I have taken a certain amount of flack for presuming to argue, in Brace for Impact, that genetic engineering has not been a success, that it indeed cannot be a success, and presents terrifying dangers to the web of life and to human well- being. So it is gratifying to have the New York Times confirm many of my arguments.
In the book I argued that the mis-named practice of genetic “engineering” has nothing to do with precise manipulation of genes, but is in fact a crap shoot in which scientists create new viruses and loose them on cells to see what happens. Once in a while, in the manner of a roomful of monkeys at keyboards, something meaningful results, such as a tomato with a fish gene that allows it to tolerate cold. For this we risk the escape into the world of a mutant organism of unknown capabilities.
Millions of dollars in advertising, bought by corporations that enjoy billions in revenues and research grants because of their genetic ambitions and pretenses, convince us that someone, somewhere, sometime soon, is or will be enjoying the fruits of this ultra-modern technology. Yet there is no objective evidence that this is so.
The much touted Green Revolution in agriculture (whose name, properly understood, refers to the color of money, not of growing things) has replaced traditional, sustainable agriculture with genetically modified seeds requiring chemically and mechanically intensive — above all, expensive — methods that, it was promised, would feed the world. They have, to the contrary, impoverished much of the world and endangered the rest by depressing yields, raising the cost of production and destroying the soils, water and air required for the enterprise to continue.
Unabashed by their failures and unrestrained in their promises of future success, the genetic manipulators moved on from ravaged plants to humans, where the prospects for profits and appalling mistakes were much brighter. The massively expensive “human genome project” ($3 billion is an estimate) set out to map the human genetic code, all three billion genes. Success was declared — albeit a weirdly limited, even truncated success in which most of the genes were not, in fact, “mapped” and most of those identified were labelled as “junk” with no known function — at a presidential news conference in 2000.
It was your standard, technology-is-omnipotent, welcome-to-the-21st-Century songfest. In ten years, said President Bill Clinton, echoing the triumphant gene mappers, the knowledge gained would “revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases.”
By which the paper meant intended results. For example, a study of 101 genetic “predictors” of heart disease, in 10,000 women over 12 years, found that the predictors predicted nothing at all.
What has been clearly demonstrated, and is being steadfastly ignored by all the people whose livelihood depends on the funding of strangers, is that the further technology pushes into the codes of life, the further the horizon of comprehension recedes. Having an incomplete and largely speculative map of Africa, it turns out, is not helpful to the enterprise of crossing Africa on foot.
As I reported in Brace for Impact, a participant in the human genome project recalled afterward that they had thought that to transcribe the alphabet of the genome would be to understand it. Instead, it merely allowed them to hear snippets of a marvelously complex, subtle and varied language that is far beyond their comprehension. Where it will remain.
It is one thing to learn what we can of these marvelous and mysterious processes. It is quite another to presume to take them under our management for profit when both our ignorance, and the potentially catastrophic consequences of that ignorance, are huge.