Genetic manipulation. What an intimidating phrase.
Genetics isn’t just any science — it’s a science about us. About parts of ourselves that we have never been able to change — until now. Like: beauty, strength, health. Scientists are currently developing technologies which will allow us to play Mr. Potato Head with humans.
Manipulation. Something about the word hints at retribution and doom.
Genetic engineering, genetic modification, genetic engimodifneerificationing…
I had many other openminded, non-sensationalist phrases to choose from. So why’d I choose genetic manipulation as the topic of this post?
Because what we’re doing with genetics today isn’t as tame as modification, isn’t as create-from-the-ground-up as engineering.
It’s hacking with cells. Exploiting. Distorting.
And yet… despite all that…
(prepare to be brutally honest with yourself)…
Humans have evolved into the most intelligent and powerful life form on earth precisely because we are better at tampering with Mother Nature.
The paradigm “I am human, therefore I manipulate my environment” has it backwards, and the reverse is actually true: I manipulate my environment, therefore I am human.
My goal here is to unravel the tangle of emotions most of us feel around genetic manipulation. The way to achieve that is through truth.
The first truth: genetic manipulation isn’t new.
I know, all the hubbub in the news makes this issue seem brand-new. But it’s not.
You see, humans have been genetically manipulating their surroundings for thousands of years — through a process called “artificial selection.”
The second truth: where preservation of the earth is concerned, whether you buy organic or GMO doesn’t matter.
Our most basic foods are the way they are because of our tampering. They exist because of our tampering.
- The next time someone expounds on the perils of GMO corn and advocates a return to organic, natural corn… just remember even “natural corn” isn’t natural. Corn didn’t exist in its current form until we tampered with it.
- You like dogs? Cats? They wouldn’t exist without the tampering of our ancestors. Did you know that we bred the bark into the dog?
- Peppers aren’t supposed to be eaten. Capsaicin, the compound responsible for spiciness, is an irritant to mammals! It was meant to protect peppers so that they could propagate and survive. Well, humans have grown a taste for that spiciness, and as a result peppers have thrived – but for a totally different reason. We’ve created thousands of totally different pepper varieties. Some aren’t even spicy anymore. Peppers are peppers because of our tampering.
And it’s not limited to food. There’s penicillin, houseplants, yucca, tulips, rubber, cotton…
The third truth: to live is to genetically manipulate other life.
All predators genetically manipulate other animals. All herbivores genetically manipulate the plants they feed on. All plants genetically manipulate their competition.
You are part of this game, and you have no choice in the matter (unless, of course, you choose not to live).
Hawks, over millennia, kill and eat the rodents which are the least fit and the most reckless. Hawks have, effectively, created new rodents.
It’s no different than what we do, except on a much smaller scale.
The fourth truth: evolution is the byproduct of genetic manipulation, of the interplay between environments and life. From that perspective, the outcry against GMO foods is ridiculous.
A search at Google for genetically modified foods turns up phrases like “Harmful or Helpful?” and “Panacea or Poison.” It’s no secret that, as a whole, humans are conflicted about the morality of genetic manipulation.
The heart of the matter, I believe, is fear.
You don’t have to be a scientist to know we’re creating incredibly powerful technologies, which have the capability to permanently damage the mother we all share, our only-and-only Earth.
These fears are justified. What happens if one big genetic catastrophe eradicates 99% of our plant life? Earth will become a barely habitable wreck. Then we die off.
Despite all this, some people aren’t worried by genetic manipulation. They have better things to occupy their time with: power and money. They rely on the development of genetic technology to create more power and more money. And since they have power, and (statistically speaking) you don’t, genetic technology will continue to advance and work its way into the fabric of modern civilization regardless of your momentary panic while reading this article.
It’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is.
There’s another group of people, of which I’m a part. We believe that the earth is beautiful and should be protected at all costs. But we also believe that progress, of which technology is a major facet, is beautiful.
Sometimes the progression of a specific technology endangers the earth. Like genetic manipulation. What then?
I recognize that I am not the sole owner of this earth, and that no group of humans, however large, can halt the pursuit of knowledge (and development of technology). So here’s my stance:
Continue developing the technology. Just be careful.