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The Whole Is Greater . . .

[This was originally part of an essay contest sponsored by the Economist and Shell Oil Co in 2003. Oddly enough, considering the sponsors, the topic was “Do we need nature?” This essay didn’t place, but, as Wodehouse says, like all authors, I know that what I wrote is wonderful (in spite of the equally universal need to maybe just polish it up a bit here and there). So here it is.]

While eating breakfast and leafing through a magazine, I saw the call for a discussion about whether we need nature. Surely, this was a trick question. Without nature, I’d have no plate, no eggs, no energy to cook the eggs, and no me, for that matter. The answer seemed more than obvious. But the questioners must have wanted more than a simple “yes,” or they wouldn’t have insisted on an answer shorter than two thousand words.

Perhaps they’re right. Even at its simplest, as a mere source of raw materials, nature has more than one level. If I were turned into a pile of ash, I’d be worth pennies, but it would take serious money to buy my component biomolecules. Anyone who pays for vitamins or drugs knows how much big molecules can cost. Sometimes they are beyond price. The whole field of genetic engineering depends on a heat-stable enzyme found in Thermus aquaticus, an obscure bacterium hidden in hot springs at Yellowstone National Park. (By extension, bioengineering depended on national parks, too). As for what remains to be found, it could be something as small and welcome as a means of removing tooth plaque without the need for all that tedious flossing, or it could be the cure for old age. And yet, arguing for nature on the basis of utility seems to miss the point as badly as valuing humans only for the pieces into which we could be broken.

Besides, nature’s usefulness doesn’t say how much of it is useful. A mere reference collection should be small on a planetary scale, but the evidence from seed banks, botanical gardens, zoos, and parks indicates that the only permanent reference collection is as big as all outdoors. Yet, even once science puts a number on how big that is, it still won’t answer the question of what, exactly, “useful” means. Nor is the simple extreme of leaving everything untouched an option. We have to muck about with nature. Otherwise there are simply too many smelly, dangerous, freezing, broiling, and sickening aspects to put up with.

There is a very broad line between paving everything and touching nothing. How much we can muck about is far from clear, and that means choices, decisions, and problems. Who decides how much is enough? Who gets the money? Who gets the muck?

Two very different issues are intertwined in these questions: ethical limits and biological ones. Ethics are particularly difficult in diverse societies because they depend on consensus. In a cosmic sense, ethics may be absolute, but enforceable limits are ones believed by a large majority of people. Edicts handed down by popes or ethics experts or even the law will be circumvented if they violate too many people’s feelings on the matter. The consequences of that are nontrivial, as evidenced for instance by the growth of the Mafia during Prohibition in the United States. The really bad news is that, as with all issues requiring consensus, there is no shortcut to reaching it. People need time and information to make their decisions, and I, much as I might like to, don’t constitute a consensus.

Nature, it’s been pointed out, is a Mother, so it stands to reason that the difficulties only grow worse. Important as ethical limits are, they are not fatal, in themselves, but breaking nature’s laws is punished by death, and ignorance of the law is no excuse. It is the queasiness about what lies beyond lines we haven’t crossed that leads to the feeling it is dangerous to take destiny in our own hands. However, we’re over a hundred thousand years too late to worry about altering destiny. We’re doing it. The only question is whether we will do it well.

One obvious way to do badly is to find the limit by stepping over the edge of a cliff and saying, “Oh, that’s where it i-EEEEE.” Science can help avoid this outcome because it is a good tool for finding the edges even as it pushes us closer to them (which suggests that there may be justice in the universe). Being a tool, though, science doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of deciding how to act on the information it gives.

The same problems surface in all kinds of environmental and biomedical issues, but I’ll take genetic engineering as an example. There are all kinds of guesses about what might happen with unrestrained bioengineering. Nightmare visions of clones farmed for their organs compete with the horror of a planet covered in bespectacled copies of Bill Gates. But it’s not the problems we’re afraid of that bite us. Dinosaurs cannot be made from chicken’s eggs, with or without added ancient DNA, nor can genetically modified food make a Frankenstein. (Yes, I’m sure. I’m a biologist who sequenced DNA for a living.) The human body, people once feared, would die from the violent speed of a horseless carriage. These days we go at Mach 3 without disintegrating, but the real problem is keeping our cities alive.

