Far away into the future, when people look back at the 20th century, they’ll say that it was the century when mankind has truly begun rejecting Nature.
What is “Nature”? That term, which some of us regard so highly today, is simply the current products of an ongoing evolutionary process – just the same as us. Human beings are a similar product of an evolutionary process which has left us with physical, hormonal and mental characteristics that have served us well in the prehistorical past, but are far from beneficial in our present society.
The most impressive way in which we’ve rejected Nature in the 20th century is probably with the invention and proliferation of use of birth control measures.
The 20th century has seen women reject Nature with the establishment of the first permanent birth-control clinic in 1921, where women were taught how to use a cervical cap, in a time when distribution of birth control information was illegal by law in the United States. In 1957, the FDA approved the first contraceptive pill to be taken orally, but only “for severe menstrual disorders,” which has led to an unusually large number of women suddenly reporting severe menstrual disorders. Those women were desperate to escape the decrees of Nature which have been enforced on their bodies without their willingness or consent. Just how much do they want that? According to a series of 2012 surveys in developing countries, the number of women who want to avoid pregnancy has reached 867 million out of 1520 million, or 57%. Many of those women want to promote their careers or expand their education before having a child. In short, they want to fulfill their potential as human beings instead of plodding blindly along the path evolution has set for them. They want to choose for themselves.
Society, of course, has been trying to hold them back in the meantime. While it is no longer illegal to use contraceptives, the clergy is still speaking harshly against such practices. Even the currently reigning Pope Francis has not authorized the use of contraceptives, and Pope Pius XII explained in 1951 that the teaching against contraceptives –
“is in full force today, as it was in the past, and so will be in the future also, and always, because it is not a simple human whim, but the expression of a natural and divine law”
Society keeps on holding people to the standards of that ‘natural and divine law’, even if those human beings aren’t catholic. Breastfeeding, for example, has been promoted in recent decades as contributing to the baby’s health, wellbeing and development. Now new evidence begins to appear that contradicts some of these claims. Specifically, it seems studies from the last 25 years that have compared between breastfed babies and non-breastfed ones, have not ruled out some important economic, social and cultural confounding factors. When those factors are taken into account, it turns out that breastfeeding is marginally better, at best, for babies.
Does that mean women shouldn’t breastfeed? Of course not. There are plenty of studies out there showing that breastfeeding has benefits for mothers as well as for babies. But we shouldn’t forget that it has its share of issues as well: for many it’s a painful, stressful and time-consuming exercise, making it difficult for women to continue advancing their careers, education and yes, their sex lives too. This is a noble sacrifice many mothers make – but what if it’s not needed after all? What if our technology has already improved formulas enough to replace breastfeeding with no damage to babies?
I fear that even in that case, many people will remain convinced that “breast is best”. Why? They will say that it’s natural, that it’s just the way Nature designed us. And they won’t consider that just a hundred years ago, it was deemed unnatural and illegal for women to use contraceptives, and that two hundred years ago life-saving vaccines were considered unnatural too.
This all means that we need to be more suspicious towards arguments that advocate for the ‘natural means’. The scientific evidence for ‘breast is best’ for babies seems to have been shaky right from the outset, and I suspect that had it not resonated so well with our natural fallacy and bias, the scientific and medical establishment would not have accepted them as easily.
There is a widespread perception that Nature is an infallible and benevolent mistress. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Nature is that semi-random evolutionary process which has shaped us in ways that would’ve been beneficial (occasionally) ten-thousand years ago, but which now come into conflict with our modern values and ways of life. Every aspect of our biology and psych that is considered ‘natural’ should (and will) be scrutinized carefully in the 21st century, and if it does not fit our modern values – it should be reconsidered.
Does that mean we should tell women not to give birth to children, or to avoid breastfeeding them? Of course not. We should, however, give them the choice over their bodies.
Even though, you know, that sort of thinking would’ve been considered unnatural a hundred years ago.
It’s always nice when news items that support each other and indicate a certain future appear in the same week, especially when each of them is exciting on its own. Last week we’ve seen this happening with three different news items:
A scientific finding that a single bacteria type grows 60 percent better in space than on Earth. The germs used in the experiment were collected by the public;
A new Kickstarter project for the creation of a DNA laboratory for everyone;
A new project proposed on a crowdfunding platform, requesting public support for developing the means for rapid detection of Zika virus without the need for a laboratory in Brazil.
