Essays on Technology and Culture

Genetic Engineering is a Tool Not to Fear

I recently posed a question on App.Net, asking about why Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) were so “bad”. The impetus to ask came from a post on Facebook where a friend expressed dismay at the number of GMO ingredients used by Chipotle. I’ve long said, in other corners of the web, that GMOs, and genetic engineering of food, is little more than an advanced form of the same cross-breeding techniques we’ve used in agriculture and animal husbandry for centuries—even predating Gregor Mendel’s famous pea experiments. Considering that everything we grow and eat has been, in some form, bred and cross-bred in ways that nature never intended, and has been since before we were born, the panic over GMOs seems a bit… unnecessary. [1]

It seems genetic engineering is the new nuke—a strange, exciting and dangerous technology that, applied one way, could change the lives of billions for the better, and applied another could kill us all. This idea has pervaded popular culture enough that it has its own listing on TV Tropes. In the case of nuclear energy, the fear came from how we first saw it applied. Gigantic mushroom clouds that wiped two cities off the map, a Cold War and an arms race based around the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima, loose fissile material, and dirty bombs are not a great résumé for something that could also bring light to dark corners of the world. As it stands, nobody’s provided as horrifying a résumé for simple genetic engineering.

Though the potential is there for some unethical, scientifically advanced nation to put researchers to work on engineering new diseases, or create poisoned cereal grains to grow in our farms, nobody’s really tried it. Nature, by the way, seems to be doing a good enough job trying to find new ways to kill us on that front. The difference is that the minds aware of how this stuff works know the dangers, and have enough ethical sense to apply their knowledge towards more constructive goals. Their fears are grounded in the potential consequences of misapplication of genetic engineering as a tool. If you ask the average person, they might say the same thing, though the scientist might disagree. There are risks, but they can be mitigated by ethics and strict testing guidelines.

What do average people know about genetic engineering? I remember watching a news report on a protest against genetically modified food from several years ago. An image that stuck with me was a woman wearing a costume of a tomato with a fish head and tail. She’d heard that agricultural companies had created tomatoes with a gene derived from fish, and the costume was meant to illustrate how horrified she was of eating tomatoes that were “part fish”. Let’s step back just a moment. The genes used in those tomatoes may have come from a fish, but to say that an individual gene from a fish in a tomato makes the tomato part fish is like saying humans are part banana, because we share 50% of our genes with the fruit. The set of genes is what makes an organism, just like a LEGO spaceship is made from individual bricks. An individual gene, like an individual LEGO brick, can become anything; it is no more part of an organism than the brick is part of the spaceship.

This requires a way of thinking about what life is in a way that’s different from what we’re used to. We didn’t even understand what DNA looked like until 1953. The Human Genome Project, started in 1990, took thirteen years to complete. People are still catching up. Sixty years sounds like a long time, and so does ten years, but not everyone gets the same level of scientific education. [2] When you don’t understand something, fear is as natural a reaction to it, as it is to seeing a single bomb sink an entire atoll. Learning how these tools that are changing our lives actually work is the first step to understanding. It’s important to know that a tool is never good, or bad. It is all in the application, and unless we know how a tool works and how to apply it, we’ll always be afraid those who do understand.

  1. This is not to say that I’m a fan of Monsanto, whose abuses of power and lackadaisical attitude towards ethics and the law is something worth complaining about.  ↩

  2. There’s a whole essay about the state of science education in the United States, including popular scientific television programming, but that will have to come another time.  ↩