Genetic engineering in context


Dec 11, 2012 (3 years and 10 months ago)


Genetic engineering in context

Nothing we can imagine about nature is incredible. (Pliny the Elder)

We call that against Nature which commeth against Custom, but there is nothing,
whatsoever it be, that is not according to Nature. (Montaigne)


would like

to write about genetic engineering, and particularly, about the
uninformed accusations levied against it by many, that it is unnatural. Montaigne and
Pliny both basically impl
y that everything that we have ‘invented’

has already, in some

or other been experimented with by Nature. Personally, I’m not quite willing to go
that far, but there is certainly more than just a grain of truth in what they suggest.

Before proceeding any further however, let me underscore something very
important: Th
is essay is not to be construed as an apologia for either unbridled genetic
engineering, or for any other co
optation of science by amoral industrialists.

Whilst the
morality of science applied, or rather misapplied, purely in the service of Mammon (the
d of Money) is beyond the scope of this essay, I do not mean to imply
by this
science is excused from ethical responsibilities; I would merely like to delimit the scope
of the discussion so as to render it m
anageable for the present post

Anyway, the

charge that this, that, or yet some other technology

and it is
important to remember that it is inevitably the technology, the application, and not the
underlying science which lies at the heart of these controversies

is unnatural, and is
somehow cont
rary to the laws, or to the spirit of nature has been the constant companion
of technological progress through the ages. However, as I hope to demonstrate, this is
generally not the case. It may be unwise to do many of the things that we do, particularly
iven what we know about ‘human nature,’ but that is a far cry from saying that it is
unnatural, although the end result may well be against the proper functioning of nature


it may vitiate against our future survival.

One important determinant here
is that much of the time people are insufficiently
informed, or even misinformed (

lied to) about the new technology which is being
foisted upon them, and ignorance is a fertile seed
bed upon which to sow fear and blind
reactivity. Just observe any fu
ndamentalist movement of any ilk, and you will see this
principle in action, be it the fears which Ned Lud and his followers (the ‘Luddites’) had
of industrialisation, or the anxiety experienced by the church when their distorted and ill
informed views of
the structure of the cosmos were challenged by emergent scientific

The dynamic has always traced, and retraced the same course: Ignorance
maintained, and manipulated by vested interests leading to fear, violent reactionism, and
where possible repre
ssion and suppression of both the ideas, and the ‘perpetrators’ of
these ideas. Such for example was the fate of both Giordano Bruno, condemned to death
at the stake by the catholic church for his scientific views about the nature of the
universe, and Gali
leo, who was also victimised by the church.

In our comparatively brief sojourn on this planet, assorted groups of humans have
been subject to this sort of treatment over and over again, but the reaction has almost
always been misplaced, and misdirected, f
or it is neither the technology
per se
, nor the
underlying scientific principles which are at fault, but the human
beings, and particularly
those who find themselves in positions of power, who pervert them, and bend them to
their own self
serving ends

ds which inevitably involve self
aggrandisement and the
worship of our old friend Mammon.

Take nuclear technology for example: When the field was in its infancy, many
critics claimed that this technology was dangerous because it was ‘unnatural.’ This is
bsolute poppy
cock. Nuclear technology is dangerous, very dangerous, but not because
it is unnatural. The sun

the font of all life
giving energy on the planet

is after all a
massive, perpetually
exploding hydrogen
bomb (contrary to what you may have be
told, the sun does not in fact

hydrogen, it

it to produce helium, in a
reaction identical to that which powers hydrogen bombs).