Let’s go over each to see how they all come together.
Between the years 2012 and 2014, citizens throughout the United States collected bacteria samples from their environment using cotton swabs, and mailed them to the University of California Davis. Out of the large number of samples that arrived at the lab, 48 strains of germs were isolated and selected to be sent to space, on board the International Space Station (ISS). Most of the bacterial strains behaved similarly on Earth and in space. One strain, however, surpassed all expectations and proliferated rapidly, growing 60% better in space.
Does this mean that the bacteria, going by the name of Bacillus safensis, is better adapted for life in space? I would stay wary of such assertions. We don’t know yet whether the improved growth was a result of the micro-gravity conditions in the space stations, or of some other unquantified factor. It is entirely possible that the levels of humidity, oxygen concentrations, or the quality of the medium were somehow altered or changed on the space station. The result, in short, could easily be a fluke rather than an indicator that some bacteria can grow better in micro-gravity. We’ll have to wait for further evidence before reaching a final conclusion on this issue.
The most exciting thing for me here is that the bacteria in question was collected by the public, in a demonstration of the power of citizen science. People from all over America took part in the project, and as a result of their combined effort, the scientists ended up with a large number of strains, some of which they probably would not have thought to use in the first place. This is one of the main strengths of citizen science: providing many samples of research material for the scientists to analyze and experiment on.
DNA Labs for Everyone
Have you always wanted to check your own DNA? To find out whether you have a certain variant of a gene, or identify the animals whose meat appears in your hamburger? Well, now you can do that easily by ordering the Bento Lab: “A DNA laboratory for everyone”.
The laptop-sized lab includes a centrifuge for the extraction of DNA from biological samples, a PCR thermocycler to target specific DNA sequences, and an illuminated gel unit to visualize the results and ascertain whether or not the sample contains the DNA sequence you were looking after. All that, for the price of less than one thousand dollars. This is ridiculously cheap, particularly when you understand that similar lab equipment easily have cost tens of thousands of dollars just twenty years ago.
The Kickstarter project has already gained support from 395 backers, pledging nearly $150,000 to the cause, and surpassing the goal by 250% in just ten days. That’s an amazing progress for a project that’s really only suitable for hard-core makers and bio-hackers.
Why is the Bento Lab so exciting? Because it gives power to the people. The current model is very limited, but the next versions of mobile labs will contain better equipment and provide better capabilities to the bio-hackers who purchase them. You don’t have to be a futurist to say that – already there are other projects attempting to bring CRISPR technology for highly-efficient gene editing to the masses.
This, then, is a great example for the ways citizen science is going to keep on evolving: people won’t just collect bacterial samples in the streets and send them to distinguished scientists. Instead, private people – joes shmoes like you and me – will be able to experiment on these bacteria in their homes and garages.
Should you be scared? Obviously, yeah. The power to re-engineer biology is nothing to scoff at, and we will need to think up ways to regulate public bio-engineering. However, the public could also use this kind of power to contribute to scientific projects around the world, to conduct DNA sequencing of one’s own genetics, and eventually to create biological therapeutics in one’s own house.
Which brings us to the last news item I wanted to write about in this post: citizens developing means for rapid detection of Zika virus.
Despite the fact that the World Health Organization declared Zika virus a public health emergency merely two months ago, citizen scientists are already working diligently to develop new ways to detect the virus. A UK-IL-BR team has sprung up, with young biotech entrepreneurs leading and doing research to create a better system for rapid detection of the virus in human beings and mosquitos. The group is now requesting the public to chip in and back the project, and has already gathered nearly $6,000.
This initiative is a result of the movement that brings the capabilities to do science to everyone. When every citizen armed with an undergraduate degree in biology can do science in his or her home, we shouldn’t be surprised when new methods for the detection of viruses crop up in distant places around the world. We’re basically decentralizing the scientific community – and as a result can have many more people working on strange and wonderful ideas, some of which will actually bear fruit to the benefit of all.
As scientific devices and appliances become cheaper and make their way to the hands of individuals around the world, citizen science becomes more popular and provides ever greater impact. Today we see the uprising of the citizen scientists – those that are not supported by universities or research centers, but instead start conducting experiments in their homes.
