers of our time. They are exploring something completely new and unheard of in our time, and just like those early astronomers, taking the first steps into understand the solar system, they are earning the ire of the superstitious masses that cling to the darkness of ignorance for fear of the light. Instead of being dubbed heretics, they are accused of monumental hubris, of creating "Frankenfood" or of "playing God". Loaded insults that do little to acutally explain a position are usually the refuge of the simpleminded. Lets look at the real pros and cons of genetic research.

In the human sphere, the worry seems to be that a power-tripping scientific community will create monsters in their sterile labs, or that the tampering with the human genome will somehow cause a chain reaction that will kill or ruin mankind for generatons to come. When it comes to the former, we have so many ways to customize our bodies already, tattoos, piercings, steroids, hormones, and surgeries. Surely the ability to choose the height or your child cannot be THAT awful. I wish my parents had been able to correct my vision before I was born, or to nip out a gene that leaves me predisposed to heart disease (I sure hope I didn't get that gem from Grandpa.) What is the real reason that people are horrrified by the concept of altering humans? I can see two. The first is that it could be used as a rationale for bigotry and hatred, pruning out lefties, or blacks, or other diversity. The second, and I think this is the likely issue, is that people are still caught up in the myth of religion. The phrase "playing God" in and of itself displays this prejudice. The objection is that we are somehow straying into "forbidden territory" when we manipulate the genome. Even, if I were so inclined, if I granted that a god did exist, and that S/He/It created everything and is all powerful, do the scriptures not claim we are made "In his image" and given dominion over the earth and all the creatures on it? This sounds to me like we were "given" the intelligence and creativity and drive to bring forth new life in mimicry of the original creation, but we were also given implicit permission to do so, if not in humans, than at least in the plants and beasts.

Yet we still hear that tired claim about animal and plant manipulation. The efforts of scientist across the world have allowed us to continue to feed the burgeoning population of our planet. Estimates in the 70s predicted that the Indian subcontinent would not be able to sustain 100,000,000 people. Now, thanks to science, they are supporting ten times that number. Is it a good life? Not for most, but it is important to look at it from the correct standpoint. The peoples of that area would have continued to reproduce until the ecosystem there could not support them, and then they would have fucked some more. Instead of mostly starving, people would be ACTUALLY starving to death en masse. Genetic engineering is not the problem, it is the little boy with his finger in a dike. Across the world, ignorant people who need SOMETHING to rail against are trying to get GE foods banished, burned, and banned. What is their rationale? That it "pollutes" the gene-pool of wild populations. This does not stop them from eating fruits and vegetables every one of which is the end result of millenia of crude genetic engineering. It doesn't stop them from owning pets, dogs and cats are almost unrecognizable from the animals they were genetically engineered from. It doesn't stop them from driving cars, or using electricity, activities that actually pollute the environment. The worry is that somehow, somewhere down the line, the GE crops will lead to mutations and cancers that will, again, devastate the population. Has anyone ever done any studies that link drought-resistant wheat to mutation? I would doubt it.

     The objections to genetic engineering have been heard before, they were very common centuries ago. The fear of the unknown is itself, very well known. The worrys and concern were written down for us to see today. They did not appear in medical or scientific books, but on maps and sea charts, the three words that sum up the objection to genetic engineering:

"Here be Monsters"

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