Happy New Year
Here's another reflective piece to mark the transition... an article by Oxford historian FELIPE FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO which went out in an incomplete form on the pro-GM AgBioView list. The intention, presumably, was to provide uncomfortable reading for eco-pessimists. But, if anything, the article, taken as a whole, lacerates techno-optimism still more severely.
This may have been less than clear to AgBioView subscribers as they were provided with just the briefest of summaries of the final part of the article, which relates specifically to genetic technologies, while the publisher's summary at the top states simply, "It is arrogance to assume humanity can destroy nature",
In that the author is surely right. A radical eco-pessimism is misplaced in that we cannot easily destroy nature, in its broadest sense, given that nature governs all life on earth. The article, however, does perhaps understate the extent to which we can severely damage the quality of *our own* lives, as well as of those species that we most immediately impact upon.
That aside, Fernandez-Armesto's piece rightly reminds us that human technological interventions intended to reshape nature according to our own 'superior' designs rarely ultimately have the effects we intend! As the author concludes: "There are few laws of history, but this is one of them: Whenever we think we have nature licked, she responds with revenge."
That *is* something for the techno-optimists to reflect upon. After all, rarely can human hype and hubris have risen as high as with the genetic technologies where the projected benefits are authoritatively described (see below) as 'enormous', 'immense', 'indispensable', 'limitless', 'a panacea'... quite apart from bringing about the birth of a new humankind! We kid you not...
"...biotechnology, this incredibly powerful and valuable tool with seemingly limitless potential to resolve health problems, increase crop yields, and treat diseases..." -from a statement circulated among US scientists by Vernon Cardwell (ASA President), Ronald Phillips (CSSA President), Donald Sparks (SSSA President)
“It [GM] is a panacea for hunger and poverty problems currently ravaging the country” -Dr Florence Wambugu, a Monsanto trained Kenyan biotechnician
"No reservations at all [about GM]. It's great!" -Dr Roger Turner, head of SCIMAC who the UK Government have left to "police" the introduction of GM crops
"The development of GM technology holds out such valuable, indeed indispensable, prospects for the future of humanity that any other approach would be indefensible." -J Ralph Blanchfield, head of external affairs at the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST)
"The future benefits (for consumers and the environment) will be enormous and the best is yet to come." -Prof Jonathan Jones, John Innes Centre scientist and reportedly an adviser on GM to No.10
"The potential benefits of cloning may be so immense that it would be a tragedy if ancient theological scruples should lead to a Luddite rejection of cloning." -from a statement supporting cloning, including human cloning -- signatories included: Francis Crick, Nobel Laureate in Physiology, Salk Institute Richard Dawkins, Professor of Public Understanding of Science, Oxford José Delgado, Director, Centro de Estudios Neurobiologicos Simone Veil, Former President, European Parliament
"Biotechnology will be able to accomplish what the radical ideologies of the past, with their unbelievably crude techniques, were unable to accomplish: to bring about a new type of human being." -Francis Fukuyama, professor of public policy at the Institute for Public Policy at George Mason University
Humankind: Heel! [the full article!]
It is arrogance to assume humanity can destroy nature -- it still has us on a short leash, says historian FELIPE FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO
Friday, December 29, 2000
Ecological anxiety is the the apocalypse du jour. In a secular, humanist era, we no longer expect God to destroy our world. We think we can do it on our own. We can smother the planet with overpopulation, gut its useful resources, poison it with pollutants, desiccate it with dams and burn life out of it by turning the atmosphere into a solar magnifying glass. If we fail to do irreparable damage to Earth, we can eliminate each other: We can bury civilization in waste, bomb it to oblivion, choke it with venom, replace it with a genetically manipulated sci-fi superstate, subvert it with the "me-now"; ethos or replace it with recrudescent savagery.
Some or all of these prophecies may come true. Part of the unpredictability of the future is that the wildest imaginations sometimes picture it accurately. Pessimism is good: It alarms us against danger and indemnifies us against disillusion. I don't want to dismiss the fear-fraught oracles but I disbelieve them for two reasons. They are -- it seems to me -- perverted by arrogance and ignorance: anthropocentric arrogance and historical ignorance.
The seers of doom have a fundamental, disabling vice in common with prophets of progress: Both overestimate the power of humankind. The pessimists expect us to wreck nature, the optimists believe we can perfect it. Really, all we can do is cause minor damage or tiny improvements at the margins.
Take the relationship of our species to the most powerful known force for change on Earth: the evolutionary imperative. So far, humankind has made two startling interventions that have bucked evolutionary trends. The first started in the Neolithic period, when people in some parts of the world began, on a large scale, to develop new breeds and strains by domestication and farming. The results have included new creatures: mutations induced, and selections made, by men.