In a decade from now, we will see at least one therapeutic being manufactured by citizen scientists in an easy and cheap manner that will undermine the expensive prices demanded by pharma companies for their drugs. Heck, even kids would be able to deliver that kind of science in garage labs. Less than a decade later, we will witness citizen scientists actually conducting medical research on their own, by running analysis over medical records of hundreds – maybe millions – of people to uncover how new or existing therapeutics can be used to treat certain medical conditions. Many of these research projects will not be supported by the government or big pharma with the intent to make money, but will instead be supported by the public itself on crowdfunding sites.
Of course, for all that to happen we need to support citizen scientists today. So go ahead – contribute to the campaign against Zika, or purchase a Bento Lab for your kitchen, or find a citizen science projects or games for kids you can join in SciStarter. We all can take part in improving science, together.
The future of genetic engineering at the moment is a mystery to everyone. The concept of reprogramming life is an oh-so-cool idea, but it is mostly being used nowadays in the most sophisticated labs. How will genetic engineering change in the future, though? Who will use it? And how?
In an attempt to provide a starting point to a discussion, I’ve analyzed the issue according to Daniel Burrus’ “Eight Pathways of Technological Advancement”, found in his book Flash Foresight. While the book provides more insights about creativity and business skills than about foresight, it does contain some interesting gems like the Eight Pathways. I’ve led workshops in the past, where I taught chief executives how to use this methodology to gain insights about the future of their products, and it had been a great success. So in this post we’ll try applying it for genetic engineering – and we’ll see what comes out.
Eight Pathways of Technological Advancement
Make no mistake: technology does not “want” to advance or to improve. There is no law of nature dictating that technology will advance, or in what direction. Human beings improve technology, generation after generation, to better solve their problems and make their lives easier. Since we roughly understand humans and their needs and wants, we can often identify how technologies will improve in order to answer those needs. The Eight Pathways of Technological Advancement, therefore, are generally those that adapt technology to our needs.
Let’s go briefly over the pathways, one by one. If you want a better understanding and more elaborate explanations, I suggest you read the full Flash Foresight book.
First Pathway: Dematerialization
By dematerialization we mean literally to remove atoms from the product, leading directly to its miniaturization. Cellular phones, for example, have become much smaller over the years, as did computers, data storage devices and generally any tool that humans wanted to make more efficient.
Of course, not every product undergoes dematerialization. Even if we were to minimize cars’ engines, they would still stay large enough to hold at least one passenger comfortably. So we need to take into account that the device should still be able to fulfil its original purpose.
Second Pathway: Virtualization
Virtualization means that we take certain processes and products that currently exist or are being conducted in the physical world, and transfer them fully or partially into the virtual world. In the virtual world, processes are generally streamlined, and products have almost no cost. For example, modern car companies take as little as 12 months to release a new car model to market. How can engineers complete the design, modeling and safety testing of such complicated models in less than a year? They’re simply using virtualized simulation and modeling tools to design the cars, up to the point when they’re crashing virtual cars with virtual crash dummies in them into virtual walls to gain insights about their (physical) safety.
Third Pathway: Mobility
Human beings invent technology to help them fulfill certain needs and take care of their woes. Once that technology is invented, it’s obvious that they would like to enjoy it everywhere they go, at any time. That is why technologies become more mobile as the years go by: in the past, people could only speak on the phone from the post office; today, wireless phones can be used anywhere, anytime. Similarly, cloud computing enables us to work on every computer as though it were our own, by utilizing cloud applications like Gmail, Dropbox, and others.
Fourth Pathway: Product Intelligence
This pathway does not need much of an explanation: we experience its results every day. Whenever our GPS navigation system speaks up in our car, we are reminded of the artificial intelligence engines that help us in our lives. As Kevin Kelly wrote in his WIRED piece in 2014 – “There is almost nothing we can think of that cannot be made new, different, or interesting by infusing it with some extra IQ.”
Fifth Pathway: Networking
The power of networking – connecting between people and items – becomes clear in our modern age: Napster was the result of networking; torrents are the result of networking; even bitcoin and blockchain technology are manifestations of networking. Since products and services can gain so much from being connected between users, many of them take this pathway into the future.
Sixth Pathway: Interactivity
As products gain intelligence of their own, they also become more interactive. Google completes our search phrases for us; Amazon is suggesting for us the products we should desire according to our past purchases. These service providers are interacting with us automatically, to provide a better service for the individual, instead of catering to some averaging of the masses.
