Sunday, October 18, 2009

Musings: Mastering Nature

Koko and I went walking with my former neighbor Andy this morning, along the mountain trail made slicker than snot by the same light rain that drifted through the pastures and turned the mountains into ghost peaks and got Koko dirty enough that a bath was the first order of business upon returning home.

As we walked and snacked on guava, Andy I and got to talking about the Flunk Furlough Fridays rally that I wrote about for The Hawaii Independent and how even with cutting state workers and the school year, it’s still not enough to balance the budget.

As Andy noted, things won’t get better here until they start getting better elsewhere, which supposedly is happening as people slowly start spending money again.

But that will just mark the start of another cycle, I argued, and sooner or later we’ll end up right back here again, because the spend-spend approach is unsustainable and we still have all those issues related to oil and climate change to deal with.

That’s one thing about studying history, observed Andy, a retired KCC history professor. You see that throughout time, whenever humans encountered something that they thought would be the end, they figured out a way around it.

It seems we’re at that point right now with the rapidly expanding field of synthetic biology. Many of the scientists involved in it are driven by a hubris that is well-stated in The New Yorker article that quotes Jay Keasling, a professor of biochemical engineering at UC-Berkeley — and now CEO of the Energy Department’s new Joint BioEnergy Institute — as saying:

“We have got to the point in human history where we simply do not have to accept what nature has given us.”

That's right. We still don’t understand exactly how nature works, but we’re already thinking we can dispense with it and "liberate ourselves from the tyranny of evolution."

The scientists who are all gung ho for what MIT biological engineering professor Drew Endy calls “the coolest platform that science has ever produced” don’t seem to see the irony in creating synthetic biological diversity even as we continue to live in ways that is destroying natural biodiversity.

Meanwhile, the old exploitation mindset dominates the new science. With no new frontiers on Earth left to exploit, scientists are instead engaging in biological colonialism in which they create or alter organisms to do their bidding and produce wealth, in the form of drugs and industrial compounds.

Nor do they seem to have any qualms about abandoning the concept that life has any inherent value as they mix and match synthetic and natural DNA in any order they desire to create living organisms that will become the latest passing fads that are inevitably tossed aside. As theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson predicted:

”Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora.”

Biotech games, played by children “down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds,” could produce entirely new species—as a lark. “These games will be messy and possibly dangerous,” Dyson wrote. “Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious.”


But is anyone keeping on top of a field that even the scientists admit is growing so fast that predictions, much less contemplation, can’t keep up? No. As Endy noted:

“We are surfing an exponential now, and, even for people who pay attention, surfing an exponential is a really tricky thing to do. And when the exponential you are surfing has the capacity to impact the world in such a fundamental way, in ways we have never before considered, how do you even talk about that?”

According to The New Yorker article, it was talked about, once, back in 1975, when the world’s scientists got together to discuss the challenges posed by this new science:

They focussed primarily on laboratory and environmental safety, and concluded that the field required little regulation. (There was no real discussion of deliberate abuse—at the time, there didn’t seem to be any need.)

Now, even the Department of Homeland Security is in the dark about what’s happening with synthetic biology, which has serious terroristic implications. As Endy said:

“They want to know how far is this really going to go.”

So when is the public debate going to begin? Right now all the talk is about producing drugs that will halt the spread of malaria and new organisms that will eat the carbon in the atmosphere, ostensibly allowing us to consume and pollute without a care in the world. Endy summarized the view of many scientists in his field:

”The potential is great enough, I believe, to convince people it’s worth the risk.”

But those who have been following the debate over genetically engineered food know that the same arguments, the same lofty ideals helped launch that industry. It was supposed to feed the world, remember? Instead, we’ve found that its achievements are far less glorious than promised, and its threats, including inadvertent contamination and the displacement of sustainable agricultural practices, have not been resolved.

Other issues, like the impact on human and environmental health, are only beginning to be addressed, decades after these organisms have been released into the wild and fed to people and animals.

There’s also the question, which the New Yorker touches upon, of just who will control this technology. As Endy again observed:

”It’s a question of money. If somebody wants to pay for it, then it will get done.”

As we’ve seen with GE crops, the chemical industry is the prime benefactor. Now it’s looking like the pharmaceutical and energy companies will be the ones to profit from this latest foray into tinkering with the building blocks of life.

Meanwhile, in laboratories around the world, the experiments continue, out of sight and mind of the general public. According to Jim Thomas, a researcher with ETC Group, a technology watchdog based in Canada, there has been little discussion of the ethical and cultural implications of altering nature so fundamentally.

“Scientists are making strands of DNA that have never existed,” Thomas said. “So there is nothing to compare them to. There are no agreed mechanisms for safety, no policies.”

