It’s as clear in my mind as if it had happened yesterday. The conversation was with a skilled biologist I had just met, someone who would become a close friend. Without prompting, I offered a prediction. “I don’t think the environment will get us,” I said. “I think it will be a bug.”
Said my new friend, “I agree. It will be a bug.” We were not talking about insects. The discussion was about microbes, infectious disease that could wipe us out directly or wipe out the food supply.
It wasn’t that much of a stretch. There have been a lot of new diseases that have popped up in the last few decades, and some are pretty gruesome. Some have been known for awhile but have only recently made their jump to humans. Others have come (and in some cases apparently gone) entirely by surprise. Still others appear to have mutated, becoming harmful where once they were harmless.
Each year we worry lest a newly mutated influenza virus result in a pandemic that kills more than the usual 40,000 or so people who die in the U.S. of the flu each year.
Then, about 10 days ago, I saw a little Associated Press feature story that is as terrifying as anything I’ve read in a long time: “SAN FRANCISCO – The Apple computer was invented in a garage. Same with the Google search engine. Now, tinkerers are working at home with the basic building blocks of life itself.
“Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge available online, these hobbyists are trying to create new life forms through genetic engineering — a field long dominated by Ph.D.s toiling in university and corporate laboratories.”
Ponder that for a minute. Let it roll around in your mind.
People are sitting in their home laboratories, cooking up whole new organisms, or at least trying to do so. They are doing this entirely on their own. The ones interviewed for the story claim to have good intentions.
You remember, those things that pave the road to Hell.
Let’s imagine: some good-hearted person decides that it might be good to cook up a bacterium that digests petroleum, to clean up beaches after an oil spill. Perhaps this well-meaning individual chooses to work with an existing organism that easily mutates — might make sense, in that it could make the genetic engineering job easier. He turns it loose on some beach. It eats the oil. But it finds that it likes other kinds of fat, or mutates into a bug that does. Go to the beach, get a scratch, and you have more of a diet plan than you bargained for.
This sort of thing isn’t, after all, unheard of. Remember the Asian ladybugs that were supposed to eat the aphids on soybeans? If not, check the corners of any midwestern ceiling. Tens of thousands of them infest typical homes each winter in many states. And those were turned loose by people who were thought to have known what they were doing, using an organism that reproduces a lot more slowly than most microbes do.
The philosopher James Burnham observed that it is impossible to do just one thing. By that he meant that when you do something, you might achieve the intended goal, but there will always be unintended consequences, too. The good-hearted environmentalist seeking to clean up beaches might set it free without having come up with a way to kill the thing.
And that assumes good intentions. Anyone familiar with computers knows that there are a lot of people in the world writing computer viruses and other cyber infections solely in hope of causing destruction — and some have done well in achieving their goal. There is, alas, a movement which thinks that “saving the planet” requires the extinction of the human race. And the word “bioterrorism” is scarcely new to us.
Now, lest you put on a rubber suit and face mask before venturing outside, it’s important to note that home-brew genetic engineering isn’t easy. Most mutations, even in the laboratory, end up being fatal to the organism involved.
But people learn. They learn from their mistakes, at least until they make the mistake that kills them. The expertise of genetic engineering is growing and is readily available. What seems unlikely today may be common tomorrow.
The most frightening aspect, I guess, is that there’s nothing that can be done about it. New laws or “controls”, whatever those are, probably won’t change much.
The Book of Genesis has Adam and Eve being cast from the Garden of Eden after eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Whether that is literally true is a matter of faith. Whether it is a powerful warning is another matter.
Some say the Mayan calendar placed the end of the world at 2012.
After reading the Associated Press story it seems to me that might be just about right.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.