Seventh Pathway: Globalization
Networking means that we can make connections all over the world, and as a result – products and services become global. Crowdfunding firms like Kickstarter, that suddenly enable local businesses to gain support from the global community, are a great example for globalization. Small firms can find themselves capable of catering to a global market thanks to improvements in mail delivery systems – like a company that delivers socks monthly – and that is another example of globalization.
Eighth Pathway: Convergence
Industries are converging, and so are services and products. The iPhone is a convergence of a cellular phone, a computer, a touch screen, a GPS receiver, a camera, and several other products that have come together to create a unique device. Similarly, modern aerial drones could also be considered a result of the convergence pathway: a camera, a GPS receiver, an inertia measurement unit, and a few propellers to carry the entire unit in the air. All of the above are useful on their own, but together they create a product that is much more than the sum of their parts.
How could genetic engineering progress along the Eight Pathways of technological improvement?
Pathways for Genetic Engineering
First, it’s safe to assume that genetic engineering as a practice would require less space and tools to conduct (Dematerializing genetic engineering). That is hardly surprising, since biotechnology companies are constantly releasing new kits and appliances that streamline, simplify and add efficiency to lab work. This criteria also answers the need for mobility (the third pathway), since it means complicated procedures could be performed outside the top universities and labs.
As part of streamlining the work process of genetic engineers, some elements would be virtualized. As a matter of fact, the Virtualization of genetic engineering has been taking place over the past two decades, with scientists ordering DNA and RNA codes from the internet, and browsing over virtual genomic databases like NCBI and UCSC. The next step of virtualization seems to be occurring right now, with companies like Genome Compiler creating ‘browsers’ for the genome, with bright colors and easily understandable explanations that reduce the level of skill needed to plan an experiment involving genetic engineering.
How can we apply the pathway of Product Intelligence to genetic engineering? Quite easily: virtual platforms for designing genetic engineering experiments will involve AI engines that will aid the experimenter with his task. The AI assistant will understand what the experimenter wants to do, suggest ways, methodologies and DNA sequences that will help him accomplish it, and possibly even – in a decade or two – conduct the experiment automatically. Obviously, that also answers the criteria of Interactivity.
If this described future sounds far-fetched, you should take into account that there are already lab robots conducting the most convoluted experiments, like Adam and Eve (see below). As the field of robotics makes strides forward, it is actually possible that we will see similar rudimentary robots working in makeshift biology Do-It-Yourself labs.
Networking and Globalization are essentially the same for the purposes of this discussion, and complement Virtualization nicely. Communities of biology enthusiasts are already forming all over the world, and they’re sharing their ideas and virtual schematics with each other. The iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines) annual competition is a good evidence for that: undergraduate students worldwide are taking part in this competition, designing parts of useful genetic code and sharing them freely with each other. That’s Networking and Globalization for sure.
Last but not least, we have Convergence – the convergence of processes, products and services into a single overarching system of genetic engineering.
Well, then, what would a convergence of all the above pathways look like?
The Convergence of Genetic Engineering
Taking together all of the pathways and converging them together leads us to a future in which genetic engineering can be performed by nearly anyone, at any place. The process of designing genetic engineering projects will be largely virtualized, and will be aided by artificial assistants and advisors. The actual genetic engineering will be conducted in sophisticated labs – as well as in makers’ houses, and in DIY enthusiasts’ kitchens. Ideas for new projects, and designs of successful past projects, will be shared on the internet. Parts of this vision – like virtualization of experiments – are happening right now. Other parts, like AI involvement, are still in the works.
What does this future mean for us? Well, it all depends on whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic. If you’re prone to pessimism, this future may look to you like a disaster waiting to happen. When teenagers and terrorists are capable of designing and creating deadly bacteria and viruses, the future of mankind is far from safe. If you’re an optimist, you could consider that as the power to re-engineer life comes down to the masses, innovations will rise everywhere. We will see glowing trees replacing lightbulbs in the streets, genetically engineered crops with better traits than ever before, and therapeutics (and drugs) being synthetized in human intestines. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between – and we still have to discover it.
