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In Praise of (Genetic) Engineering

October 7, 1999

CNN and other news
organizations are reporting that
eggs, among other natural foods, can now be reengineered so as to
remove all their harmful attributes, but also that polls show most folks proclaim
that they will not touch a genetically engineered food item.

Is the idea of genetic engineering too weird to contemplate? We will be eating
stuff that doesn't grow "naturally" but is the product of elaborate
and complicated chemical, biological, and related manipulation?
Most of us are scared of our VCRs, not to mention food that's the
creation of white-coated researchers in totally artificial environments.

The truth is that we have been enjoying engineered living since the first human put on the first loin cloth and sandal. Brushing your teeth is artificial, as is wearing
a watch or under shorts, never mind false teeth and make-up. Headache
remedies are all products of engineering. Just look around you and you
cannot miss it: we have lived pretty long and increasingly well because
human minds have manipulated the raw stuff of nature to achieve some
goals otherwise unattainable--like fighting cancer or other
debilitating diseases.

Sure, there are dangers in all this, but consider how much
longevity has improved over the last century. Indeed, it is a defining element
of human life that we have to create the best ways for us to survive
and flourish. We, alone, lack instincts so as to guide us to a
successful life. Other animals have them in spades. They "know" when
to fly south for the winter or how to swim or feed their offspring.

Human beings must learn all of what they need except perhaps suckling
in the first few weeks of their lives. And the way this is evident to
anyone at all is by simply reflecting on how many of us fail to learn
much of what makes for a successful life.

In other words, human beings are free to fail or to succeed and the
difference lies in whether they use their minds inventively,
creatively, to turn nature to their advantage. Never mind the ravings
of Jeremy Rifkin and other Luddites--they, too, survive on the
creative, innovative efforts of centuries of humanity, even as they bad
mouth such efforts in every forum they can reach.

Actually, to be utterly candid, I find nothing offensive about
cloning, even cloning human beings. Why? This is no more
playing God than to having a blood transfusion or, for that matter, to
drinking pasteurized milk, or wearing a hat. Which isn't at all to say that
nothing could go wrong with such innovations and with the more recent
ingenious engineering. But things can go very, very wrong without any
of that as well.

Try living in a tree, naturally; you might fall off and break your neck, naturally. Or step on red ant
hills or walk
into bee hives. Drowning is another example of meeting one's demise
naturally. And all you need is use your own imagination and memories
to think of millions of other examples where artifacts play no role in
leading to disaster. Earthquakes come to mind, which are, by the way,
combated not naturally but via high tech engineered construction.

Let me add yet another shocking idea. Much of the belly aching about
how human beings are ruining nature is predicated on the notion that
what human beings produce is not part of nature. Well, it is not
part of nature without human life on it. But once we arrived, the
wheel, the stove, the hair dryer and, yes, housing developments all become
part of nature. In all
this we can do things well or badly and are responsible to discover the
difference. But wholesale dismissal of human "interference" in nature
is ridiculous, even if given much voice in the media.

* * * * *

TIBOR R. MACHAN teaches ethics at
Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute.


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