THE DANGERS OF
GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOOD
Due to cross-pollination, altered DNA cannot always be confined to its target species and will spread into wild relatives and sometimes also into weeds. This can create significant problems. For example, genes inserted into food crops to make them herbicide-resistant can also get taken up by weeds, conferring such resistance on them as well and thereby creating new strains of super weeds.
The greatest danger is that the various effects are in large part irreversible. Once genetically altered organisms are released, they cannot be recalled. While chemicals such as DDT and thalidomide can be curtailed when they cause unpredicted damage, living organisms keep right on reproducing and migrating. If they begin to wreak havoc, it could be with us for a very long time. Accordingly, a report by The Union of Concerned Scientists (representing more than 90,000 members) has called for a moratorium on the commercial release of genetically engineered crops.
Reflecting on the "awesome irreversibility" of genetic engineering, the eminent biochemist Erwin Chargaff (often referred to as the father of molecular biology) has written, "I have the feeling that science has transgressed a barrier that should have remained inviolate."
2. From the Standpoint of Religion
Thus, many experts have concluded, from the perspective of science alone, that genetic engineering wrongly transgresses a fundamental barrier. From the perspective of religion, this conclusion is even more compelling. Most religions regard the world as undergirded by a purposeful intelligence. Further, although religious individuals have widely differing views on how the various forms of life developed (some believing the process was completed in six days and others believing it occurred through gradual evolution), they share a belief that the biosphere is not an accidental phenomenon but an intelligently organized system. They also recognize that species boundaries are an essential aspect of the system's structure. Most of these boundaries are fixed by natural constraints against crossbreeding. Throughout the plant and animal kingdoms, biological barriers prevent most species from interbreeding, even those that may seem closely related (like sheep and goats). From a religious perspective, because the system of life is purposeful, these restrictions so deeply ingrained within it must be essential to its integrity and balance - and ought to be respected.
Breaching the Natural Species Boundaries
But with the advent of genetic engineering, these inherent barriers are no longer impregnable. Researchers are not only mixing DNA between species of animals that are naturally prevented from crossbreeding, they are dissolving every biological boundary and are routinely transporting genes between animals, plants, bacteria and viruses.
This is a radical departure from all previous technology. While automobiles and airplanes have greatly expanded the parameters of human locomotion, they have not altered the basic categories of life. They are not living organisms. If one of their models causes trouble, its production can be stopped and existing units recalled. But genetically altered organisms have a life of their own. Once released, their further production cannot be halted, no matter how serious the damage they cause. Nor can their distribution be contained. If such organisms go awry, it will be like a case where factories have shifted to low-polluting automobiles but the existing high-pollution models are somehow able to continually (a) reproduce, (b) propel themselves throughout the nation, and (c) even induce many low-emission vehicles to transform into smog-spewers.
In defense of their venture, the promoters of genetic engineering claim it's essentially similar to traditional selective breeding. This claim is patently false. The traditional method relies on sexual reproduction through naturally available pathways whereas biotechnology employs genetic surgery to circumvent nature's reproductive barriers. While conventional practice combines genes from within one species (as in horse breeding) or between species that are closely related (like grapefruit and tangerines), genetic engineers routinely transpose DNA between species that are biologically distant, mating a moth gene with those of a potato, or splicing human genes into fish and pigs.
Because genetic engineering breaches nature's crossbreeding boundaries, its consequences are unlike those of traditional methods. To a large extent, traditional breeding does not introduce new genes into the organisms it modifies. Rather, it merely replaces one version of a particular gene with another version of that same gene. And when it does introduce new genes, they come from cosin-like species. In contrast, genetic engineering abruptly endows species with genes they've never had, genes that frequently derive from biologically distant forms. Research reveals that as DNA is transposed across these biological chasms, there tend to be unexpected and bizarre results--of a type that do not arise from traditional breeding.
Therefore, genetic engineering is a severe deviation from the time-tested techniques of selective breeding. To portray them as similar is misleading and scientifically untenable. Accordingly, Nobel laureate scientist George Wald, in warning of the dangers of genetic engineering, called it "the biggest break in nature that has occurred in human history."
Further, as a matter of secular science, many experts view the breach of the natural cross-breeding boundaries as not only unwise, but unconscionable. Their concern is poignantly expressed by the biochemist Erwin Chargaff, who implores: "Are we wise in getting ready to mix up what nature has kept apart...?" His own answer to this question is unequivocal: "I consider the attempt to interfere with the homeostasis of nature as an unthinkable crime." In the eyes of religion, the crime is compounded, since besides assaulting nature, it recklessly encroaches a domain that should be exclusive to God.
