Here’s another set of contrasts. In my last post I looked at the mindless inefficiency of neutral-theory evolution and junk DNA in juxtaposition with the wonder of one particular group of organisms, the raptors. But one might also contrast them with the intelligent and rational actions of the human beings who have discovered, and applied, these “undeniable truths”.
Take those vultures that play such a vital role in the environments they inhabit. That role is under threat, because vultures are under severe pressure as a group worldwide. Some of that is due to persecution as “dirty” birds (though they wash several times a day), or to serve the spurious purposes of witch doctors. That’s just ignorance. Some is an unforeseen effect of science-based legislation: the EU’s insistence on burning livestock carcases has seriously damaged European vulture populations, which may well encourage an infectious disease reservoir in the wildlife ecology.
But in India millions of vultures have died in the last ten years because scientists produced diclofenac, which is widely fed to inbred cattle for their joint problems and kills vultures in a day or so when they eat the carcases. It’s a tragic overturning of a natural public-health system that has operated successfully for millions of years. In contrast our own answer to bacterial diseases, antibiotics, have been rendered largely useless in a little over half a century because we were massively wrong about how bacterial genetics works.
I suppose when Fleming discovered penicillin genetics was in its infancy. But when genetically modified crops were introduced 20 years ago, it was in the confidence of half a century of familiarity with DNA, to which the human genome project would subsequently, they thought, only add icing. In this country, those who opposed GM were compared with the worst type of antiscientific Luddite. This was the technology to feed the world.
But today BBC news carried an item about the scourge of herbicide-resistant weeds in the USA as a result of GM farming, leading to the need for complex, risky and expensive new weedkiller regimes. When one considers the new science of HGT, epigenetics, targeted mutations in response to biological stress and so on, it’s surprising things aren’t a lot worse. But maybe it’s just a question of time before they are.
I guess it’s the early days of our ascendancy over the error-ridden and directionless processes of evolution. Cloning animals messed up because we had no idea at all about the epigenome’s role. But we know all about it now, so we’re in a good position to engage in gene-substitution IVF, new targeted drugs for common diseases, bigger and better GM crop projects and even, perhaps, transhumanism experiments.
What’s to go wrong? After all, we can plan carefully whereas evolution has always muddled along mindlessly. What does it have to show for a few billion years of short-termism? What has natural evolution ever done for us, apart from leaving us a few smelly vultures to eradicate?