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In Praise of (Genetic) Engineering

Tags HealthMedia and CulturePhilosophy and Methodology

10/07/1999Tibor R. Machan

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

Tibor R. Machan (1939 - 2016) was a Hoover research fellow, Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, Auburn University, Alabama, and held the R. C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University.

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