Thanks one and all for the thoughtful feedback about Space Genie. It was meant to be light-hearted. Please understand I shall not post readers’ mean-spirited attacks or dyspeptic rants. Sorry if I slightly missed the mark. I appreciate “true believers” and understand your passions. Maybe I’m a bit the same way. I was attempting humor, not advocating a “Bladerunner” world where someone might munch on his arm when he’s hungry. However, I’ll try to refrain from too many off-the-wall articles. Focus on the word “try”. But first, please let me answer the critics as a group.
My short life has seen a revolution in the science as well as public perception of genes. From the debates of “nature versus nurture” in the 60s and 70s to the Bell Curve to Craig Venter’s self-administered genome mapping to almost weekly developments today, the scene has dramatically changed. Once genes were taboo in polite company. Lyndon Johnson’s education experts stated that “all babies are born alike”, a bizarre notion that was widely approved. Genetic-based differences were regarded with appropriate suspicion, as either counterrevolutionary or echoing 1930s racial theories. The politics of equality and civil rights dominated scientific forums, and understandably so.
Just as naturally, opinions swung all the way back to such an extreme that by the 80s Richard Dawkins’ ludicrous “The Selfish Gene” became an international best seller. Suddenly, no one was even similar, nor could we ever be.
Meanwhile, biology steamed ahead, leaving the sociologists on the scientific margins. Genes moved to the forefront at all levels. Behavior studies and medicine joined animal and plant breeding as major focuses of genetic research. Twin studies proliferated. The genes of an entire nation, Iceland, came under scrutiny. Of course, plant and animal breeders—as well as parents—have been familiar with the influence of genes for thousands of years. Also, traditional societies throughout the world intuitively grasp them.
Discoveries exploded in medical, zoological, agricultural and pharmaceutical worlds, illuminating the effects of genes, chromosomes and cytoplasm, including interactions, inhibitors, sequences and pathways. There is no stopping science. Of course, safety regulations are important. I know quite a few folks in the industry, but I know of no scientist or corporate executive who considers safety unimportant.
Throughout history we have had scientific medicines, domesticated animals, domesticated plants, races of humanity, races blended within humanity. Cultures and civilizations have risen, flourished and collapsed. Just where I was raised, there were the Clovis, the Mississippian, the Illiniwek, the French, British, and now us. One can view them over time, and trace them on a map like a colony of algae. The flow of genes has played a crucial role in all of them.
Consider world travel, one of the foundations of the horticulture industry. From exploration of the Middle East, China, Africa, and India came countless herbs, spices and medicinal plants—virtually every grain and vegetable, as well as many beverages, consumed in Europe for a millennium—all from new genes. Then, with the New World came yet another influx of major transformative crops, including corn, tarot root, tomatoes, cocoa, tobacco, winter squash, potatoes and peanuts. More genes!
Each of these cultivars began life as an extraordinarily different plant in the wild. What were the Chinese, Indians, Africans and Americans to do? Leave the potatoes in the mountains, the corn in the fields, the eggplant, pepper, tarot and tomatoes in jungles?
Then, upon encountering these crops in indigenous markets, would the European explorers have been wise to toss them aside, as if of no importance? Of course not.
So it is with laboratory discoveries of a plant’s behavior and potential for variation on a cellular level, and even more closely on a genetic level. Shall we ignore a cost savings in terms of farmland needed to feed a nation, province or village? If a plant and a harvesting machine can be designed together and save backbreaking labor, shall we not pursue them? Do farm workers wish for their children and grandchildren to work in the sun all day?
I assume that gene transfer technology will continue to make great progress, as it does now, with many regulations and safeguards in place. Risk and reward need to be in balance. If scientists can create a new form of rice that can cure an entire continent’s chronic blindness, they must take some risks. Agriculture and medicine share many ethical and moral dilemmas, more each generation. Would starving people wish to make a distinction between an heirloom and a hybrid?
I feel little sympathy for extremists on either side. We at Heronswood, Burpee and The Cook’s Garden practice the art of plant breeding and trait selection, a traditional form of “genetic engineering”, helped only once over a 10,000 year history—by Gregor Mendel in the 1860s, an Austrian monk working out math problems using garden peas. From his discoveries to Craig Venter’s “creative life forms”, there hasn’t been so much qualitative as quantitative change. If folks are fearful of new types of species then I wonder what they must feel when they visit a pet store or garden center? Or how about at Wegman’s produce section?
I remember at a Jewel Foodstore in Chicago in 1980, watching a white-bearded Polish immigrant—a watchcap on his head—almost faint with wonder as he lifted high a huge bunch of ‘Flame’, the first seedless red grape. His eyes saucered. He was fresh off the jet and a world away from the emptiness of Soviet era grocery stores. I thought he was going to weep for joy. The USSR brought plant biology and breeding to a standstill and kept it there for more than three generations. Plant scientists were either executed or perished in the Gulag. Such is the triumph of ideology over science
Nature is the revolutionary—science is merely its avant-garde.