The futurist Ian Pearson, in his fascinating blog The More Accurate Guide to the Future, has recently directed my attention to a new report by Bloomberg Business. Just two days ago, Bloomberg Business published a wonderful short report that identifies ten of the worst-case scenarios for 2016. In order to write the report, Bloomberg’s staff has asked –
“…dozens of former and current diplomats, geopolitical strategists, security consultants, and economists to identify the possible worst-case scenarios, based on current global conflicts, that concern them most heading into 2016.”
I really love this approach, since currently many futurists – particularly the technology-oriented ones – are focusing mainly on all the good that will come to us soon enough. Ray Kurzweil and Tony Seba (in his book Clean Disruption) are forecasting a future with abundant energy; Peter Diamandis believes we are about to experience a new consumerism wave by “the rising billion” from the developing world; Aubrey De-Grey forecasts that we’ll uncover means to stop aging in the foreseeable future. And I tend to agree with them all, at least generally: humanity is rapidly becoming more technologically advanced and more efficient. If these upward trends will continue, we will experience an abundance of resources and a life quality that far surpasses that of our ancestors.
But what if it all goes wrong?
When analyzing the trends of the present, we often tend to ignore the potential catastrophes, the disasters, and the irregularities and ‘breaking points’ that could occur. Or rather, we acknowledge that such irregularities could happen, but we often attempt to focus on the good instead of the bad. If there’s one thing that human beings love, after all, it’s feeling in control – and unexpected events show us the truth about reality: that much of it is out of our hands.
Bloomberg is taking the opposite approach with the current report (more of a short article, really): they have collected ten of the worst-case scenarios that could still conceivably happen, and have tried to understand how they could come about, and what their consequences would be.
The scenarios range widely in the areas they cover, from Putin sidelining America, to Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, and down to Trump winning the presidential elections in the United States. There’s even mention of climate change heating up, and the impact harsh winters and deadly summers would have on the world.
Strangely enough, the list includes only one scenario dealing with technologies: namely, banks being hit by a massive cyber-attack. In that aspect, I think Bloomberg are shining a light on a very large hole in geopolitical and social forecasting: the fact that technology-oriented futurists are almost never included in such discussions. Their ideas are usually far too bizarre and alienating for the silver-haired generals, retired diplomats and senior consultants who are involved in those discussions. And yet, technologies are a major driving force changing the world. How could we keep them aside?
Technological Worse-Case Scenarios
Here are a few of my own worse-case scenarios for 2016, revolving around technological breakthroughs. I’ve tried to stick to the present as much as possible, so there are no scientific breakthroughs in this list (it’s impossible to forecast those), and no “cure to aging” or “abundant energy” in 2016. That said, quite a lot of horrible stuff could happen with technologies. Such as –
Proliferation of 3D-printed firearms: a single proficient designer could come up with a new design for 3D-printed firearms that will reach efficiency level comparable to that of mass-manufactured weapons. The design will spread like wildfire through peer-to-peer services, and will lead to complete overhaul of the firearm registration protocols in many countries.
First pathogen created by CRISPR technology: biology enthusiasts are now using CRISPR technology – a genetic engineering method so efficient and powerful that ten years ago it would’ve been considered the stuff of science fiction. It’s incredibly easy – at least compared to the past – to genetically manipulate bacteria and viruses using this technology. My worst case scenario in this case is that one bright teenager with the right tools at his hands will create a new pathogen, release it to the environment and worse – brag about it online. Even if that pathogen will prove to be relatively harmless, the mass scare that will follow will stop research in genetic engineering laboratories around the world, and create panic about Do-It-Yourself enthusiasts.
A major, globe-spanning A. disaster: whether it’s due to hacking or to simple programming mistake, an important A.I. will malfunction. Maybe it will be one – or several – of the algorithms currently trading at stock markets, largely autonomously since they’re conducting a new deal every 740 nanoseconds. No human being can follow their deals on the spot. A previous disaster in that front has already led in 2012 to one algorithm operated by Knight Capital, purchasing stocks at inflated costs totaling $7 billion – in just 45 minutes. The stock market survived (even if Knight Capital’s stock did not), but what would happen if a few algorithms go out of order at the same time, or in response to one another? That could easily happen in 2016.
First implant virus: implants like cardiac pacemakers, or external implants like insulin pumps, can be hacked relatively easily. They do not pack much in the way of security, since they need to be as small and energy efficient as possible. In many cases they are also relying on wireless connection with the external environment. In my worst-case scenario for 2016, a terrorist would manage to hack a pacemaker and create a virus that would spread from one pacemaker to another by relying on wireless communication between the devices. Finally, at a certain date – maybe September 11? – the virus would disable all pacemakers at the same time, or make them send a burst of electricity through the patient’s heart, essentially sending them into a cardiac arrest.
