Recently, the GMO issue was put on my radar. GMOs: genetically modified organisms, as in–for instance–making corn “Roundup Ready” which allows the commercial weedkiller to be sprayed indiscriminately on a field of corn, killing the weeds but leaving the Roundup-resistant corn to grow and flourish. Pretty nifty science, I’d say. But the use of GMOs is mired in controversy, and it’s one that I’ve just begun to explore. It raises some really fascinating questions, questions framed in this post (along with some observations). As a novice in this discussion, I’m hoping that readers with a much better understanding of GMOs will contribute to the discussion and correct any errors or misrepresentations.
Proponents of GMOs argue that in species modification scientists are simply doing what we’ve already been doing since the discovery of genetics: breeding and cross-breeding plants and animals to achieve an organism with certain desirable characteristics. The only difference, they say, is that the modifications are being done in the laboratory instead of in the barnyard or in the greenhouse. If that’s true, I find nothing objectionable about the practice. Sure, it’s not as romantic, but that’s an issue of aesthetics not ethics.
Opponents of GMOs, such as Joel Salatin, counter that the above explanation of GMOs is a misrepresentation of the facts. The issue isn’t that two different species of corn are cross-bread with each other in a laboratory or that the genes of two different species of moths are combined in some research facility. Rather, using his example, what is being done is that scientists are crossing the genes of corn with that of moths, an impossible combination in the natural world: the reproductive organs of corn and those of the moth are incompatible. So, using technology, we bypass the reproductive process and force together two species that would not otherwise have reproduced with each other. In cartoons, witches and wizards waved a wand and–poof!–some hapless human victim sprouts the tail of a pig. Unnatural. Bizarre. Impossible! Not, so it seems, anymore.
In the 2012 film The Amazing Spiderman, Dr. Curt Connors injects himself with lizard DNA in an attempt to regrow a severed hand (lizards possess the ability to regrow a tail that has been severed). But the procedure has disastrous and unintended side-effects. In a desire to do good, Dr. Connors becomes the villain, a giant lizard that wreaks havoc.
Those who are proponents of the use of GMOs do so on the grounds of the great good that they make possible: using the technology to feed more people and at a fraction of the cost, for example. On the other hand, it seems that those who oppose the use of GMOs do so, in general, on one or both of the following grounds or claims:
(1) GMOs have (or will have) disastrous, unintended side-effects on humans and/or the environment, consequences which outweigh any good that they do
(2) GMOs are an unethical subversion of the natural order
To those who identify themselves primarily with the first claim outlined above: Suppose Dr. Curt Connors experienced no side effects when he combined human DNA with reptile DNA. Suppose he went on to help countess thousands of amputees regrow lost limbs. In this scenario, would his science be ethical?
To those opponents who primarily identify with the second claim, an observation: you must believe that there is some inherent logic in the universe that we cannot determine, create, or re-write but to which we must submit.
Joel Salatin, in arguing against the use of GMOs, makes the following point: just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. This is a point on which those on both sides of the controversy must agree. What remains to be determined is what makes something ethical: is it the effects of an act or something intrinsic to the act itself?
One final observation that may illuminate the debate, and one that will appeal to those familiar with The Lord of the Rings: a striking similar set of questions, issues, and parallels surround the Ring of Power. There were those who sought to use it out of a desire to do good, and yet the story is clear in its condemnation of so doing. But what the author of the story (Tolkien) doesn’t necessary answer is why? Listening to the lyrics in the film clip which precedes today’s post, they touch on a theme present in the GMO debate: an irresistible, alluring, seductive power. Does Sinatra sing metaphorically of certain forms of science? And–if so–unlike the beguiled narrator of those lyrics, can we resist? Do we want to?
“Witchcraft”, Sy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh
Those fingers in my hair
That sly come hither stare
That strips my conscience bare
And I’ve got no defense for it
The heat is too intense for it
What good would common sense for it do?Cause it’s witchcraft, wicked witchcraft
And although, I know, it’s strictly tabooWhen you arouse the need in me
My heart says yes indeed in me
Proceed with what your leading me toIt’s such an ancient pitch
But one I wouldn’t switch
Cause there’s no nicer witch than you