A beautiful and diverse forest can be many things to many people – a refuge, a temple, a work of art, an obstacle, or a resource to be exploited. For me, as a biologist, it is all of these things in varying degrees, but it is also a repository of information. Even a humble and comparatively simple organism, such as a moss or a snail, harbors within it a storehouse of information about the nature of the world, ready to be transformed into usable data by a careful observer with appropriate tools and training.
The genetic code of every living organism is the unique record of close to four billion years of mutation and natural selection. Many religious people would add that it also bears the signature of an Intelligent Designer. If one believes intelligent design, it ought to follow that a living being, plant or animal, is a sacred text, to be treated with respect.
I like to compare the biological world to a vast library filled with books, including many original manuscripts and rare books that have never been catalogued. The library is there for humans to use, and prudent management will dictate that the number of copies, and editions of frequently-used volumes change with time. However, it would surely be folly to deliberately discard unique irreplaceable items, just because there is no present demand for them and people are clamoring for instant access to the latest best seller.
The present situation with respect to the Library of Life is far graver. The continuing destruction of the world’s remaining intact ecosystems, either through direct exploitation or through climate change, amounts to burning down entire wings of the library, knowing that they contain irreplaceable manuscripts and unique copies of rare books, but not knowing how many or anything about their nature. If you believe in the standard model of evolution, the wanton destruction of species is folly of the highest order. If you believe in intelligent design, it is an act of profound blasphemy.
A question posed recently about whether there was any philosophical analysis of the controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) prompted me to revisit the library analogy. If an organism is a book, then making changes to its genotype and perpetuating those changes in subsequent generations is like editing and bringing out a new edition of the text. Human beings have been doing this with economically important plants and animals for thousands of years. Without selective plant breeding and perpetuation of naturally occurring mutations, civilization would not have been possible.
Just as the explosion in electronic text manipulation has placed powerful editing tools in the hands of people lacking the knowledge and wisdom to use them appropriately, the techniques of genetic engineering have placed the means of rapid modification of an organism’s genome into the hands of people for whom short-term economic gain is the overriding factor in decision-making.
The species most likely to be the object of genetic modification are the “classics’ – those which have proven pivotal in the lives of millions of people. For purposes of elaborating on the book/crop analogy, let us consider two classics – Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Maize (corn) in the hands of an unscrupulous editor.
New editions of Hamlet appear periodically. Copies of the earliest printed editions exist in a number of libraries and are available in facsimile, but any working copy in use today will at least have been updated with respect to spelling, punctuation and typeface. Beginning with Thomas Bowdler’s (1818) Family Shakespeare, there have been many attempts to make Hamlet more appropriate or accessible to modern audiences. Bowdler eliminated sexually suggestive passages and coarse language so that ladies could read aloud from Shakespeare without embarrassment. A twenty-first century editor might expunge racist epithets and substitute gender-inclusive language. At some point the impact that Shakespeare’s original has gets diluted, but as long as that edition is used for a specific, narrow purpose and is clearly labeled an adaptation, there’s room in the library for it. I personally would not want to see an ad for Macdonald’s Golden Arches on the page next to Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, but it could be argued that accepting such sponsorship in order to provide editions of Shakespeare to struggling rural schools at no cost was an acceptable tradeoff. What is not acceptable in my mind, and comes closer to genetic engineering, is to take something that is clearly not Shakespeare, insert it into the text in a way that is not readily identifiable, and market the whole as Shakespeare.
Consider the hypothetical edition of Shakespeare that has Hamlet actually urging viewers to consume Big Macs. Because it is cheap, and attractively packaged, it has the potential to out-compete publishers of the real thing – unless they jump on the bandwagon and bring out the even cheaper and glossier Coca Cola Edition. Then both publishers are vying to increase their market share, and the way to sell lots of copies is to constantly change the text. Technology makes it possible to rapidly propagate changes that are not well thought out, and the “classic” ceases to resemble the original in many of its essential features.
I do not think editors of Shakespeare should be restricted to hand setting their new editions in movable type when they wish to introduce changes into the text, and I don’t think the techniques of genetic engineering should be withheld from plant and animal breeders. They are an exceedingly valuable tool for speeding up the process of improving the genetic characteristics of economically important plants and animals, in ways that could be achieved by more conventional methods. I do think it is very dangerous from a practical point of view, and morally questionable if one is a religious person and sees organisms as sacred texts, to splice together genes from totally unrelated organisms and then market the resulting “FrankenFood” as if it were the original.
Photo is © Martha Sherwood – All Rights Reserved
Did you enjoy this article?
Please let the author know by leaving them a comment below!
And, subscribe to our free weekly digest!
Simply add your email below. A confirmation email will be sent to you.