This blog post is not meant to create panic or mass hysteria, but to highlight some of the worst-case scenarios in the technological arena. There are many other possible worst-case scenarios, and Ian Perarson details a few others in his blog post. My purpose in detailing these is simple: we can’t ignore such scenarios, or keep on living our lives with the assumption that “everything is gonna be alright”. We need to plan ahead and consider worst-case scenarios to be better prepared for the future.
Do you have ideas for your own technological worst-case scenarios for the year 2016? Write them down in the comments section!
Recently, a town council in North Carolina rejected plans to open a solar farm in its area, after the town people expressed their fears about the new solar technology. As reported in the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, retired science teacher Jane Mann, complained that no one could assure her that solar panels did not cause cancer. Her husband, Bobby Mann, chimed in and warned the council that solar farms would suck up all the energy from the sun. Needless to say, neither of these arguments has any base in reality. The council, however, heard their warnings and voted against establishing a solar farm in the area. Later, the same town council also voted for a moratorium on future solar farms.
This is probably an isolated incident. In fact, the case has been covered widely in the last day, and the couple’s remarks have been met with worldwide ridicule, so some would say that it’s not likely to repeat itself. All the same, I believe similar arguments are bound to arise in other potential locations for solar farms. People will read about the claims associating between solar panels and deaths from cancer, and conspiracy theories will be created out of the blue. In some places, like that North Carolina town, fear will keep the new and clean technology from being deployed and used.
And if that happens, I can’t help but think that Greenpeace will be the ones to blame.
Greenpeace’s Feud with Science
A few years ago, I did a podcast episode about genetic engineering in plants. I wanted people to understand the science behind the technique, so I invited two distinguished professors from the academy who were experts in the field. I also invited a professor who was an expert in bioethics, to highlight the dilemmas surrounding genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Finally, I asked a senior member in Greenpeace to come to the show and provide their take on GMOs. I still remember her words, and this is a direct quote –
“If you’re inviting doctors to the show, I’m not coming.”
To say that her words blew me away is an understatement. I used to donate monthly to Greenpeace under the presumption that they’re striving to change the world to the better – but how can they know in which area they should invest their political and public influence, if they’re not guided by science and by experts? And can’t they actually do more harm than good, by supporting the wrong causes?
Since that time, I started following Greenpeace’s agenda and actions and scrutinizing them closely. It was immediately clear that the ‘green’ organization was acting more on blind faith and belief in the healing and wholesome power of nature, than on scientific findings.
Oh, you want examples? Here’s the most famous one, that we experience up to this date: the campaign against Golden Rice in particular, and genetically modified organisms in general.
Greenpeace’s campaign against the Golden Rice, for one, has succeeded in delaying the deliverance of genetically modified rice to farmers in poor countries. “Golden Rice” is golden indeed since it had been genetically altered to produce a precursor of vitamin A, which is a vital nutrient for human consumption. Sadly, vitamin A is lacking in many areas in the developing world. In fact, half a million children who suffer from severe vitamin A deficiency go blind every year, and half of them die soon after. The Golden Rice has been ready for use since the beginning of the 21st century, and yet Greenpeace’s campaign against GMOs in general and Golden Rice in particular has kept it off the market. At the same time, study after study show that GMOs are safe for eating, and in many cases are safer for the environment than ordinary crops.
Unfortunately, the scientific evidence on the issue of GMOs does not matter much to Greenpeace, which keeps on fighting against GMOs and utilizing bad science, funding extremely shoddy studies, and scaremongering all over the world. No wonder that Stephen Tindale, ex-director of Greenpeace, has recently denounced anti-GM food campaigns of the kind Greenpeace is leading still. William Saletan, who has studied the issue extensively, published his results in Slate –
“…the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.”
I don’t want this post to become a defense poster for GMOs. You can find solid reviews of the scientific evidence in some of the links above. What’s important to realize, though, is that Greenpeace have deliberately led a tactic that relies on people’s lack of scientific knowledge and their automatic fears of every new technology. This tactic is harmful in two ways: first, it can actually bring harm to environment since our choices do not rely on solid science but on scare tactics; second, it poisons people’s minds against science and scientific evidence, so that they are unwilling to look at new technologies in a calm and rational manner – even if those technologies are much safer for the environment than anything that came before them.