Some of us know what the scientists know, which is that there’s still so much important stuff that we don’t know about how all these processes work. But caught up in the thrill of scientific discovery, they’re not about to pull back or put on the brakes, even though everything is potentially at risk.

“We are talking about things that have never been done before,” Endy said. “If the society that powered this technology collapses in some way, we would go extinct pretty quickly. You wouldn’t have a chance to revert back to the farm or to the pre-farm. We would just be gone.”

And when you come right down to it, maybe that’s what’s supposed to happen to a species that has for too long been insistent upon mastering nature by destroying it.

28 comments:

Andy Parx said...

We are surfing an exponential... slicker than snot...

Somehow it remind me of the old scatological prepubescent ditty:

Everybody';s doin' it, doin' it, doin' it

Picking their nose and chewin' it, chewin' it.

They think it's candy but it'snot

Anonymous said...

Too bad more people didn't attend the education rally. It shows you that both politicians and the public were more concerned with the Superferry than public education. Sad.

Anonymous said...

If it wasn't' for early "genetic engineering" we wouldn't have the grapefruit. Lots of other beneficial things have come about through genetic engineering.

Maybe recombinant DNA experiments will create a creature that will eat Muslim terrorists and piss gas.

Anonymous said...

Genesis 1:28 - Further, God blessed them and God said to them: “Be fruitful and become many and fill the earth and subdue it, and have in subjection the fish of the sea and the flying creatures of the heavens and every living creature that is moving upon the earth.”

Nuff said.

Anonymous said...

____"If it wasn't' for early "genetic engineering" we wouldn't have the grapefruit."

Wasnʻt that just old fashioned hybrid techniques? Not genetic modifications delivered by injection into a molecule.

Casey said...

"Maybe recombinant DNA experiments will create a creature that will eat Muslim terrorists and piss gas."

Awesome.

Many of these arguments revolve around an implicit sanctity of DNA. But are we really so special? Or are we just a particular bag of genes that managed to find out how to manipulate itself?

It is also worth noting that "mastering Nature" has given us control of electrons, circuits, and computers for reading blogs.

Anonymous said...

There's no implicit sanctity of anything in the world.

Continue playing...

Anonymous said...

Hybrid techniques were the earliest form of "genetic engineering", in the broader sense of creating something "biologically unnatural".

Seedless oranges? Many current dog species? Other things?

DNA manipulation is the logical technological extension of that desire to bend nature to man's desires.

Stem cell research...growing "organ banks" (are they "human"...do they have rights?)...cloning animals, then humans (the next "slave race").

We're just seeing the beginning.

Anonymous said...

I am a parent of a keiki attending a public charter school. Our Local School Board, which is the governing entity of the school (not the Board of Education), was faced with budget cuts early on. So they had the foresight to create three different budgets, one which was the worse case scenario. The idea was to first make cuts that DID NOT affect the classroom. So as a result, now that the +%$+!! is hitting the fan, we do not have any furlough days. I do feel fortunate with the educational choice we have made for many reasons. However, often when my keiki gives me a fact of knowledge, I ask her, "where did you learn that?" Was it school, TV (we allow her to watch PBS and more conscious programming, not Disney), or books? More often than not, she answers...books or TV. So the classroom is one part of education, but not necessarily the be all.....She is still in elementary years, so that is my perspective, maybe I would feel more of the stress if she were preparing to graduate.........

nowondertheyhateus said...

"Maybe recombinant DNA experiments will create a creature that will eat Muslim terrorists and piss gas."
October 18, 2009 1:24 PM

Or maybe experiments that will eat American terrorists or you.
Be careful what you wish 4.

Anonymous said...

"driven by a hubris"

--- please..


"create or alter organisms to do their bidding and produce wealth, in the form of drugs and industrial compounds."

--- and ethnic particular weapons. advanced li-ion battery packs. synthetic oil. food. diverse huh?


freeman dyson, great thinker. glad to see a reference to him


"But those who have been following the debate over genetically engineered food" know it is a close cousin to the debate over evolution


"[...]pharmaceutical and energy companies will be the ones to profit from this latest foray into tinkering with the building blocks of life" b/ never have any new inventions benefited the masses..


adopt certain mindsets and youd never get out of the stone age. no thanks


"Wasnʻt that just old fashioned hybrid techniques? Not genetic modifications delivered by injection into a molecule."

--- correct


"we allow her to watch PBS and more conscious programming"

-- bravo


darwin_was_pretty_smart

Anonymous said...

Hybrid techniques were the earliest form of "genetic engineering", in the broader sense of creating something "biologically unnatural".
So much BS on the comments here, hybridization does not cross species barriers, and is not an early form of GE, which crosses secies in a way that never happens naturally.GE puts human genes in vegetable plants, puts fish genes in tomato, etc, something that could absolutely never happen without the gene gun

Anonymous said...

