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Defeatism Lurks Behind The Sloganeering

Financial Times
By Thomas Barlow
November 17, 2001

It is amusing that the white-coated nerds of the genomic revolution, self-anointed lords over the codes of life, are frequently accused of "playing God". For in our current enlightened age, as I am not the first to point out, God is deemed to have ceased to exist; and to play his role with any measure of authenticity presumably requires little more than a pretence of absence.

How apt then that last month the US Department of Agriculture should issue its first permit for the field trial of a genetically modified insect (a pink bollworm moth, modified to contain the standard fluorescent jellyfish gene) and that at the same time it should refuse to disclose the location of the experiment.

It was apparently the fear of vandalism by bullying activists that led to this. How exquisite to imagine that those who have chosen to see every transgenic creation as a desecration, and whose wilful ritualistic destruction of GM crop field trials, and whose strident rhetoric about the dangers of "playing God", should have caused a concomitant God-like shroud of invisibility. You have to wonder, since the expressions are used so frequently, why it is that "playing God" and "messing with nature" have become such resonant motifs in contemporary criticisms of scientific and technological development?

One possibility is that they simply ring true for a culture that has grown too avaricious - especially one grown greedy for change and eager to take whatever it can of nature`s bounty, thoughtless as to cost. This cannot be the whole story, though. Interfering with the natural world is by no means a unique attribute of modernity: even hunter-gatherer societies have been known to transform their environments in profound ways.

Aboriginal Australians, for example, transformed the ecology of their continent through systematic burning. And indigenous people in different parts of the world have messed about quite enough at various times to wipe out who knows how many species of fauna. Another related possibility is that the slogans are pertinent because they serve as warnings (or as antidotes) in a world where science provides the tools to interfere with things on a scale and at a speed never before imagined.

There are few more haunting illustrations of this than the boat carcasses left rusting in the desert as the Aral Sea retreats. Now shrunk to a fifth of its previous volume by an irrigation scheme that has relentlessly drained the great rivers Amudar'ya and Syrdar'ya for the cotton fields in Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea has dropped in depth by nearly a metre a year for 20 years - an extraordinary change by any reckoning.

Yet for every example like the Aral Sea, how many others are there that tell a wholly different tale? The history of water management has had its triumphs as well as its failures. Dams provide 20 per cent of the world`s power and 15 per cent of the world`s food. There are whole cities that could scarcely exist without grand-scale water engineering projects. Arid southern California, including Los Angeles, for example, could support only a third of its existing population without the blessing of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.

The real problem perhaps lies not so much with the supernatural scale of our desires or even with the colossal impact we might have on our world, but hinges rather around individual beliefs about the unpredictability of nature. If all goes well in the first field experiment with transgenic pink bollworm moths, the scientists involved plan to embark on a programme genetically to engineer variants of that little monster that are sterile but sexually active. The hope is that such sterilised creatures might be used, at least in some areas, to drive bollworm moth populations to extinction. (In its unaltered state the critter is a scourge to cotton farmers.)

At the same time, there are 16 other species of insects in which stable genetic transformations have already been demonstrated in the laboratory, and plans have long since begun to be hatched to create Anopheles mosquitoes genetically incapable of transmitting the parasite that causes malaria, and Aedes mosquitoes similarly unable to convey yellow fever or dengue.

Should we be concerned about this? Certainly. Should we be worried about genetically modified disease vectors or about shifting the genetic balance within a wild insect population? Certainly. But should we call it "playing God"?

To accuse someone of "playing God" or "messing with nature" in circumstances such as these is to imply that they are over-reaching themselves while under a delusion of omniscience. Our world views certainly modify the extent to which we see the consequences of human actions as predictable. One worry is that we do not know how much someone else knows. Or, more challenging still, how do we know how much they know about what they know? It is always possible to project our own ignorance on to others. For instance, with more than half the soy beans and nearly two-thirds of the cotton grown in the US now consisting of genetically modified varieties, it probably seems somewhat terrifying for most people to recall what they know about the history of biological introductions.

Everybody will be familiar with the failures: the infamous cane toad, introduced to north-east Australia to eat the cane beetle, but which today devours almost anything but its intended target; or the New World predatory snail, Euglandina rosea, introduced to Hawaii to control the imported giant African snail, and whose voracious appetite led to the extinction of several Hawaiian snail species. Few people, on the other hand, would be so aware of the many hundreds of success stories - or indeed of the demonstrable evidence that the mistakes such as the cane toad are largely accumulations of the early 20th century, when species introductions were not always properly controlled.

Of course, there can be no such thing as absolute certainty. The first rule of 21st century life is that even the most confident scientific assurances of safety can never provide a guarantee; remember how inert CFCs were thought to be before we figured out that they were depleting the ozone layer? Obviously, technology sometimes effects more change than anyone can realise.

Sometimes there are grave limitations in our ability to foresee outcomes. But does that mean that the limitless complexity of life is necessarily insurmountable to the human imagination?

"Playing God" and "messing with nature" are defeatist slogans. They don't just attack the examples at which they are directed; they are an attempt to undermine the tree of our society at its root - for they are not just a criticism, they are an exhortation not to try to understand.