Friday, August 8, 2008

Is it really so weird?

Some time ago I was walking with my assistant across the university campus where we work. My assistant is a woman in her early 30s, exceptionally intelligent (and smart, too), and working steadily on completing her postponed college degree. Someone walked by with an irresistibly cute dog so we stopped to pat it; the owner declared the dog to be a labradoodle, a newly established breed created by crossing a standard poodle with a labrador retriever. As we went on our way, my assistant harrumphed, expressing the feeling that it’s “just not right” and “weird” to make new animal types by mixing existing breeds. Though it almost sounded like it, I am sure the origin of this was not some unconscious feelings about miscegenation–she herself is in a mixed-race marriage and has children. So where does this discomfort come from? I reminded her that all domestic dog breeds arose from the manipulation of man, and only the manipulation of man. Compare baseline domesticated dogs to the chihuahuas, beagles, german shepherds, and great danes, not to mention labradoodles, that everyone is familiar with, and think about how they came to their unique characteristics, I urged.
The other morning there was a piece on NPR about genetically modified corn and other crops, and world-wide concerns about using engineered seed stocks because of the potential–or likelihood–that the DNA of natively-developed hybrids would become contaminated by the introduced varieties through cross-pollination. While there are very important issues swirling around still to be satisfactorily answered (such as genetic contamination not just of endemic cultivars, but of native wild plants), all other things aside, the genetic modifications clearly vastly improve the ratio of usable to unusable yield and in many cases (e.g., golden rice) also truly enhance the nutritive value of food products in areas of the world where it is most urgently needed.
After all, though, genetic modifications developed in sophisticated university and corporate laboratories are driven by the same needs and result in the same kinds of improvements corn- and other crop-growers achieved so very laboriously through the ages, only at speed that is like lightning in comparison, and with a priori aims defined with razor-sharp precision. See for more history of the pre-Columbian development of maize/corn, for instance.

I’m not a scientist, not even an amateur expert on such matters. But I do think keeping issues like genetic manipulation and hybridization, that seem to make people so nervous, in historical and geographical perspective would go a long way towards rational discussion and ultimately, expediting improvement of the human condition.

(Labradoodle image borrowed from Valley View Dogs, thank you.)

No comments:

Post a Comment