Monday 24 February 2020

Poetry: Critique of Genetic Engineering

Posted by Chengde Chen *

“Genetic engineering technology is designed to enable genes to cross species 
barriers.” – Martin Khor, New diseases as viruses break species barriers 

Genetic engineering has a million benefits,

While I have only one reason against it.

But, any number multiplying a zero becomes a zero.

Science is supposed to support human existence;

If genes are written by all historical conditions of nature,

Isn’t quoting them out of context man outlawing himself?

The temperature on the Earth’s surface is within ±50ºC

A very small range in the grand thermometer of the universe,

But just the home for us – the creature of 37ºC – to survive.

Believers marvel at God’s arrangement, yet it’s only nature.

All existing species are adapters to this condition;

Those not, either never had a chance, or have been eliminated.


Should God, seized by a whim, play at “planet engineering”

Rearranging the order of the solar system, what would happen?

If Earth moved one step inwards to the position of Venus,

The mighty 480ºC would evaporate us into clouds.

If Earth moved one step outwards to the position of Mars,

The minus 140ºC would cast us into super-ice.

Earth is in our genes.

Genes are nature’s vertical memory and horizontal logic.

The process of adapting and eliminating carves all specifications.

The billions of codes are billions of doors and locks without keys,

Shutting out foreign viruses with DNA incompatibility

So we don’t catch cats’ flu, nor do dogs get our hepatitis.

Yet, manufactured genes come suddenly

Sharing no responsibility of history but short-circuiting species.

When transgenic pig organs are implanted into humans, 

Pig viruses also leap over millions of years to join us.

To gain medical benefits by dismantling the species barriers, 

It’s self-disarming to the bone or tying oneself up to WMD?

The biological world is a self-contained all-dimensional computer;

Messing up one sequence could throw the whole system into chaos,

Which is asking God to restart His creation all over!

So He’d rather we mess about with the planets than modify genes.

“If you must,” He may say, “modify Mine first to have a GM god 

To recreate the world, I’d need enhanced energy and perseverance.” 

* Chengde Chen is the author of the philosophical poems collection: Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.


Keith said...

At its most consequential level, humankind learning how to redesign its ‘source code’ — its DNA — is aimed ultimately at acquiring control over fundamental change in the complex definition of what it means to be human. That is, our evolutionary development will be, for the first time in human history, in our own hands — catalyzed by our own agency, with our own ‘blueprints’, at our own pace. In short, self-optimisation, albeit accelerated. I would argue these principles go to the heart of this line in your poem: ‘Science is supposed to support human existence’. Agreed; in these self-optimising ways to alter what defines us, science will do precisely that. Yet, it’s more than only science, as critically indispensable as the science and technology are; it’s also ethics, the nature of being, sociology, governance, rights and responsibilities, and more. You refer to an imaginary ‘GM god’; beyond such imaginary illusion, ‘GM people’ will be very real.

docmartincohen said...

Is Keith something of an evangelist on genetic engineering matters? "our evolutionary development will be, for the first time in human history, in our own hands — catalyzed by our own agency, with our own ‘blueprints’, at our own pace." But if so, I side with what I understand to be Chengde's doubts in the poem. A few years back, people announced that the whole human genome was 'decoded' - but it was never true. In fact, the purpose and function of most human DNA remains an impenatrable mystery. A change to a gene say, associated with hair colour could have other effects... unexpected and unwelcome.

Keith said...

Thank you, Martin, for commenting and raising concerns. I would offer, however, that geneticists are themselves acting responsibly in favouring caution as they nudge the margins of their field. Although this is a larger conversation, let me briefly comment on two points you bring up:

‘A few years back, people announced that the whole human genome was ‘decoded — but it was never true.’ Surely genetics is not the only field of study in human history that might have made a statement, here and there, whose veracity could be challenged, requiring reconsideration and recalibration, or even a shift in hypotheses. To my mind, the question about a field’s credibility is not so much about the absolute precision of any single claim — otherwise, I suggest, we’d have to discard every field of study and every bold human undertaking. Rather, the question is more about whether overall, in the very long term, the field is doing good work, informs, and offers to serve long-term human interests. I would argue that genetics fits comfortably among the latter: part of the irresistible forward march of human knowledge. Certainly, society will engage in difficult debates along the way, but ‘along the way’ are arguably the operative words here.