Likewise, the real problem with cloning, to take one instance of bioengineering, is certainly not the bare fact of it. I have two neighbors who are clones, but they’ve never followed orders from a groupmind. They’re identical twins. Admittedly, they are clones of each other, not of their parents, but clones are clones. There’s been a hitch with artificial cloning of human beings because of our unexpectedly complicated eggs, but once we succeed, we’ll have a new, expensive, and less pleasurable way of producing human beings. (As if overpopulation wasn’t enough of a problem.)

Cloning organs, as opposed to whole humans, suggests a range of scenarios. Heart cells grown in a flask for transplant don’t seem upsetting, but the same heart grown in a farmed person would be beyond horrible. On the other hand, if the heart is part of an immune-altered pig, it seems no different from killing the pig for pork. I do get upset about killing pigs, but the destination of the pig’s parts is not what matters. To put it bluntly, the limit of cloning for me seems to be the shape involved, together with the feeling that the shape could sit up and say good morning. And even that simple rule doesn’t answer many further questions. Should rich people have access to cloning when it is too expensive for poor people? Are the byproduct embryos people or not? If they are, can they be deprived of life so long as we give them proper funerals, in the same way as we treat many adults?

Another aspect of bioengineering is the novel combination of genes. What do we know about the real dangers of mixing genes from jellyfish and geraniums? The answer is: not much. Genetic engineering started yesterday, for all practical purposes. Human allergies or other immune responses to “frankenfoods” are only starting to be studied. The environmental effects are barely known. Viruses can transfer genes beyond the target organisms in unexpected ways, so almost anything is possible. If a gene were introduced to increase seed set in wheat, it might end up increasing seed set in weeds. What is worse, the effects last forever and propagate, because unlike pesticides or pollution, genes don’t break down. Another consideration is that the businesses developing these foods want cheap, good-looking products. The fact that they may have all the nutritional value of styrofoam is not the companies’ concern.

Some consequences are easy to extrapolate from previous, similar situations. Breeding the perfect cow or rice causes the loss of other varieties, and potentially lethal susceptibility to the slightest perturbations. Poor farmers who can’t afford the cost of the new varieties lose their livelihoods (which suggests a sardonic, not to say cynical, sense of humor among those pushing GM foods as the answer to famine).

There are some truly ominous signposts of future directions. One of the first genetically engineered crops does not resist pests or weeds. It resists weedkiller. Farmers can grow a patented crop that allows them to easily kill all weeds with large doses of herbicide. This means more damage to the environment, more residues to the consumer, and more expense to the farmer. It seems like a stunningly bad idea, except that the same company sells the patented seed and the weedkiller.

The usual objection to dire warnings about crossing invisible lines is that we’re still here. How could the warnings matter if we’ve survived? But that’s exactly the point. We find out what’s survivable by surviving it. If we don’t, nature has no appeals court. Do we really want to make that kind of experiment? It seems self-evident that the correct course to follow with respect to biological limits is to stay away from them and to take what scientists call the conservative option. This is not the same thing as political conservatism.

Limits mean that questions about nature can have wrong answers. But, as with ethics, the difficult questions have no right answers. The desirable balance of profit, convenience, cost, diversity, clean air, fresh water, health, and wealth is determined by social consensus. And this is one discussion where it makes a great deal of sense to include as many people as possible, because then some of the people getting the muck will have a voice to let everyone know where the problems start. This is good, even though it slows down progress–especially because it slows down progress. The progress being slowed in that case, may be the kind that’s headed over the cliff. The greatest good of the greatest number may be more than a hopeful ideal. It may be the only way to survive.

I’ve spent the day mulling what seemed a simple question and found mainly that I can’t answer it. This is frustrating, and my favorite way of dealing with that is to bicycle down to the beach and watch the sun set. I find it impossible to stay annoyed while looking at the waves foaming pink in the evening light. There are island mountains far offshore, and today their summits are trailing rose-colored mists in the turquoise sky. As the whole world briefly glows, it becomes obvious to me that I want much more than mere survival. Nature, in the common meaning of the word, does things for us that I’ve never felt in a parking lot, even if the asphalt is made of transformed Devonian seas and of gravel that was a mountain once.

Asking whether we need nature is like asking whether a fish needs water. It’s like asking whether a fish needs fish. It’s just a question of how many parts of ourselves we’d like to cut off.