Saturday, October 13, 2012

Listening to our guts about genetic engineering

When most people first hear about genetic engineering, they feel shock and surprise that such a technology actually exists. I remember when I first heard about it, I was overcome by a dull nausea. The sky became heavy and the future of the earth uncertain. Most people feel like the technology is violating some sort of natural order, is playing "God", is eugenic, and that things "have gone too far". If one's first exposure to genetic engineering is in reading a science editorial explaining how they have created a monkey that glows in the dark because it had firefly genes inserted into it, this feeling is likely all the stronger.

All the while though, a massive campaign is being staged to undermine our guts and our hearts. And the genetic engineers' public relations departments certainly know where to strike: biotech companies are now writing children's books about the (mostly hypothetical) benefits of genetic engineering (I saw one at my public library a few weeks ago), they are re-writing high school biology books, and putting out sharply polished ad campaigns in newspapers and on television. They have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to try and convince the public that our instinctive reactions to genetic engineering are, quite simply, wrong.

But the genetic engineering debate refuses to go away. It has been over a decade since citizens blew up over the first round of commercially approved crops. But now we are witnessing a similar explosion of concern.

What is this all about?

Proponents of genetic engineering claim that we have really been genetically modifying plants and animals since the dawn of agriculture and that genetic engineering is simply a more precise way of doing this. They have said and re-said this enough times now that some people who consider themselves "scientifically minded" have begun to believe them (see my earlier post on this issue). But repetition does not make something true. It creates confusion: what is apparently a "rational argument" is pitted against our emotional core (and most of us do not want to seem "emotional", especially in the 21st Century!). Eventually those of us not confident in the wisdom of our hearts succumb to the tantalizingly glossy logic. Repetition acclimatizes us to an idea (reread this sentence until you finally agree!).

But none of this makes it true.

And many of us know that. We are not automatically opposed to any new technology. This is not an issue of the neophobes vs. the neophiles. Look at how many new technologies are created and commercialized every year. We consider many of them benign, many of them silly, but we only feel a minority of them scratching at our bones. We are not against novelty nor do we have cognitive faculties so inflexible that our brains shut down in the face of any new way of doing things.

Consider selective breeding. Breeding, the way that we have been "genetically modifying" [sic] animals for millennia, did not cause an uproar of protests. People do not, and as far as I know have never, considered it "unnatural". Contrasted with genetic engineering, few people would risk arrests and incarceration over selective breeding programs. Why? What is it about good-old-fashioned sexual reproduction that doesn't strike alarm bells? If we bring two organisms together, whose traits we might want to see combined, turn off the lights and leave them alone for awhile (so to speak), their offspring are more likely to have those traits that we desire. Isn't this playing God? (Ah, the slippery slope argument that has been around since those deceitful and morally bankrupt Sophists of Ancient Greece). What exactly makes it different from what we call "genetic engineering"?

I'll name just two here: 1) whether or not the two organisms want to breed is ultimately up to them, 2) how their DNA combines is orchestrated by the process of cell fertilization. In both cases, the process of selection is not actually being dictated by humans. There is an element of "chance", which does NOT mean randomness. Chance means that we are not controlling the entire affair but are leaving important aspects of the process to be run by life itself. By selecting two animals that we want to see breed and putting them together, we are merely narrowing the canvas by which nature can do her magic. But the complex, creative dynamics that end up regulating which genes go together and how, is left to life. Life, in producing millions of diverse, yet interconnected creatures throughout the evolution of the Earth, has a big enough CV for at least this much job security. By contrast, humans have toaster ovens with built-in obsolescence and plastic that takes thousands of years to decompose, now taking up more space in the oceans than plankton. Who would you hire for the job?

Human rationality excels at isolating variables and in making a decision based on considering them in isolation. Human rationality is terrible at understanding, let alone predicting, complex systems where many factors are interrelated. (Computers are better at this, but the variables and the types of relationships still need to be programmed, which means they need to be known and their dynamics over time well understood). The whole genius of human rationality is precisely in not seeing the whole, but in temporarily abstracting certain relevant variables. So when the job requires juggling thousands of interacting factors, we should assume that the uncertainties are high, our understanding is low, and that we should only intervene when absolutely necessary and with extreme care. Moreover, such interventions need to be a matter of public debate not dominated by monied interests.

I think that people who feel in their gut that there is something wrong with genetic engineering are reacting to human control dominating the creative, integrating process of nature. It is the same part of their hearts that react strongly to the incomprehensible power of the jungle or ocean or mountain, teeming with life in myriad relationships we can scarcely imagine. It is the same part of their hearts that feels beauty in the face of such complexity. It is a recognition that humans are born of this process, and that human rationality is but a small product of it that ultimately must find its place within this larger creative matrix.

To genetically engineer is to ignore this complexity, these relationships and this beauty. Hubris is a folly.

That is what our guts are telling us.

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