January 31, 2003
Richard Dawkins On What Is Biologically Natural

Richard Dawkins argues that genes are analogous to software subroutines. They are not any more naturally a part of the species they are found in than a particular subroutine is of any program that uses it. Dawkins suggests that a more rational response to the prospect of genes moved across species is rigorous safety testing.

What, then, of the widespread gut hostility, amounting to revulsion, against all such “transgenic” imports? This is based on the misconception that it is somehow “unnatural” to splice a fish gene, which was only ever “meant” to work in a fish, into the alien environment of a tomato cell. Surely an antifreeze gene from a fish must come with a fishy “flavour”. Surely some of its fishiness must rub off. Yet nobody thinks that a square-root subroutine carries a “financial flavour” with it when you paste it into a rocket guidance system. The very idea of “flavour” in this sense is not just wrong but profoundly and interestingly wrong. It is a cheerful thought, by the way, that most young people today understand computer software far better than their elders, and they should grasp the point instantly. The present Luddism over genetic engineering may die a natural death as the computer-illiterate generation is superseded.

Genetic engineering for agricultural purposes is more widely feared in Europe and the UK than in the United States. Americans tend to view technology more in terms of benefits than in terms of potential threats. Also, Third Worlders for whom hunger is a real concern are far more eager to use genetically engineered plants and animals. The known threat of hunger is weighed against potential mostly theoretical threats of gene transfer between species and its not surprising that they decide to put dealing with the real threat ahead of dealing with a potential threat that may not turn out to be justified.

There is a school of thought that holds that humans are simply not wise enough to interfere with the basic mechanisms of life. Part of the motive for this view is a feeling that life is somehow holy and that to mess with it is akin to biting the apple in the Garden of Eden or of perhaps of trying to steal fire from the gods. This view is held even by people who are not religious in any conventional sense. In Europeam cultures where Christianity has lost much of its force this might be due to historical resonances of pre-Christian pagan ideas about nature.

As compared to other potentially dangerous technologies the big difference with biological engineering is that life forms can replicate. A harmful mistake has the potential to spread over the world. Depending on the species being genetically engineered it may be difficult or even impossible to stop it once the mistake is uncovered. For some types of plants controlling them once released might not be that difficult. They might not compete well in the wild absent farmer-provided weed control and fertilized fields. This danger is even less a threat for a big land animal species. After all, humans have hunted quite a few animal species to extinction. Imagine if some wild pigs were breeding that carried genes that were discovered to be dangerous. Lots of hunters would positively relish the prospects of hunting down all the pigs to kill them with full official approval. Hunting to save humanity? What could be more fun for a hunter than to take on that sacred challlenge?

As new generations grow up with different experiences will people gradually come to see genetic engineering as natural? While most efforts to move a gene from one species to another for agricultural purposes are not going to create ecological disasters there are types of genetic engineering that could. Most people simply don't know enough science to be able to begin to guess which types of genetic engineering might pose a threat. Therefore if people come to accept genetic engineering and rigorous safety testing they will have to place their safety into the hands of experts whose competence and prudence they will have to take more or less on faith.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 January 31 03:45 PM  Bioethics Debate

Patrick said at February 2, 2003 11:24 PM:

Australia has already encountered the problem of wild pigs containing a biohazard that need to be hunted down and killed. ie. The wild pigs carried TB that could be transferred to livestock.

Result: Lots of hunting. And environmentalists fighting to stop the hunting.

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