More enthusiasm for GMOs

The genetic modification of science by hoodoo is a theme of interest up here (in the High Doganate). I read journalists such as Henry I. Miller, in Forbes, much to the displeasure of at least one correspondent, who does not like his “tone.” I, for my part, very much enjoy it.

Miller is an abrasive critic of everything in food that is labelled “organic.” The title of his piece yesterday nicely sums his view: “The colossal hoax of organic agriculture.” His last two items before that had me giggling, too: “The most imbecilic and pretentious commentary ever written about genetic engineering” (reviewing an article in the New York Times); and, “Whole Foods caught with their thumb on the scale and their hand in your pocket” (on their demonstrably false package weight and nutritional claims). No mealy-mouth he. Nor deficient in job-appropriate scientific training.

I like to start myself with the tomato: a small, very hard, suspiciously shiny, yellow berry of the Deadly Nightshade family, found in the Mesoamerican bush. Highly toxic, especially in the leaves. But it had already endured at least two millennia of genetic modification by the Mesoamericans, before the Spanish conquistadors arrived, to ship it around the planet. As Miller notes, we should bear this in mind when offered an “heirloom tomato” for sale; and then reflect that, with the exception of some genuinely wild berries, game, and fish, everything in the grocery has been modified beyond recognition, and usually over more generations than we can count. This, let me add, is one of the distinctions between ourselves and the apes, to say nothing of the dolphins.

Oddly, though Luddite by aesthetic disposition, I have no objection to technical improvements, per se. I delight in simplicity, and paradoxically, that is what “technology” sometimes delivers. Moreover, we were instructed by our Maker to go forth and multiply, and could not have got so far as we have without increasing the crop yields.

Mrs Edith Carson, the elderly widow next door when I was a child in Georgetown (and no relation to Rachel), was a fanatical opponent to the fluoridation of the municipal water supply, which she attributed to a communist plot. She may have been right about that, but another of her views struck me as eccentric.

When she returned from shopping, she would toss her apples and pears and oranges and bananas, her walnuts and all the other fruits, beans, pods, and nuts she had purchased — from her back porch, onto the grass. Soon after, she would collect them (less the loot of bird or squirrel), and take them into her pantry. This was from the belief that none were healthy until they had touched the ground. It was a fact she had discovered from the careful perusal of certain (Protestant) religious tracts.

I try to imagine what her views would be today (had she lived she would now be 120), on GMOs. My guess would be, Against. Ditto, for the methods of DNA scrambling by radiation and chemicals that preceded the molecular techniques; and the pioneering methods of wide-cross hybridization. For Mrs Carson was already opposed to the irradiation of potatoes, and even to the atomic bomb, except for the specialized purpose of annihilating the communists.

A dear woman, beloved in memory, in whose debt I remain for innumerable cookies and chocolates. (I gave her name so you could say an Ave.) Yet even with the people we adore, we may sometimes disagree on details.

The marvellous thing about current genetic modification on the molecular scale, it seems to me, is its simplicity and relative safety. And what I mean here is, relative to traditional methods of cross-breeding. Instead of transferring a whole mess of genes, haphazardly from one organism to another, we can now do it in a finical way, one little gene at a time. This gives us more chance to observe the consequences.

But of course, public safety is not the only desideratum, and avoiding risk is not always a virtue. I wouldn’t want to discourage every “jurassic,” cowboy operation, lest we become too fastidious in our ways.

On the third hand, thanks to my own perusal of some (Catholic) tracts — including the Bible, and various Fathers and Doctors of the Church — I am convinced that the genetic modification of human beings is a big mistake, except through voluntary, licit, opposite-sex marriage. Indeed, all attempts at it so far have ended badly.

For humans are enveloped in a moral field that excludes the plants and animals; each one of us a special creation. (See: Catechism.) A fundamental humility and caution when tampering with nature is not a bad thing; we should cherish her. But, cherish by integral moral commandment; not because other creatures have any “rights.” (We have only what rights we can defend; they have only what we bestow.)

Here I refer to the order of Love — quite distinct from the order of sentimentality, vividly presented just now in public wailing over the harvest of Cecil the Lion, by people prepared to overlook the destruction of millions of human babies, and the harvest of their body parts by e.g. the Doktor Mengeles of Planned Parenthood.

Love, in this sense, which accords mere affection to Cecil the Lion, is not reducible to rules in a book; nor can it be encompassed by loveless and morally spastic government regulation. It is expressed, too, in an attitude through nature to nature’s God, inculcated from childhood; and through knowledge founded in that Love, whose outward attribute is wonder.

This should animate even the clinics and labs, and be detectable not only through electron microscopes, but in a work atmosphere of joy. There is no necessary conflict between high scientific endeavour, and amazement with the very tools we find at our disposal. Yet even in the choice of techniques, we should be attentive to transcendentalia: to beauty, truth, and goodness in our intentions, and in our actions. This is not law, but religion.

It is not the gradual transformation of a poisonous New World berry into a delicious and nutritious pasta sauce that is the problem, here. Rather, it is the transformation of the human, into something mean, miserable, small, and finally, murderous. That is the key environmental issue: not what we do with nature but what we do with us.