Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Genetically Manipulated Social Standards

I've spent the past couple of weeks debating Genetically Manipulated (GM) food in a Greek RPG/Fantasy forum full of 80s-minded sociological naysayers. It's been hell, and good fun, on and off. And it's full of ultra-lengthy posts, so bear with me on this one too.

The conversation made me remember how I feel about nature, its miraculous methods and the noble human quest of exploring it through science. And yes, it sounds kind of utopian to judge science based on this alone. That's why I don't.

The Philosophy of Science accepts one basic premise: we can never be sure about anything. Science, as a means of comprehending the Universe, has no absolutes: anything that was once taken for granted can be completely overturned at any given moment. The Earth is not flat, Aristotle's physics was a bunch of horse-poo, and Einstein wasn't 100% correct after all. Every scientific experiment write-up includes a calculation of the percentage of uncertainty involved in it, due to several parametres in every case that could affect the results of the experiment and that could not be monitored, let alone kept constant - and the calculation itself is wrong in every single case.

Due to the above, science usually has to assume that a premise is proven by a "successful" experiment, until proven otherwise. Still, historically, there has never been a safer or more reliable tool than the scientific method to help us understand the world around us - apart from Plato's "I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance," which, while true in every case, is also not very productive. Until something better is discovered or invented, we'll have to make do with the flaw-ridden means we have.

Therefore, it is always a difficult task to call the limits: to decide on a point whereforth it is safe to assume that things are the way we think they are. And in cases such as genetic manipulation technology, whose promises are vast and numerous, and the possible negative consequences are a huge, complex mystery, a heated debate ensues - much longer, deeper, more intense and post-heavy than the one in the aforementioned forum.

We're discussing a technology (or a network of technologies) here that is way too complex to theorise upon. It's not a toaster, where you know the risks of bringing it out into the market - it may overheat, it may electrocute the user, it may heat the toast unevenly - and can do something about preventing them... It involves the use and study of a language we're not familiar with, the language of life itself.

So, yes, if we're trying to learn this language, to form sentences that express what we want, we may, and will, make mistakes. Syntax, expressions we're not aware of, pronounciation... unsteady ground. Like a child forming its first phrases, copying and repeating what it hears spoken around it. And the results of such mistakes could be funny, or catastrophical. The child has no idea which words are supposed to go together, or which words could be considered offensive by grown-ups under any given circumstances. But that's a stage we must go through, before we can eventually write poetry, or read a philosophy book.

And, speaking of learning, when I was a child, my father wouldn't let me open the PC box and play around with the components, from fear of me being electrocuted. Needless to say, I did it when he wasn't there, I changed motherboards or hard drives, I played around with the jumpers, and sometimes "broke it", but I never did get electrocuted. I learned a lot though. That's precisely what I see scientists doing right now.

So, nobody in their right minds can demand that genetic research be stopped altogether, the way I see it. But it still needs to be monitored - we need to find, and uphold, measures for the various "things that could go wrong", and review these measures every time we discover something new. Still, mass hysteria, especially in layman's levels, does much more harm than good.

And nature is adaptable, in any case. Much more adaptable than we could ever realise. I mean, what's the worse thing that could happen? What, relating to Genetic Manipulation, wouldn't we survive, what wouldn't we notice early enough to do something about it before it manages to wipe out our entire race? We're people, dammit. We're far from perfect, but we're good enough.

But mankind tends to focus on the negative side, on examples of "how things went wrong in that case" or "how things could, ceteris paribus, go wrong in the future". We'll notice the one case where a GM food product was proven to be "bad for us" and not the thousands that make our lives better or easier or our shopping cheaper, just as we'll notice the one animal that became extinct (with no further effects on its ecosystem, usually), and not the millions of species that manage to survive and adapt under difficult circumstances (Damn you, cockroaches! Damn you all to hell!).

Yet, it's a good thing that we do. This negativity is the exact mindframe that allows us, as a species, to survive and adapt. We keep our eyes open for possible dangers. It's just a matter of doing it right, with the right focus and grounding. We shouldn't be "afraid" of GM foods because "the idea of bettering a species reminds us of Nazi experiments" or because "Life is too sacred to be toyed with and we have no place to play God"... I mean, come ON. It's simpler than that. It's dangerous because, scientifically speaking, we're playing with fire. And again, this is the same fire that will keep us warm, that will cook our food, that will teach us something about itself and ourselves, and will also be so beautiful to watch. But if we're not careful, we may burn our fingers, or our house down.

So yeah, I have to go now, after a post and a half of preaching. I'm off to cut myself a Granny Smith apple, which I bought last week and still hasn't gone bad. And, sprinkled with cinammon, it's quite the treat.

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