Which is exactly what happened at North Carolina this week, when the public rejected solar energy partly because of irrational and unfounded fears. Ironically, Greenpeace has put a lot of emphasis on solar energy as the preferred direction to solve the world’s energy problems, and their efforts are commendable. However, when they’ve spent the last few decades teaching people to be afraid of conspiracy theories by evil scientists, industry and government, why did they think people would stop there? Why shouldn’t people question the scientific base against solar panels’ safety, when Greenpeace has never bothered to encourage and promote scientific literacy and rational thinking among their followers?
Today, Greenpeace should feel proud of itself – it has primed people precisely for this kind of a response: a knee-jerk rejection of anything that is new and unfamiliar. With Greenpeace’s generous assistance, fear now overrides rational thinking.
For the last few decades, concerned scientists have watched with consternation as the environmentalist movement – with Greenpeace at its head – took an ugly turn and dived headlong into pseudo-science, mysticism and fear-mongering, while leaving solid science behind. This is particularly troubling since we need a strong environmentalist movement to help save the Earth, but it has to build its demands and strategies on a solid scientific base. Anything less than that, and the environmentalists could actually cause more harm to the environment – and to humanity – than the worst moneygrubbing industry leaders.
Even worse than that, in order to obtain public support for unscientific strategies, Greenpeace and other environmentalist movements have essentially “poisoned the wells” and have turned people’s minds against scientists and scientific studies. Instead of promoting rational thinking, they turned to scaremongering tactics that might actually backfire on them now, as they try to promote solar power technology that’s actually evidence-based.
How can we rectify this situation? The answer is simple: promote scientific literacy and rational thinking. I dare to hope that in the near future, Greenpeace will finally realize that science is not an enemy, but a way to better understand the world, and that its demands must be based on solid science. Anything less than that will lead to eventual harm to the planet.
Can you recognize where the following paragraph is from?
Hammond was flamboyant, a born showman, and… had an elephant that he carried around with him in a little cage. The elephant was nine inches high and a foot long, and perfectly formed, except his tusks were stunted. Hammond took the elephant with him to fund-raising meetings. Gennaro usually carried it into the room, the cage covered with a little blanket, like a tea cozy, and Hammond would give his usual speech about the prospects for developing what he called “consumer biologicals.” Then, at the dramatic moment, Hammond would whip away the blanket to reveal the elephant. And he would ask for money.
The story of Hammond and his miniature elephant (supposedly genetically engineered) appears in the opening pages of the book Jurassic Park. Ever since I read Jurassic Park in my teens, this is the paragraph that got stuck in my mind. After all, ravenous dinosaurs eating people is neat and everything, but having a tiny elephant living in your house, and showing it to your friends every time they drop by? Now that’s priceless – and definitely an idea I could relate to.
As it turns out, this dream is actually coming to fruition nowadays, with a Chinese prestigious institute announcing its intention to sell genetically engineered micro-pigs. Which, I guess, are a good substitute for a micro-elephant… at least for now.
The micro-pigs in question were engineered in a way that disabled their normal production of growth hormones, leading to the creation of a ‘dwarf’ pig. Their original purpose was to be used in medical studies of dwarfism and other metabolic disorders, since pigs are often used as models for human diseases. However, when they were revealed to the public at the Shenzhen International Biotech Leaders Summit in China one week ago, they stole the show.
“We had a bigger crowd than anyone,” said Lars Bolund, who took part in the pigengeering project, in an interview to Scientific American. “People were attached to them. Everyone wanted to hold them.”
The enthusiasm should not really have been surprising. There’s been a pig-pet craze for the past few decades, which scrupulous breeders have taken advantage of by selling “teacup pigs” – tiny piglets which were supposed to remain small through adulthood. As it turned out, many such piglets grew to weigh 100 – 150 pounds, forcing their owners to give the massive beasts up.
The micro-pigs should be relatively safe to purchase, and quite simply cannot reach a weigh of more than 15 kilograms, or more than the size of a medium-sized dog. That’s in their DNA – the genetic program that instructs their body on its final shape and size. The BGI Chinese institute is planning to sell them at $1,600 – and I won’t be surprised if the first batch will be snatched up within days by the rich and the famous who will be looking for new ways to demonstrate their… well, richness and fame.
