Before us, pre-human creatures roamed the earth. For the best part of one million years these creatures used simple, unchanging, stone tools (1). Apparently, the thought of improving those crude instruments never crossed their minds; they were like birds building nests, having just an instinctive impulse to make something that was useful to them. At some point however, a divine spark lighted up a wildfire in the brains of those yet-not-quite-human beings; at that point, cultural evolution and modern humans were born. Humans are different from all animals because they have cultural evolution (2). Once it started, tools improved rapidly; throwing spears were created; cave art developed; we set off to conquer the world. Beyond any Hegelian myth, cultural evolution has always pushed humans forward: Palaeolithic hunting gathering was replaced by Neolithic farming; the Bronze Age superseded the Neolithic Age, and the Iron Age displaced Bronze; each step guided by cultural evolution.
When humans created agriculture 10,000 years ago, they were not copying nature; they were consciously improving it. All our main crops are man-made (3). Humans created wheat, corn, and rice. Those crops didn’t exist before; distantly similar plants existed but wheat, corn, and rice -the triad that allowed the rise of civilisation- were man-made. Authors have fancied that primitive humans disliked farming because it was unnatural and that they would have preferred to remain nomads (1, 4). Primitives thought that the new crops were dangerous, unnatural and even offensive to Mother Earth. In those old days however, without nanny-states, without well-paid white-collar jobs, without glorified pseudo-literacy, in a time when -according to Hobbes- it was “war of all against all” lovers of old ways were out-competed and driven to extinction by our ancestors. It’s evolution, baby.
Darwin was not the first to talk about evolution by natural selection. But when he published his Origin of Species the theory was ripe and many educated individuals were ready to accept it. The readiness to accept the new theory was also due to evolution, not biological but cultural evolution.
There have always been spirits opposed to progress. Even in Darwin’s time some people protested against the expanding railways. Scaremongers warned that the human body could not withstand velocities of 20 mph (5). Others predicted that Hell would break lose, with criminals travelling all over the place. Landowners claimed railways would ruin the countryside. Even worst: money-grubbing corporations wanted to make money out of that abomination -Hypocrites sneering at companies involved in the conscious pursuit of wealth seldom renounce to their own inheritance of family wealth and privileges or consider it money-grubbing.
Evolution doesn’t go backwards. Like our ancestors 10,000 years ago we need to move forward, tackling new problems: desertification, salinisation, growing population, new pests. Like our ancestors we can cleverly and safely improve our crops. The anti-GM campaigners of today are anti-farmers of days past. If you are reading this -and more generally if you exist- it is likely because you are lucky enough to have had ancestors that didn’t listen to them. Since Darwin’s time we have defeated many mortal -and previously common- diseases, trebled our life expectancy, and invented effective pain killers. Pain is natural, yet it is bad; a life expectancy of 25 years is natural, yet it is bad; tuberculosis is natural, yet it is bad. Who will say that all natural things are good and all man-made solutions bad? Stupidity is natural, yet it is bad. Do not fall for empty slogans and scaremongering. Challenge the slogans of anti-GM campaigners* and you will find that -at best- most of them haven’t got a clue. Find out (here or elsewhere) how GMOs are made; it is not witchcraft; it is not heresy. There is no need for 16th century mob-style torching of scientists at the stake.
Genetical engineering cleverly and safely makes the same thing that our ancestors did by try and error 10,000 years ago. We have much better quality controls these days; in fact they didn’t have any. Before aeronautical engineering, crossing the Atlantic would have taken weeks of sailing; now it takes hours. There is nothing natural in humans flying -or sailing for that matter- and there are some risks. But we happily use airplanes because it is fast, convenient and generally very safe. What is unnatural? Genetical engineering uses biological tools and knowledge to make things faster and better. The drive to improve nature is natural in humans. Opposing new things for lack of knowledge or just because they are new is unnatural. Trying to go backward instead of forward is contrary to human instincts of progress and change; it is unnatural. Do not be tempted by the myth of the natural and noble savage. Without civilisation and the science that supports it, life would be hard and brutish, short and full of hunger and pain. Science is good. Trying to improve nature is natural.
Genetically modified organisms will ultimately gain universal acceptance because they are an expression of human evolution -like trains or vaccines. Like early trains and vaccines some GMOs may have down sides; these will be swiftly dealt with. It’s evolution. Let’s do the evolution.
1 – Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors; Nicholas Wade, 2007.
2 – Science Vol. 340 p929; Simon & Ridley, 2013
3 – Annu. Rev. Genet. Vol. 33 p1–27; Robert Allard, 1999.
4 – Asimov’s Guide to the Bible Vol.1: The Old Testament; Isaac Asimov, 1967
5 – Railway: Identity, Design and Culture; Keith Lovegrove, 2005