A Faulty Ideological Foundation
Not surprisingly, this attempt to manipulate the core categories of life rests on an assumption that's contrary to the core beliefs of most religions: an assumption that earth's vast and intricate system of life is essentially a random accident. In this view, organisms evolve through mindless mutation rather than purposeful plan, with every genetic change a blind re-shuffling of DNA. Accordingly, those changes that have proven adaptive are seen as inherently no better than those resulting in freaks. It's believed they survived only because of fortuitous external circumstance -- only because they by chance were better suited to the particular environment into which they emerged.
Within such a belief-system, genetic engineering appears as a promising advance since (theoretically) it marks the first time in geo-history that biological development has been precisely guided by self-conscious and purposeful intelligence. In this view, conscious control of the evolutionary process was nonexistent until man began to selectively breed plants and animals, and it's now reached a higher phase in which specific genes can be selected and biological boundaries transcended. From this perspective, endowing a plant with a gene that has hitherto been exclusive to a particular animal brings improvement to a largely haphazard system. It's an expansion of possibility that results from injecting intelligence into the evolutionary process.
From a religious standpoint, such thinking is erroneous, and its results are almost sure to be injurious. According to most religions, biological development has been continuously guided by purposeful intelligence from the outset, and life's a minutely managed, finely-tuned system. Within such a framework, genetic interventions are likely to act, not as improvements, but as major disruptions.
The fact that only one or two genes may be transposed in each instance does not mitigate the problem. Though a gene is microscopic, its effects are substantially macroscopic. Further, as noted, its influence on the behavior of other genes can be far-reaching. Also, because there's increasing evidence that the functioning of DNA is significantly influenced by the complexities of the cell itself, it's uncertain how a gene from one species will actually operate within a completely different cellular medium. From our limited level, we can't fathom the full effects of splicing even one gene into an organism where it's never belonged before.
3. Summary: Serious Flaws From Both Perspectives
Thus, genetically engineering our food is doubly dubious. First, science has identified many existent problems and potential risks, and prominent scientists have issued strong warnings. Second, the program contravenes basic principles of religion and is therefore quite likely to produce the worst case scenario envisioned by its scientist-critics.
Moreover, the program's underlying assumptions are questionable on scientific as well as religious grounds. As already discussed, the claim that genetic engineering is essentially an extension of traditional selective breeding is erroneous. Further, the assumption of an accidental biosphere is quite doubtful. Not only is it unproven that life has evolved through chance, scientists are increasingly recognizing how slim are the odds it could have. In the words of the eminent astronomer, Fred Hoyle: "As biochemists discover more and more about the awesome complexity of life, it is apparent that the chances of it originating by accident are so minute that they can be completely ruled out. Life cannot have arisen by chance." In this vein, Arthur Peacocke, an Oxford biochemist, has cautioned against the deification of chance; and a recent book by biochemist Michael Behe concludes that the system of life was designed by a higher intelligence. Even many scientists who still subscribe to the idea that life evolved through chance acknowledge it is not an established theory, and Nobel laureate Harold C. Urey candidly admits that while it's difficult to view life's complexity as the result of a blind evolutionary process, he believes in such a process "as an article of faith."
Clearly, the belief life developed through chance rests substantially more on faith than science, and there's good reason to think it results from purpose. Further, there are indications that purpose extends to the finest details. For instance, through use of population genetic models, scientists have demonstrated the crossbreeding barriers could not be results of natural selection, which strengthens the position they're formed through design. Moreover, not only have the barriers to gene exchange apparently developed nonrandomly, so have the genes themselves. According to molecular biologist Edward Simon of Purdue University: "... the best estimate for the time it takes to create a single gene by random processes approximates the age of the earth." Hence, he concludes: "... it is virtually impossible to envision gene creation ... as a chance process."
The foregoing discussion is not an argument for any particular model or explanation of the development of life. Rather, it shows that whatever the detailed mechanics of the process, the belief it's been comprehensively purposeful is far more aligned with the evidence than the notion it's an accident. In this light, genetic engineering appears even more antagonistic to nature's plan. If the structure of each gene is the product of purpose and not the child of chance, then neither tampering with that structure, nor transposing it into a foreign species, can be viewed as a minor manipulation-especially if the transposition thwarts a natural barrier against cross-species gene flow. Rather, such operations are major transgressions of the cosmic order.
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