I, Robot

So I’m reading a back issue of the New Yorker (I’m a busy girl, I get behind), and am in the middle of an article about the dramatic steps being taken in biotechnology. This article begins by discussing the manufacture, in a laboratory, of a microbial mechanism that is capable of producing a compound useful against malaria. This compound can be grown in nature, and is being produced by subsistence farmers in Africa and Asia, but is needed in much greater quantities than can be acquired through natural means.

All well and good as malaria grows more resistant to the other drugs, except perhaps for the farmers.

But in the process of this “discovery” it has been realized that, even better than introducing the genes of cold-water fish into strawberries to make them more resistant to cold weather (ew!), the component parts of any living thing can be produced on a cellular level, and then reassembled.

Obviously these scientists don’t read Mary Shelley. It’s been done. It didn’t turn out well.

Another one of the pursuits is a microbe that can digest the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. While this sounds like a good idea for many reasons, I can’t help but wonder about the waste product.

We “humans” seem to differentiate ourselves best from the rest of the planet’s animals in our quests to manipulate the world to our benefit. The belief is that, if done successfully, we can continue to live the self-centered lives we’ve grown to know and love. The results of our attempts to use biology to improve our surroundings  can be seen everywhere, from the introduction of broom to Vancouver Island by the Scots or the release of Asian ladybugs in the south to control other pests to the collapse of bee colonies. Seems like we’d learn.

The problem that I see with these manipulations is that we are all part of a larger ecosystem, one that is constantly seeking balance. No species has impacted this planet as we have, (humanity has been referred to as “weeds” — invasive, not particularly beneficial, hard to eradicate; not that far off, really) and the results can be seen everywhere. Rather than devising yet another artificial alteration of the world around us, one which we can 1. congratulate ourselves for, for the intellectual ingenuity it demonstrates and 2. use to justify continuing on the path we’ve been on for the last 100 years, why don’t we try to live harmoniously in the world we find ourselves in?

Too much to ask?

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