‘[T]he purpose and function of most human DNA remains an impenetrable mystery’. Human DNA does of course still pose mysteries — understandable and normal and willingly recognized by geneticists themselves, given the early stage of interventionism. But arguably the mysteries that scientists acknowledge won’t prove ‘impenetrable’ eternally; they’re probably surmountable. Geneticists will gradually peel back the onion, and in so doing, allow light to shine on what may not now be fully understood. As geneticists push forward and accomplish that, the risks of genetic manipulation will scale back, even if slowly — just as they were in the earliest stages of preventative and curative genetic therapies associated with life-declining diseases. That onion still needs further peeling, to get to next steps: advances in human development itself, as the science and the technology and the vision and the debate make gains.

I see that less as ‘evangelism’ than curiosity about the possible promise. To paraphrase Chengde, science in support of human existence.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Do we not find a problem here, in principle? 'Messing up one sequence could throw the whole system into chaos.' Yet is this not what we did long ago, when we introduced the stethoscope, telescope, and microscope (and so on), modifications which defied 'all historical conditions of nature'? We opened windows to a new reality which, one might argue, we were never meant to know. May not this have precipitated the overwhelming crises of the present day?

Keith said...

‘[W]e introduced the stethoscope, telescope, and microscope (and so on), modifications which defied all historical conditions of nature’.

The objection, Thomas, seems to be that tool making — the stethoscope, telescope, and microscope being your examples of tools — are infringements on the natural order of things (on the ‘conditions of nature’). To unwind human development — here, took making — back in time, it seems that, by logical extension, humankind would have had to stay ensconced in caves. Not permitted, even, to learn to build fires, invent the wheel, shape flint and bone tools, whittle hunting spears, form crude hammers, shape axes, form scrapers, and so forth.

As to my own bias, I’d rather take my chances with the products of many-millennia-long human tool making — the ‘stethoscope, telescope, and microscope’, along with the innumerable other tools and inventions mankind has developed, including, yes, today’s gene therapies to prevent or cure a range of virulent diseases — than the alternative. I feel humankind lives better — along all kinds of myriad dimensions — than our hairier predecessors, when surely Hobbes’s vision of life as ‘poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ undoubtedly applied in spades.

Keith said...

As to ‘We opened windows to a new reality which . . . we were never meant to know’, I do find the proposition interesting, Thomas, but one that’s based more in theology. Therefore, other than to comment that I find it hard to believe humankind was never intended to inquire about, develop, and apply knowledge and understanding — for purposes of both theory and utility — there’s really not a whole lot I can say. For me, the proposition hints at some kind of divine injunction. As a theological matter, the idea about ‘never [being] meant to know’ is, I suggest, neither provable nor disprovable. I suspect it’s more an aspect of faith than a probe into questions like what can we know, what can’t we know, what do we actually know, what do we think we know, how do we know it, and with what certainty do we know it?

docmartincohen said...

Of course, I agree Keith that genetic engineering 'could' be very useful, even if its usefulness is being overstated now. However, it could in the same speculative sense also be very terrible - and so we might ask whyrush to embrace this unknown? I appreciate people hae long feared new technologies, though.. and they do seem to come whether we think them useful, or safe - or dangerous.

Chengde Chen said...

Dear Keith, thank you for the interesting comments, as always. Yes, science is supposed to support human existence, but it could destroy human existence as well, not as romantic as peering onions forever. In this sense, the idea of “GM people” is way too idealistic about science and technology. I trust you would admit that technology since the 20th century has reached the possibility of destroying civilization as a whole, whether it is through nuclear technology, or genetic engineering, or artificial intelligence, or space travel, etc. With such possibilities, given time, the probability of the self-destruction increases, which will eventually become reality, one way or another. I once called it “Car-crash theory” – a driver will inevitably be killed by a car-crash if he drives long enough (Murphy’s Law). The technological civilization is such a car. As for the current worrying situation, people don’t know where the new coronavirus will lead to, but human history of surviving previous pandemics doesn’t mean we can survive this one. Self-optimised GM people sounds fascinating, but we should remember that, among various games played by science, some are more dangerous than others. The linear understanding of history – because we have played safely in the past, we can keep playing safely into future – is dangerously naive. The game of GE played on this direction has threatened human existence: to gain medical benefits by dismantling the species barriers is self-disarming to the bone, or tying oneself up to WMD. However, I’ve written another piece regarding the conspiracy theory: if the virus is man-made.

docmartincohen said...

"I’ve written another piece regarding the conspiracy theory: if the virus is man-made" Do you mean another poem, Chengde? Or is it something we could see as a post maybe?

Chengde Chen said...

Yes, another poem for Pi, but not completed yet.

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