On a BioLogos blog I recently mentioned, in passing, the increasing resistance to the herbicide Roundup in association with GM maize in the US (public protest has, so far, effectively banned GM crops over here in the UK). A respondent criticised me on the grounds that maize has been under genetic modification by selective breeding for millennia. And that’s true, but exposes an important, maybe deadly, practical division between those who buy into the Neodarwinian synthesis and those who don’t.
Critics of ND have pointed out for well over a century that there are boundaries to selective breeding. Put baldly, nobody has ever bred a new species. You’ll know that Origin of Species depended heavily on the analogy of selective breeding, arguing that natural selection, continued for long enough, could achieve all the variety of life. Livestock breeders have always wished that were true, because they inevitably come up against a glass ceiling to change.
The arguments for GM as a mass-technology are very firmly based on classical (ie completely outdated) 1 gene = 1 protein precepts, combined with faith in the ability of mutations to produce any change over time. So inserting a modified gene into maize is, it’s argued, simply doing what nature would probably do in the end anyway. It’s as natural as any farming.
But I’ve come across two worrying arguments against that this week. The first is ID writer David Tyler’s review of an extremely interesting article on systems biology and its challenge to the “central dogma” of evolutionary theory. Both Tyler’s piece and the free article he cites are worth reading. The original paper is on cardiology, but Tyler makes a broader point:
[T]here are serious concerns about the whole of GM food research because the science shows no signs of being informed by any systems thinking.
The second is a direct reference to Roundup in James Shapiro’s blog. His post is about horizontal gene transfer, and in the comments he both links to a number of articles on the GM problem in America, and comments that although researchers deny HGT is involved in herbicide resistance, this would be surprising given that ideal conditions have been created for it to occur. I would take such a senior biologist’s opinion very seriously, but as I have said, GM is (a) a commercial enterprise and (b) firmly imbued with ND thinking. Heretics like Tyler or Shapiro are merely crying wolf when the assured results of science can feed the world for a vast profit a relatively small outlay. And there are always other pesticides and herbicides left to spray about if one of them fails.
I’ve been re-reading Alaster McGrath’s book The Re-Enchantment of Nature and find that he, like me, has noticed the power of the Prometheus myth in modern science. Fire is there to be stolen … Pandora’s box is there to be opened. Nature is an “it” to be manipulated, not a “thou” to be engaged with.
But of course, like fire, nature can also bite back.