But the really interesting question for me is: what will be the next genetically-engineered animal to make it to households as pet?
Dragon to Newt
The first (and possibly easiest to perform) kind of genetic engineering for household pets will be downsizing. As the BGI institute researchers have shown, you just need to disable the production of growth hormones in the animal to do that – a relatively easy task. Which animals will be downsized, then?
Endangered or threatened species will probably not be on the list, since the researchers need a mature female to give birth to the engineered baby-animal. Also, many large mammals have an extremely long pregnancies, which might make the venture unprofitable. So – I’m probably not going to enjoy my micro-elephant or micro-rhinoceros anytime soon.
If I had to bet on the animal of choice, my money would probably be on micro-crocodiles. The Nile crocodile is nowhere near endangered, and the female lays an average of fifty eggs, which hatch in three months. Baby crocodiles are already cute enough that some people will adopt them, with the obvious result of having to face a full-blown crocodile in the bathroom two years later. But what if they’re engineered to never grow any larger? I would probably chip in for a pet like that. A miniature horse or stag – if you just bring them down to the size of a house cat – wouldn’t hurt either.
Glow in the Dark
“Glow in the dark animals” are already quite common in labs around the world. They’re being used for medical studies, but somehow have never found their way to the consumer market. The answer has a lot to do with the psychology of the consumer, but I would wager a guess that we just don’t like glow-in-the-dark cats or dogs. And why should we? The glow is mostly revealed only under UV light, and in any case – it would just make the animals frightening to behold.
The only case in which glowing animals became a success was with aquarium fish (GloFish) that were the recipients of a jellyfish gene causing them to slow in the dark. Those fish are quite beautiful, but they grow only in the extremely secure and limited environment of the fish tank. Not really interesting, to be honest.
Cats Just Want to have Fun
Ragdoll cats are known as the most gentle and non-aggressive of all cats. They were bred specifically to be that way, and are a hit among adults and children who love the way cats look – but not the scars they leave on the skin.
Since we are beginning to identify genes that influence behavior and aggression in animals, why not use genetic engineering to bring some really ferocious animals to our houses?
I know that I wrote earlier against the engineering of endangered animals, but just consider: wouldn’t you like a full-sized tiger that is – quite literally – gentler than a kitten? Or how about a fun-loving shark in the swimming pool?
While these are probably extreme examples (you still have to feed these animals with tons of raw meat!), I think we can agree that smaller animals, like a people-loving raccoon, or a truly affectionate snake that likes to cuddle, could be a real hit.
Can We Stop GE-Pets?
By now you’re probably asking yourself if we can stop the technology from coming to fruition and delivering GE-pets to our doorsteps. It is extremely unlikely that the process will stop in any way, because of several reasons –
Globalization: if GE-pets are banned in one country, they’ll be engineered in another country like China. When their safety is demonstrated over time, they’ll spread around;
Powerful and cheap GE techniques: novel genetic engineering techniques are becoming rapidly cheaper and more powerful, which means that many private companies will soon start dabbling with synthetic biology. Even the venerable Bill Gates recently mentioned that if he were a kid today – he would be hacking biology. Governments will find it increasingly more difficult to stop these new companies from delivering their products to the market.
Eventual spread: let’s say you own a micro-pig, and your friend raises her own micro-pig. You like her, she likes you, and your micro-pigs like each other. What do you think will happen next? You could enjoy a litter of micro-pigs within less than a year, which you will give to your neighbors, whether they like them or not. Of course, most GE-pets will also be engineered to be sterile (companies have to protect their business investment, after all), but others will be fertile, and you can be sure that they’ll breed and spread throughout the land.
We are now at the beginning of a fascinating and exciting age: the age of synthetic biology, when animals could be molded according to our wishes. Obviously, we gain an enormous power over nature that way – but is it any different from raising animals in farms and stables? I’m not so sure. I also don’t see much of a danger to bio-diversity in the short-term, since the animals we will engineer for our needs will be hard-pressed to survive in nature (good luck to that micro-crocodile, or cuddling snake when they have to survive outside the house).
I’ll be waiting for my micro-crocodile to arrive sometime in this decade or the next.
And what would you kids like to get for Christmas?