News & Opinion » Currents Feature

Genomania

Human gene tampering is for the welfare of all humankind. Yeah, right.

by

comment
Not long ago the morning newspaper came out in support of still another business development scheme for Arizona. The International Genomics Consortium, an outfit out of Bethesda, Md., claims to be a non-profit organization dedicated to "applying post-genome science to advance human health," according to its website (www.intgen.com).

As groups go, it has the requisite heavy-hitters: two doctors and one lawyer comprise the board of directors. The gang consists of people with connections ranging from the University of Arizona to federal government agencies as well as investment groups. But what makes this endeavor either international or a non-profit is questionable. If you look at non-profit websites, you'll discover their addresses end in dot org (.org); commercial sites--those pesky dot coms--make no pretense of being non-profit organizations.

Why would a group trying to promote itself as a non-profit not use the established designation for such organizations? A simple oversight? Gee, just the sort of folks you want messing around with human genes. Nevertheless, the state, despite its budget crisis, plans to fork over millions of dollars to this group of prestigious players with impressive vitaes and the right connections in the interest of supporting the latest version of Nazi science.

Genetic research is susceptible to what at first may appear to be hyperbole because it is an endeavor that runs contrary to the natural order of things. We may not understand just what the natural order is, and may even quibble over its existence (because it cannot be proven), but empirical evidence points to a basic truth: Biotechnology reduces life to a machine-like phenomenon. (A growing number of physicists, however, take issue with this antiquated, mechanistic view.)

Genetic engineering is a recent manifestation of the old "man versus nature" bifurcated reasoning that forms a substantial part of the foundation of contemporary Western thought. When humans were crouched in caves or sprinting across the savanna, many natural phenomena were a source of terror. Our ancestors experienced a depth of fear unimaginable to persons born after science replaced religion as the dominant paradigm.

Following the so-called Enlightenment of the 18th century, science promised predictability, order, progress and control. That promise was rooted partly in the vestiges of primal fear and partly in a belief of the perfectability of "man." It's no accident that at about the same time, profound economic and political upheavals were transforming Europe from a backwater to an expansionist, capital-driven collection of emerging nations. Science and technology were the handmaidens to imperialism, capitalism and the wars that accompanied them.

Genetic engineering is the next logical step for a culture that views itself as invincible. However, invincibility is impossible (and an illusion under any circumstances) since human behavior is unpredictable. Most people do not embrace chaos, chance or randomness as defining characteristics of their day-to-day lives. Nevertheless, undomesticated species seem to have no trouble handling whatever comes along; we are the only creatures on the planet who want to plan, organize, control events and each other.

So it comes as no surprise that genetic engineering is a growing business generating billions of dollars annually, while its promoters deride its cautionary critics by accusing them of "the fear of the unknown." That's a cheap shot. In the first place, fear of the unknown is hard wired into all of us to a certain extent; it's a matter of how that fear is handled. Secondly, having a fear, or suspicion, of genetic engineering and biotechnology is extremely prudent. The question, with a bow to the Brits, is: What is this biobiz really in aid of?

We already have plants genetically engineered to withstand the effects of mega-doses of toxic pesticides and herbicides. Now Monsanto, the corporate Dr. Frankenstein, is drawing heavy criticism for its creation of "Terminator" seed technology. This obscene creation sterilizes natural seeds in plants, thus ensuring an ever-growing market for the corporation's patented, genetically altered seeds. Next step: genetically altered humans for pharmaceutically compatible drugs? Absurd? Yeah, right; and some people thought the world was flat.

The party line, whether for plant seeds or human gene tampering, is simple: It's all for the "welfare of humankind." How can you argue against food for the starving or longer, healthier lives for us all, blah, blah, blah? But consider this: our much-vaunted scientific community remains uncertain of the effects of fat, protein and carbohydrates in the human diet. And antibiotics, once promoted with the same zeal as gene tampering, have contributed to strains of drug-resistant pathogens. Despite these examples of our limited understanding, "gene regulation technology" is part of the language of the biotech barons.

The species-specific tendency to conquer and control is limited to humans, but it would be wise to put our hubris on hold and remember you can't mess with Mama Nature.

Add a comment