Race Conditions: Bio-Engineering vs. Evolutionary Selection

The interdependencies of the natural world, entwined in complex ways, are disturbed by our current unsustainable practices. This is becoming increasingly clear in the field of bioengineering, where we try to outwit nature, which then does an end-run around our engineering ‘fix’. We see this race already underway in agricultural genetic engineering and in biomedical disease prevention.

Genetically modified (GM) crops and antibiotic drugs are human attempts to control natural processes. We expect nature to respond ‘Wow smart humans. You got me there. I will do your bidding.’ But nature has a powerful weapon in its arsenal, called natural selection. So it doesn’t have to quiesce in response to our bioengineering attacks. Rather, it modifies organisms to defeat our controls. These defeats happen relatively quickly in the human time frame.

Humans mistakenly fear GM crops as an unnatural and unsafe product having unknown adverse effects on human consumers. This is the typical anthropocentric thinking; ‘poor us’. But our first thoughts toward sustainability should be ‘poor them’, the birds and the bees. In the near term, genetic modification is unsafe for the natural environment to a far greater extent than it is unsafe for humans. (Of course, eventually, what is unsafe for environment will become fatal to us. But humans seldom take the long view.)

Genetic engineering to date has been focused on making food crops tolerate insecticides/herbicides, so our countryside can be inundated in poison and we can then grow/harvest edible food more easily. Thus the real fear for us in consuming GM crops should be the residual effects of poisons that we may ingest, poisons now tolerated by the plants, poisons that now kill as collateral damage any remaining nearby natural habitat essential to insects and birds. Our herbicides, from agent orange to roundup, are killing natural vegetation over large swaths, including the Monarch’s milkweed.

The natural plants, under intense selection pressure  from herbicide assaults, can become resistant to herbicides, as they have become to glyphosphates and 2,4-D. This spurs a race condition between chemical companies and plant evolution that will continually change plant genetics and soil toxicity in a disastrous cycle.

Similarly, we have stimulated a race between antibiotics and bacteria. Because of overuse of antibiotics in protecting livestock assets, and because of human incompetence in home administration of antibiotics, natural selection is creating resistant bacteria, our new super bugs for which we will have no defense. In both instances of bioengineering, our meddling never provides more than a briefest period of advantage before evolution slams the door on us. Our efforts leave our situation essentially unchanged, but leave us a poorer quality biosphere with which to support all of us.

Perhaps science will eventually outsmart evolution. But currently, we grow biologically poorer every generation as a species, clueless in our myopia, in each leg of the race falling further behind.

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