And it is a good thing that it is happening. I am for it.

Anonymous said...

He who controls the seeds, controls the masses. There is alot wrong with the world, but if you think getting rid of the genetic diversity that is life, and replacing it with one variety that can withstand the blasts of toxic chemicals over and over, and then call that product food, leads us to extinction. That Kauai exports these"seeds" rather than grow food on our ag land is short sighted. And when the land is too contaminated from their experiments, they will be long gone. Hawaii legislators have sold us out in so many ways.
Grow organic, feed your kids organic, shut off the TV, go outside and play

Anonymous said...

"...God said to them...and have in subjection the fish of the sea and the flying creatures of the heavens and every living creature that is moving upon the earth.”

This is your fallacy. The correct translation of the original text does not yield the word "subjection" or "dominion" (as king james translated it). The correct translation -- and what we are supposed to have over the animals of the earth is STEWARDSHIP.

Jane Goodall points this mistranslation out in all of her lectures. This bad translation is a big reason why so many Christians are so mean to animals and dismissive of nature. They think they have dominion over earth's creatures or that god wants them to subjugate them - when in reality God told them to be stewards.... to CARE FOR THEM.

vegreef

Anonymous said...

I'll stand by my translation as it, and all other scriptures in The New World Translation are closest to the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

You cannot win this battle.

Anonymous said...

We can eat them, too.

And change them, if we want.

Or create new ones by manipulating the building blocks. That doesn't mean we can do it well, being imperfect creatures ourselves, but we can do it.

Anonymous said...

the views in the blog article are largely flat out wrong, in my view :)

but it is only fair to offer strong credit for its serious subject matter

interesting how perhaps only blog situations are economically viable mediums to pull together such topics with (small town) "local" issues, and look to relate one to the other. just a guess


darwin_was_pretty_smart

Anonymous said...

"Due to the experimentations of Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, in 1998, the first GMO papaya was released in Hawaii causing Hawaii to lose almost half of its papaya farmers."

He is the Research leader for Tropical Plant Genetic Resources and Disease Research Unit of (PBARC) which will receive $5,000,000 of the 34 million.

Anonymous said...

I understood that GMO papaya saved the Hawaiian papaya market.

From Wikipedia

In 1995 American researchers developed a transgenic papaya resistant to the virus, by expressing a copy of a viral coat protein in the plant. It was field tested in Hawaii, where it was shown to be effective against the virus. The virus resistant papaya is now widely used by commercial papaya producers in Hawaii.

Transgenic plants have been engineered to possess several desirable traits, including resistance to pests, herbicides or harsh environmental conditions, improved product shelflife, and increased nutritional value. Since the first commercial cultivation of genetically modified plants in 1996, they have been modified to be tolerant to the herbicides glufosinate and glyphosate, to be resistant to virus damage as in Ringspot virus resistant GM papaya, grown in Hawaii, and to produce the Bt toxin, a potent insecticide.

Anonymous said...

For someone claiming to be a "journalist", Joan's lack of very basic knowledge about what science is all about is astounding!

Anonymous said...

RE Gonsalves

hilarious. some hawaiian heritage scientist guy via cornell saves a $14m yr industry -- within the holier-than-thou agricultural industry -- and gets slammed for it


"For someone claiming to be a "journalist", Joan's lack of very basic knowledge about what science is all about is astounding!"

-- and yet such misunderstandings are pretty common, esp here (HI)


dwps

Anonymous said...

"Too bad more people didn't attend the education rally. It shows you that both politicians and the public were more concerned with the Superferry than public education. Sad."

Hello! The Superferry Protest were very educational and provided a demonstration that direct citizen action can prevent lawbreakers (in this case the State of Hawaii) from breaking the law. A done deal became undone by direct action.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but why aren't more people on Kauai showing concern for Hawaii's children?

Anonymous said...

"I understood that GMO papaya saved the Hawaiian papaya market."

GMO papayas have infected the good papayas.
Nobody in their right mind wants GMO papaya. Itʻs refused at export markets.

The first GMO papaya was released in Hawaii causing Hawaii to lose almost half of its papaya farmers by Dr. Dennis Gonsalves.
And no, dwps, thatʻs not good.

Anonymous said...

but, according to Wilipedia, GMO papaya accounts for over 50% of the USA demand.

Nothing wrong about that.

I like them.

Anonymous said...

"Yes, but why aren't more people on Kauai showing concern for Hawaii's children?

October 22, 2009 9:46 AM"

Because they are brain-dead.

Anonymous said...

Because they eat too much unreal food, GMOʻs, which are fine for americans but nobody else wants that crap.