Blind Faith And Science

Genetic engineering will transfer power from the poor to the rich

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 5th December 1995.

A couple of months ago, a breakthrough was announced in Scotland. Scientists had inserted genes from a luminous jellyfish into crop plants, so that they would glow in the dark when they were attacked by fungus. The aim of the project, according to its supervisor, was to help farmers to manage the “ever larger fields to grow the food … needed to keep pace with the population increase.” They could overfly the vast new tracts at night and check which parts were being attacked.

It all made perfect sense, apart from one inconvenient consideration: the world will only be fed if fields get smaller, not larger. Soil erosion, which results partly from increasing field size, is perhaps the greatest threat to food security. Huge fields mean an increased risk of catastrophe through insect plague, as well as the displacement of small farmers, who are often the main producers of staple foods. Had the researchers spoken to anyone who has witnessed the ravages of the Green Revolution, they would have learnt that their basic premise was dismissed as simplistic nonsense years ago.

But there was nothing particularly surprising about the vacuous euphoria which greeted the development. Genetic engineering’s usefulness is routinely exaggerated and its dangers downplayed. Part of the reason is that many researchers are woefully ill-equipped to make judgements about whether their work helps to solve the world’s problems or simply exacerbates them. There are morally responsible, self-questioning people among them; but much of the distrust with which the public views scientists is well-founded. The life sciences are no longer engaged in the delivery of benefits to humankind.

There seem to be three main reasons why scientists have lost their ability to assess the utility of their work. The first is the pressure on universities to find new money. The interests of many researchers are now indistinguishable from those of the corporations funding them. While claiming scientific detachment they are, in reality, no more than obedient employees of industry, which is governed not by an unbiased assessment of human need but by the hope of making money. As the disadvantaged of the world are the least able to pay, they are the least likely to be helped by this kind of science.

The second is naivity. Many researchers could fairly be described as idiot savants, brilliant specialists, but neither trained nor expected to see beyond what they are doing. Recently I met a plant scientist who had just completed the first of four years of research into the genetics of a crop plant. I asked her what her work would achieve. After some deliberation, she hazarded that it would “help feed the world.” I pointed out to her that the plant she is working on is an oil crop, not a food crop. She greeted the news with astonishment.

The third is the hardest to pin down, but by far the most important. This is what the philosopher Mary Midgley describes as the assumption “that the prestige, the value of science centres on never making a mistake – on precision, specialization and infallible correctness.” There is a pervasive belief that professionalism depends on the performance of unitary tasks in isolation from the distracting concerns of the rest of the world. Science merely gathers the data, but has and should have nothing to say about its pertinence.

This position is, of course, riddled with self-deception. Many of those who espouse it also claim that the message of science is the only one worthy of consideration and that the world’s problems can only be addressed by an objective assessment of the data they gather.

Having cut themselves off both from other people’s lives and from other academic disciplines, professionally-blinkered scientists are clearly unqualified to determine whether or not they are studying something worthwhile. By striving never to get the details wrong, they ensure that they will never get the overview right.

The result of all these factors is that science, if it ever was before, is no longer governed by objectivity. The means of gathering and assessing data remain dispassionate, but the much more important assessment – of which research to embark on – is driven by wholly partial considerations. The science drives the perception of the world’s needs, rather than the world’s needs driving the science. Science has ceased to be a force for reason in society.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by the claims made for genetic engineering. Gene therapy, we are told, will become a major determinant of human health. Genetically modified bacteria and viruses as well as new genes inserted into crops will do away with the need for pesticides and help feed the world. There’s no doubt that some applications of the technology will be indispensable – gene therapy offers the only imaginable remedy for cystic fibrosis sufferers, for example – but the briefest glance at reality shows that gene manipulation offers more potential problems than solutions.

Genetic engineering provides, more poignantly than almost any other technology, a means of transferring power from the poor to the rich. Corporations are now winning patents for engineered crop plants. They obtain an unassailable advantage over the farmers whose ancestors developed the original crop. Their ownership of what previously had no owner – the germ line of living creatures – represents a significant loss to the common weal.

Transferring genes from one species to another – in both medicine and agriculture – is more hazardous than we’ve been led to believe. Transplanted genes may be released from the checks imposed by their original host. They may recombine to form newly virulent organisms which could attack other species. The chance of accidentally engineering new viral plagues is, while small, a real one. When a “transgenic” organism has been released into the environment, there may be no means of recalling it if it starts to run amok.

Regulation, both in Britain and abroad, is desperately inadequate. If the possible disasters do not materialize, it will be through good fortune rather than good planning.

The problems inherent in genetic engineering arise, of course, from many sources, but it is scientists, the brains behind these schemes, who carry the greatest moral responsibility. Before deciding what is fit to study, they must first review the great complex of issues which determine whether or not people survive and prosper. They must be prepared to run the risk of occasionally being wrong on the detail, in order to admit the possibility of getting the broader picture right.

There is, of course, a fictional predecessor for researchers who fail to raise their heads from the workbench: a man whose introspection and moral suspension, combined with the best intentions, allowed him to create an engineered organism of horrifying power, which was accidentally released into the environment. For our sake and for theirs, we must hope that the names of today’s genetic engineers will not be linked with that of Dr Frankenstein.