This is an impressive achievement; but pre-historians now see it as a phenomenon of 'co-evolution', indebted more to the normal processes that bring species into close ecological relationships than to human initiative. The world humans craft to suit themselves remains a minuscule part of nature: Our domesticates are a statistically insignificant proportion of biota. The cycle of mutation and extinction goes on regardless. And the environments we have created since the 'Neolithic Revolution' -- our farms and towns -- have been of greatest significance, from the perspective of natural history, as eco-niches for the evolution of new species unaffected by man.
Our second big intervention began about half a millennium ago with the initiation of long-range ocean voyages that transferred biota from continent to continent. Much of the transfer was unintended. Seeds and bugs travelled in the folds and pockets of clothing or the twists of rigging; microbes made their ways inside humans and livestock.
Many introductions, however, were designed. Previously, continent by continent, since the shattering of Pangea, different habitats bred different species. Now convergence replaced divergence. There are eucalyptus trees and wallabies in English parkland while sheep and vines help sustain Australia's economy. The introduction of wheat to the New World turned prairies into granaries.
The geographer from Mars, however, may not feel disposed to give people much credit. Evolutionary convergence was a side effect of human intention. In carrying other biota around, humans behaved in a way analogous to vectors and parasites that often help particular species propagate or extend their range.
Now genetic manipulation gives us a chance to make a third entry into the evolutionary arena. The dream or nightmare of eugenics may be about to come true: Human genes can be selected for social goals. Cloning has titillated the itch for immortality. Technology that confers power or wealth on its possessors is compelling. We shall insert transgenes for objectives that sound good, like resistance to disease, or that smell evil, like the elimination of 'criminal tendencies' or of abnormal sexual orientation or of any form of 'deviancy' or 'subversion' condemned by the consensus. Some of us will stay insensitive to the moral sacrifice: butchery of the unborn -- bred and dissected for science, in labs as full of human body parts as a Nazi soap factory or Jeffrey Dahmer's fridge.
For three main reasons, however, the extent of the genetic revolution will be slighter than many of us, in the first flush of it, tend to suppose. First, genes are probably less powerful determinants of human character, or even pathology, than their enthusiasts believe. Rogue, random effects are always loose in causation. Secondly, our sallies in genetic manipulation will be made in tiny portions of the field -- mainly in our own species and those we already domesticate. The big battalions in nature will still be those beyond our control. Finally, evolution will always outclass our revolutions as a force for change. Most of the diseases we eliminate, for instance, microbial evolution will replace. Changes we engineer in the species we eat will, like all our previous interventions in the environment, expose us to unforeseen consequences or weaken us in unexpected ways.
Humans remain part of nature -- animals like other animals with uniqueness like that of other species. Nothing we do in the next millennium will free us from the eco-systems of which we are part. We can dominate them but never leave them behind. We can strike links out of the chain of being -- by exterminating species we dislike, for instance, or blasting environments we cannot usefully exploit -- but we remain bound by it. Our longings to join the ranks of the transcendent beings of our imagination -- to possess spirits, to resemble gods, to capture magic -- always end up trapped in the grossness of blood and clay.
The conservation obsession has made us worry about the durability of the natural world, as if nature could not last without mollycoddling by us. This is dangerous species-egotism. Trees, lichens, weeds and most classes of biota were here before us. Microbes have a three-billion year advantage in experience. They will be here after we have gone.
We think we can escape the constraints of geography by fleeing to cyberspace and promoting globalization. But cyberspace gets riven by cyberghettos; globalization provokes defensive reactions; and geography goes on moulding us, influencing our identities, crafting our culture. There are few laws of history, but this is one of them: Whenever we think we have nature licked, she responds with revenge. ... Felipe Fernandez-Armesto teaches in the faculty of modern history at Oxford University. He is the author of 10 books, including 'Millennium: A History of Our Last Thousand Years'. His most recent is 'Civilizations'.
"...farmers are likely to be weaned from pesticides to be force fed biotech seeds, in other words, taken off one treadmill and set on a new one!"
"The trend towards a quasi-monopolization of funding in agricultural development into a narrow set of technologies is dangerous and irresponsible. Also, too many hopes and expectations are being entrusted in these technologies, to the detriment of more conventional and proven technologies and approaches that have been very successful and [whose] potential lies mostly unused in the developing countries.
"It is only too obvious to concerned scientists, farmers and citizens alike that we are about to repeat, step by step, the mistakes of the insecticide era, even before it is behind us. " -Hans R.Herren, Director General, The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology Nairobi, Kenya, and winner of the 1995 World Food Prize
For more on Herren and others' work with low-tech/high creativity aqgricultural methodes that work with the grain of nature see: http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/179.htm