Much has been made—and rightly so—of the constant push to genetically modify this or that. Our food is the most common target: the seeds from which it is born, the offspring from which it is raised. A recent article even touched on the future of beef—edible beef—sans the need for any kind of genealogy, grown instead in a petri dish. Monsanto is famously infamous for genetically modified soybeans and corn, but even this short list of GMOs (from Monsanto and others, and including not only corn and soybeans, but sugar beets and papaya) tells us that such apparently infinitesimal tinkering is (and is becoming) far more common than we think.
Monsanto’s latest brainstorm is still another genetically modified soybean, this one developed (with BASF) in response to “an explosion of crop-choking weeds around the U.S. that have become resistant” to the most recent round of Round-up, Monsanto’s best-selling herbicide. The weeds, it seems are smarter—and faster—than our best scientists.
I never much liked Edgar Allan Poe. I find him overly rococo. For sheer horror, built from natural human responses and events, give me Nathaniel Hawthorne any day.
Hawthorne isn’t a name that leaps to mind when thinking of horror, but that deserves to change. Hawthorne regularly dipped his toes into gothic waters, particularly in his short story oeuvre. Tales as popular as “Young Goodman Brown” live side by side with lesser-known (but still wonderful) works such as “Lady Eleanor’s Mantle” (which could give Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” a solid run for its money) and “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment.”
What strikes me most about Hawthorne—and what made him scarily prescient—is the way he wrote about science and its obsession with changing the natural order of things. Exhibit A is the masterful tale “Rappacinni’s Daughter,” written about 1844. In it, our protagonist, one Giovanni Guasconti, arrives in Padua to study at the University there, and takes up run-down lodgings overlooking a beautiful garden, where he soon spots Beatrice, the daughter of the eponymous scientist—a man who has been (using our modern terms) genetically modifying organisms. Beatrice, born and raised in this environment, has had her own genetics modified. As with many cautionary tales of the times, such a use of science—by man in imitation of God—results in predictable tragedy.
We have very little sense of (or choose willfully to ignore) the unintended consequences inherent in our quest for answers, yet science plunges forward anyway, as if anything that comes of it can only be good. Regardless of how many times we are reminded that such is not true, still we learn little. And we’re playing with nature….
Many of us watch the GMO wars and fear becoming Rappacinni’s daughter, or perhaps worry that our children will, or that their children will. We fear that we, ourselves, will unwittingly become genetically modified organisms, much as Beatrice did. But if you’re afraid of what the science of genetic modification might do to you or your offspring or your offspring’s offspring, then you’re likely wasting your time.
We could all be gone by then.
The real war—and the real fears that go with it—are closer than you think, the harmful impacts potentially much greater and much more immediate.
We humans change relatively slowly, our cumbersome genetic responses dragged down by twenty-five-year generational cycles. We are surrounded by organisms, however, that evolve at rates much, much faster. The plant world, the insect world, and the microbial world—the worlds with which Monsanto and others are at war—are evolving in response to chemical attacks. We don’t need to worry so much about the chemical effects on us as we do about dying because of the rapid changes on this much smaller scale.
It's not just the florae—the ones schooling the scientists at Monsanto and BASF—that should worry us. They are not nearly as smart as the smaller still insect world. Just last fall it was reported that Monsanto’s carefully constructed anti-rootworm corn was now succumbing to… rootworm. You know how it works by now: the genetically modified corn resists the rootworm and the majority of the insect population—they live only on corn, after all—die off. But the few that remain, the resistant few, breed and survive. Rootworms lay eggs on annual cycles, and so it wasn’t that long before the resistant worms were comfortably feasting again. Likewise, too the Colorado potato beetle, which has developed resistance to more than fifty different compounds.
Smarter still are the microbes—and they’re why we should be frightened. You see, it’s not just about Monsanto and our food. It's about all chemicals designed to make our lives better. The pharmaceutical industry is essentially in the same business as Monsanto, attempting to perfect the use of science in developing protections against harm, and, like Monsanto, the health care industry now suffers the same constraints. So-called superbugs have become stronger in recent years: a 2013 report from the World Economic Forum shows an unprecedented rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or ARBs, with nearly 100,000 deaths reported in the United States alone.
We’re paying attention to the wrong GMOs; the real GMOs are the creatures adapting and surviving, the ones killing us.
It’s a war we’re losing, a war we can’t possibly win. We need to think differently. We need to be at war with the way we respond to what happens around us and to us. If we focus on wars with companies then we’re missing the picture. We must recognize that we live in a time where defeating is more important than coexisting, a dominion philosophy grown from socio-religious roots, a time where short-term profits produce short-term thinking without considering long-term consequences. The war needs to be with our culture, with ourselves, the part that says eat cheap and fast and take a pill for every ache and pain.
If we don’t change—if we don’t recognize that we can’t win a war that aims to dominate nature—then the result could very well be a Hawthornian future, one that makes the ending to “Rappacinni’s Daughter,” even more frightening. As Hawthorne writes near the close of the story, “And thus the poor victim of man's ingenuity and of thwarted nature, and of the fatality that attends all such efforts of perverted wisdom, perished there….”
Let it not be so.