It does not compute #2

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?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to It does not compute #2

  1. GD GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    You have touched on an extremely important point – that we human beings are very good meddlers who cannot (or will not) understand the consequences of our meddling with Nature. My view is that what we call progress will need to be re-evaluated; this may require a very broad change in human understanding, and would include chanegs in theological, scientific and political outlooks (how is that for broad!)

    One additional point I want to raise with you because it points to some irony in all of this. Recently the Economist ran a worldwide survey on the most significant advance or contribution made (by science/technology) to this planet. The large majority (correctly) identified food production through use of scientific methods/advances. It is possible to show that population growth is such, that without the advaces of chemistry, engineering and agriculture, the portion of humanity that would have starved is staggering. With that would come wars, desease, political upheavels that would threaten the stability and future of humanity and the planet.

    Reminds me of portions of Revelations.

    It is also ironic that evolutionists appear to be divided accross a wide spectrum – from one extreme, those who would save species and care for the planet, to the other extreme (such as Davis and perhaps Singer) who say human knowledge should be used to bring about the next ‘step-up’ to the evolution of superior human beings. Scary stuff!

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi GD, and welcome to the Hump.

    As long as I can remember, the stereotype of the brave scientist pushing back the frontiers of ignorance has been balanced by the stereotype of the Luddite saying “Fie on your devilish experiments!”

    But there is some truth in the cavalier attitude of the first, and it’s based on the overconfidence man has in his own abilities to create his world, or even to recreate himself, matched by either a denial of God or a downgrading of his wisdom to being just one step ahead of ours. Of course, one’s latest science always puts one one step ahead of God: our understanding of nuclear fission/bacteria/genetics will give us endless clean energy/eradicate disease/tidy up God’s genetic errors.

    It’s the religion of Bacon (think God’s thought after him until you’re a bit ahead of him), which was the Prometheus story that became the foundation myth of the Renaissance – but that’s another story.

    Similarly the need for scientific food production in order to cope with large populations is balanced by the role of science in first creating them.

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