Take the Flour Back to the Future?

It’s often said by atheists something along the lines of “science flies us to the Moon, religion flies us into buildings”. In truth, the aircraft that crashed into the World Trade Center were a triumph of the application of science, and religious fanatics, while deprecating what they call the scientific /atheist worldview, have no compunction when using the fruits of scientific endeavour to further their own beliefs, when it suits. If Mohammed Atta had simply wished the WTC to collapse, or punched it, it would still be there, and he wouldn’t.

But what this does show is that applied science can be used to do great harm as well as great good. This isn’t really an issue. Science has given us sophisticated and devastating weaponry, it has facilitated communication among paedophiles as well as the general population, it has allowed “Big Brother” to watch us.

Gun advocates in the US rightly point out that it is the human relationship with science, not the science itself, that poses the greater danger. More people are killed in road accidents – even in the US – than are shot dead, and this isn’t generally held to be an argument against cars. Nevertheless, the feeling persists among some that in some respects science is leading us down a path that can only hurt us as humans. In this view, science changes things that are better left unchanged. If science exposes truths it sometimes does so against our human interest and therefore should be curtailed.

Personally, if I was a US citizen I would favour more and more effective gun control (on Peter Singer’s principle of equal consideration of interests grounds), but that’s by-the-by. Supposing that no guns were on sale in the US, that wouldn’t “uninvent” the gun. Similarly, it would be impossible to uninvent the hydrogen bomb, and in any case, the hydrogen bomb is only making use of scientific truth which would exist with or without anyone to make a bomb out of it. But would be we better off not knowing about something, as opposed to not making use of it?

The view of science, and scientific knowledge, as being opposed to our view of human interest, is a persistent one. It is a Hollywood staple, especially in the science fiction genre. A good science fiction story has messages that relate to the human condition as it is now, and Planet of the Apes, the Terminator and Robocop, for example, do this very well, and this goes back to Frankenstein. Basically, the message of all three movie series is that if we aren’t careful, science – and by extension, scientific knowledge – could be, if not regulated, used to the detriment of civilisation. And as humans, the feeling also persists that we shouldn’t be “playing God” – we shouldn’t be getting involved in things that only God has the answer to.

The last week in the UK has seen science v. human interest again. Several years ago there was a tabloid-fuelled controversy over genetically-modified (GM) foods, and this has again been in the news. A group called Take the Flour Back (TFB) has deemed it fit to protest against GM wheat experiments, to the point that they threatened to irreparably damage the experiments. At taxpayer expense the police were called in and no damage took place.

Essentially a scientific organisation called Rothamsted Research has by genetic engineering introduced a strain of wheat that produces pheromones that repel aphids – a major pest for wheat crops – and attracts other insects that prey upon them. We could say that this wheat is a result of artificial selection, as, although I’m not an expert on genetic modification by any means, the introduction of a modified or new gene in the wheat mimics a genetic mutation. Now the wheat that we harvest today, as well as other cereal and vegetable crops, and livestock, are already the result of artificial selection. And artificial selection is but a human-influenced variant of natural selection. The genetically-modified wheat can only be understood in terms of natural selection i.e. evolutionary theory. The genetic changes come from other plants such as mint which already repel aphids using the same method. I’m not sure about the exact science here – whether a mutation or series of mutations or copying of genes has formed the basis of the experiment, but it’s clear enough that, as the relevant part of the genome comes from other existing plants then it’s possible, albeit with an extremely small chance in the short-term, that the wheat could have developed this resistance itself. It is a synthetic, but natural, change.

Resistance to aphid infestation can only be a good thing. This is a change that, if it works, will save lives in one way or another. TFB are right to express scepticism in some respects. The history of interfering with nature is not on the whole a happy one. In particular, the introduction of new species, either deliberately or accidentally, into an ecosystem, has rarely been to the benefit of that ecosystem. Recently we have had news of snakes in the US Pacific island of Guam, accidentally introduced, that have had a devastating effect on the indigenous wildlife of the island. And Australia has over the last 200 years become an ecological nightmare in the wake of planned introductions of sheep, rabbits and toads. On the other hand, a recent BBC Horizon programme detailed the detrimental effect to flora of  removing wolves from Yellowstone National Park in the US.

Wolves are now being reintroduced, albeit that this policy is not unopposed. Time will tell if it is a success, as things have changed somewhat since the last wolves left. However, if nothing else we have gained in not only the specific scientific knowledge related to any changes but knowledge that such changes can have unforeseen affects, even if we don’t know what those affects are. So it is with aphid-resistant wheat. Previous attempts to eradicate aphids by chemical means – which is not natural – have affected ladybird populations very badly, and this undoubtedly would have further repercussions up the chain. By utilising natural genetic changes to repel aphids it will have the affect of moving them elsewhere. This could be bad news for gardeners but will not discourage ladybirds to the same extent.

It is way too early to say what the overall effect of such genetic changes will be. TFB have taken the wrong approach entirely, and they should be helping the research, if anything, instead of blindly destroying, or attempting to destroy, what is potentially useful scientific knowledge.

And this is the part that most concerns me. On the whole, scientific knowledge has been of enormous benefit to us all. And when I speak of scientific knowledge I’m referring to the scientific method, which broadly refers to the “systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses“, and extends well beyond men in white coats brandishing test tubes. Indeed, all worthwhile knowledge can be viewed as scientific knowledge given the broadest definition of science – if scientism is an adherence to the quote from wiki above then count me among its advocates.

Our language is corrupted. On the one hand religion and morality are seen as inseparable, when this is far from the case. On the other, there is a major distrust of science when, using that broad definition, it has given us all the knowledge we currently have that is of any use, and this includes ethics. Groups like TFB have succumbed to this distrust and can be seen as anti-knowledge and therefore anti-truth. As humans we must realise that our future on Earth depends on our making the best use of whatever information we have, and that denial or suppression of that information, even if some of that information is harmful, will rarely help us, if at all.

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