Most of you who follow this blog regularly know that I recently founded the Andes Institute, our mission is, bringing together the arts, sciences and humanities to foster human knowledge, understanding and wisdom. We conduct seminars using the socratic method on subjects in the arts, sciences and humanities to foster a consilience or oneness in the quest for knowledge. Our main purpose is to make the sciences understandable to the layperson. This can not be done if science is conveyed separate from the arts and humanities.
Recently I led a seminar on genetically modified organisms(GMOs). There has been much hype and some rational discussion about GMOs. The internet is full of horror stories about how GMO’s will lead to the end of civilization at worst and poison the environment and forever ruin agriculture at least. Claims by GMO proponents speak of how developing nations and poor people have been helped as a result of genetically modified crops. As human beings are inclined to do, people have divided themselves into opposing camps flinging slings and arrows at one another. The general population, however, hasn’t a clue as to how to determine what is hype and what is fact. One journalist, Nathanael Johnson, has attempted in this series of articles, Panic Free GMOs, to present a balanced and objective presentation of the subject.
At the Andes Institute, we provide objective, science and fact based information so that people can make informed decisions and formulate their own opinions absent wild emotionally based claims that often use scare tactics on both sides of the issue. One side says the environment will be ruined, the other side says developing nations and the poor will starve.
Except in a few rare cases, the vehicle that makes genetically modified plants and animals possible is never discussed. This despite the fact that that is where the real danger, if there is any, may lie. Genetic engineering, which uses a variety of techniques, is the scientific tool used to genetically modify organism. The techniques range from irradiating plants with UV light to get millions of mutations, some of which may be beneficial like drought resistance, to mind bogglingly complex molecular manipulation using iRNA or siRNA(see this video for a glimpse at how it is done: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cK-OGB1_ELE).
In general terms, genetic engineering involves the removal and or insertion of genes on the DNA or RNA strand that code for a particular protein(s). The protein(s) and its function are the object of the engineering. One of the greatest breakthroughs with important medical application was the ability to genetically engineer the mass production of insulin for the treatment of type 1 diabetes. After scientists discovered the genetic code that produces insulin, they were able to snip out that section of genetic code from a strand of DNA and then reproduce many copies of that strand by inserting it into the genetic machinery of bacteria, which in turn produced the insulin protein.(see this video for picture of how it is done: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3925Pw-VwU).
The process described in the video, involving the snipping of a segment of DNA, its insertion into the plasmid(a circular strand of bacterial DNA) and the insertion of that strand into the bacteria, can be generalized and used for a very wide variety of genetic engineering processes, such as genetically modifying plants. If you have watched the video, you may have even heard that genetically modified lab animals can also be produced. These animals are most often used to produce traits that mimic diseases that scientists wish to study. And herein lies the deepest concern about inadvertently creating some kind of “monster” in the lab, or genetic material that could get into the human population and spread disease.
These are very legitimate concerns and most if not all laboratories take extreme precautions to prevent biohazards from escaping their labs. Still genetic engineering is not without its risks. However, just as there is a risk associated with flying, and common surgical procedures these risks are mitigated by proper protocols in laboratories and proper aircraft maintenance and pilot training respectively.
One of the important things we attempt to convey to those attending our seminars and to the readers of this blog, is that one must take responsibility for seeking out the facts and the truth of a matter as best that one can. I like to say, I don’t care what your point of view may be on a particular subject, however if I ask you why you hold that point of view I expect a rational and coherent answer based in scientific principles and facts that a reasonable person can understand. I don’t want to hear, “well I read it on the internet.” It’s not wrong in and of itself to get information from the internet, it is the original source that is important.
Continuing our example, if you get information from the internet on genetic engineering, you must ask yourself what is the source. Is the source a conspiracy blog, or is it from a reputable, peer reviewed journal. At the Andes Institute we will always provide our readers and those attending our seminars with as many references as possible, representing diverse points of view. Not all scientists agree on the efficacy and safety of genetic engineering for example. What they do agree on, however, is rational discourse based on the science.
One of the readings that we may include in our week long seminars beginning in the spring of 2015 is Rachel Carson’s, Silent Spring. In her book Carson is deliberate and disciplined in her criticism of the chemical and agricultural industries pollution of the environment. Though co-opted by many environmentalists as an anti pesticide advocate, Carson made it clear she was for the wise use of technology. She did not advocate throwing out the baby with the bath water, which is what made her arguments so powerful. In her own words: “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge.”
In other words Carson is an example we should all follow. She used rational, disciplined arguments based on science to lead the charge to rid our environment of harmful pesticides and get them out of the hands of people ignorant of how to use them and of their poisonous effects. This should be contrasted with those who indiscriminately concoct horror stories and spread unsubstantiated rumors in a personal quest to be some sort of environmental savior.
There is much wrong with the world today and there are threats to civil society and to the natural world from many quarters. In order to eliminate these threats and protect our environment we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves, so like Carson, we can make forceful and rational arguments against forces that would seek to exploit the world until there is nothing left except the inevitable demise of the very creatures who exploited it.
We hope that you will support the efforts of the Andes Institute so that our own ignorance will not become the instrument of our destruction, rather that our enlightenment will be our salvation.
Categories: God and the Universe