Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering

Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering

Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering

Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering

Synopsis

In 2001 the Human Genome Project announced that it had successfully mapped the entire genetic content of human DNA. Scientists, politicians, theologians, and pundits speculated about what would follow, conjuring everything from nightmare scenarios of state-controlled eugenics to the hope of engineering disease-resistant newborns. As with debates surrounding stem-cell research, the seemingly endless possibilities of genetic engineering will continue to influence public opinion and policy into the foreseeable future. Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering distinguishes between the hype and reality of this technology and explains the nuanced and delicate relationship between science and nature. Authors Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott evaluate the current state of genetic science and examine its potential applications, particularly in agriculture and medicine, as well as the possible dangers. The authors show how the popular view of genetics does not include an understanding of the ways in which genes actually work together in organisms. Simplistic and reductionist views of genes lead to unrealistic expectations and, ultimately, disappointment in the results that genetic engineering actually delivers. The authors explore new developments in genetics, from the discovery of "non-Darwinian" adaptative mutations in bacteria to evidence that suggests that organisms are far more than mere collections of genetically driven mechanisms. While examining these issues, the authors also answer vital questions that get to the essence of genetic interaction with human biology: Does DNA "manage" an organism any more than the organism manages its DNA? Should genetically engineered products be labeled as such? Do the methods of the genetic engineer resemble the centuries-old practices of animal husbandry? Written for lay readers, Beyond Biotechnology is an accessible introduction to the complicated issues of genetic engineering and its potential applications. In the unexplored space between nature and laboratory, a new science is waiting to emerge. Technology-based social and environmental solutions will remain tenuous and at risk of reversal as long as our culture is alienated from the plants and animals on which all life depends.

Excerpt

In Part I of this book we look at agricultural biotechnology. Our main concern is to show that we cannot understand genetic engineering and its implications unless we begin to view it within larger biological, organismic, ecological, economic, and societal contexts. Many of the problems of genetic engineering arise because we lack an awareness and understanding of these broader contexts. In fact, we live in illusions if we imagine genetic engineering as a way of making neat and discrete changes in organisms that contribute to just as neat and discrete programs for, say, solving the world’s hunger problem. Without recognizing how our technical interventions are embedded within a complex web of relations, such “solutions” to problems cause even greater problems.

Genetic engineering is based on the premise that a gene is a clearly defined entity carrying out a specific function and, when transferred into a different organism, will perform the same function in the new context. That such manipulation often does not work according to plan can be viewed, theoretically, as a technical problem to be overcome. But it is actually a symptom of what scientists doing basic genetic research over the past decades have come to recognize: that the gene itself is context-dependent. This is the theme of Part II. The simple, straightforward gene that always does its job, oblivious to whether it is in a root cell or a leaf cell, a bacterium or a plant, an animal or a human being, does not actually exist. In fact, a good part of the “art” of genetic engineering entails limiting the implanted gene’s responsiveness to its new and everchanging context.

All genetic engineering is carried out with a specific living organism as the “medium” for gene expression. And, more generally, we speak of the human being, the dog, or the rose that “has” genes and consider these genes as fundamental to heredity and to the formation of the organism’s characteristics. Through the single-minded focus on discovering the building blocks of heredity, the organism itself—as a whole, coherent being—recedes into the background. It becomes merely the . . .

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