Nor were we the first to split the atom, and produce fission
reactions. There is
much geological ev
idence that the energetic sources keeping the core of our planet hot,
and thus helping to maintain the surface temperature of most of the planet within the
‘Goldilocks range’ (that is to say in just the right range: between the melting
point and
the boilin
point of water

which is essential for our existence), as well as driving
tectonic activity on the earth (remember, if it were not for continental drift, you would
most likely not have evolved, and would most certainly not be reading this article now),
are fission
reactions, the exact same type of reaction that powers atom
bombs, like the
ones which were dropped by the Americans on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and were nearly
dropped on Vietnam 30
odd years later, when the American government, and its
ted military commanders first began to realise that they were not going to have
their way in Indochina. By the way, it is interesting to note that the US, the self
proclaimed guardians of all that is best in humanity (and just about everything else too),
s the only nation thus far to have used thermonuclear devices in a war, although I am
sure that if some religious and other terrorists could have things their way, they would be
very pleased to redress this imbalance.

Anyway getting back to the point I was

trying to make, whatever else they may
be, nuclear reactions are not unnatural, and on the contrary may be found occurring in
nature, and performing important functions to boot. Thus, we were not the first, not even
in our tiny little dust
universe, to fuse hydrogen to produce helium, or to split
the atom. Indeed, the fact that we can be arrogant enough to think otherwise is part of the

which characterises us as a

species; This

is likely driven by the selfsame
constellation of traits which drive us to exploit the fruits of science and technology so
recklessly, purely in order to serve our own drive for power and dominance. This should
not be so surprising r
eally. I think that the will to power and dominance is very deeply
encoded in our genes, and is in fact integral to the process of evolution: it is part of what
ensures the ‘survival of the fittest.’ Please note that I am not saying the cause of peace is
opeless, I am merely saying that we have to work very hard to attain it, because in a
sense, a state of peace is ‘unnatural,’ or rather it is only natural as long it is seen to serve
our selfish interests.

This selfsame analysis may be applied over and ove
r again: The principles behind
suspension bridges were exploited by long
necked dinosaurs long before there were any
sort of mammalian bipedal ancestor to us which could have had twinkles in their eyes;
squids and cuttlefish were using jet propulsion to bl
ast away from their predators long
before either Frank Whittle, or the Messerschmidt company were around; and with the
aid of sunlight plants have been assembling sugars out of carbon dioxide and water at the
atomic level for thousands of millions of years

long before any organism had a mouth
capable of saying nanotechnology. Please note that this is meant in no way to belittle the
tremendous intellectual and scientific achievements, through which we have begun to
understand the way the universe works. As a

scientist, and grand admirer of the human
mind, that would be the furthest thing from my mind. No, all I am saying is that all these
things have natural, if organic, rather that mechanical, antecedents.

As far as I can tell, the problem with these technol
ogies is not that they are
‘unnatural,’ but rather that they are have a huge potential for political or commercial
exploitation, which given our proclivities, we humans are more likely to co
opt for
nefarious, but self
serving ends.

As for genetic enginee
ring, viruses, lacking the necessary mechanisms to
reproduce themselves, have been practicing genetic engineering for millennia, taking
over the self
replicating mechanisms present in cells, and replacing the cell’s DNA (the
plans from which all l
iving things are built) with their own. This in fact is
genetic engineering at its finest, at its most sophisticated. We have only learnt to do this
recently, but viruses, extremely primitive organisms I might add, evolved to do this long,
long ago, well b
efore there were mammals on the planet of any kind.

Aside from this, the entire process of evolution too is a massive series of
experiments in genetic engineering, and on a much, much smaller scale, every dog, horse,
pigeon, and gold
fish breeder is also a


Thus, to me at least, it is clear that genetic engineering is not unnatural, and
attacking it on this basis is simply flaunting your ignorance. The true danger with genetic
engineering, as with most other technologies lies rooted in us,

in our socio
economic institutions, and in our scarce controllable drive to obtain, retain and
aggrandise our power. In our ungovernable proclivity to seek profit and power at any
cost: To greedily go where no military
banking complex
has gone before,
whilst trampling the roses along the way, but then again, what else can we expect from a
marriage of genetically selected
for aggression and selfishness with a large brain capable
of sophisticated tool
making, complex planning, and well th
out deceit?