Biotech, Red in Tooth and Claw (10/8/2006)

Great review. Excerpt: "Humility in the face of nature's complexity is not spiritualism. It is realism."

Biotech, Red in Tooth and Claw
Nathaniel C. Comfort
American Scientist online, September - October 2006

REVIEW: Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life. Lee M. Silver. xvi + 444 pp. HarperCollins, 2006. $26.95.

[Reviewer Information

Nathaniel C. Comfort is an associate professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock's Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control (Harvard University Press, 2001).]

The conflict between religion and science is one of the greatest stories ever told. It is a chivalric war, centuries old - a grand and ceremonious fight between two camps, each of which believes itself self-evidently on the side of right. With John William Draper's magisterial three-volume work of 1875, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, a canonical narrative began to emerge. In it, science, as the expression of reason, eroded the cultural power of religion, as the embodiment of superstition and dogmatism. Copernicus removed the Earth from the center of the cosmos. Darwin lowered man to the level of the animals and eliminated God from creation. And more recently, Watson and Crick opened the door to engineering life, turning us into God Himself.

The story contains a kernel of truth, but the history of science is more than the conquering of spiritual darkness by the light of reason. Both religion and science have mixed legacies; both have done harm as well as good. And both tend to be most dangerous when they become dogmatic and intolerant, and when they confuse faith with knowledge.

Strange to say, but Challenging Nature, a new book by Princeton molecular biologist Lee M. Silver, shows a Victorian perspective on science versus religion to be ideally suited to cheerleading for modern biotechnology and genomics. Silver uses the unreconstructed science-religion conflict as a foil for that old-time scientism: the belief that true knowledge can come only from natural science and that technology can therefore solve all social problems. So convinced is he that technology - especially biotechnology - is good for what ails us that he can see only one reason someone would disagree: Any opponents of biotechnology, he says, must be blinded by spirituality.

Other modern-day scientific fundamentalists, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, tend to confine themselves to particular debates, such as anti-evolutionism. But Silver takes on all comers: clean-cut pro-life vigilantes of the Religious Right, bearded and Birkenstocked tree-huggers and whale-savers, European "Frankenfood" protesters, cloning opponents, homeopaths and a rogue's gallery of mystics, mountebanks and dewy-eyed do-gooders. The book is therefore refreshingly undogmatic politically, and there is much to agree with as Silver attacks biological knee-jerkism on all sides. Ideologically, however, he is as doctrinaire as his opponents. He dismisses opposition as ignorance, skepticism as superstition, doubt as sentimentality.

Silver begins with a quick tour of the religious or spiritual beliefs of various cultures, from Indonesia to Latin America to his local rabbi and a Christian friend. Religious belief is universal, he shows, and so diverse and relative that the concept of God or gods can only be a human invention, created to explain that which we cannot understand. He then introduces science as the antithesis of spirituality: objective, unbiased, based only on facts, free of belief or dogma. It is an old-fashioned positivist account, straight out of Draper's 1875 text. For decades now, historians have been adding texture and perspective to this cartoon version of science, revealing it as a complex, social human activity—grounded in empirical observation, to be sure, but also conditioned by politics, economics and, yes, belief.

The core belief of science, of course, is that the supernatural is superfluous. The fact that science involves belief does not invalidate the enterprise; the risk is not in keeping the faith but in failing to recognize it. That failure marks the scientistic True Believer, the dogmatist. "I simply don't have ‘faith' in anything," Silver writes.

He then turns his materialist eye toward a wide range of beliefs about the natural world. With lawyerly ruthlessness, he examines questions of the soul: Who has got one, and when does he get it? Silver makes a neat argument here. He shows how blurry are the borders of the individual, using Siamese twins, split-brain patients, cultured cell lines, artificially fertilized embryos and teratomas as examples. He challenges believers to identify the moment when the individual becomes ensouled. One cannot reconcile biological reality with belief in a soul, he concludes.

Yet, he continues, insistence on some version of a supernatural vital spirit not only persists, it seems to be growing in magnitude and spreading across the political spectrum. Conservatives tend to favor strict Christian interpretations, and many on the left have adopted what he calles a post-Christian stance that ascribes a vital spirit to some vaguely defined "Mother Nature."

This makes for some mighty strange bedfellows in the fights against pesticides and fertilizers, genetically modified food, environmental degradation and reproductive technologies. In all these cases, Silver argues, an emotional attachment to one or another notion of spirit leads to irrational protests that often run counter to the interests of the protesters themselves.

Give him an "A" for effort: He goes to extraordinary lengths to force reality to fit his conclusion. He portrays his opponents in the weakest light, considering only their flimsiest arguments and knocking down straw men. For example, in his sometimes trenchant critique of organic farming, he implies that the entire modern enterprise is infected with the mysticism of Rudolf Steiner (the 19th-century German philosopher and educator who coined the term), ignoring the many hard-headed and scientific organic farmers today. Wilderness preservation is a futile exercise, he says, because no place on Earth is untouched by human influence. He paints biodiversity as a useless concept, because politically correct liberals stump for it without understanding ecology. Supplemental vitamins are pointless because most people meet the recommended daily allowances in their normal diet. He ridicules "the assumption made in the 1970s . . . that each time a species went extinct, an ecosystem became less healthy"—a patently absurd view, which Silver presents without attribution. He admits of no genuinely thorny issues; his opponents are all ignorant or misguided and his solutions are all simple, once you see his side.

A vision of nature straight out of Tennyson complements Silver's Victorian picture of science and religion. For Silver, nature is red in tooth and claw, a vast and vicious competition among selfish individuals and among selfish genes. The only alternative he presents to this view is a new-age-y image of trans-species collaboration and a "central biospheric authority." Scientists, however, have cultivated a broad middle ground between these extremes. Behavioral ecologists have shown that cooperation often plays a significant role in an ecosystem. Coevolution is the norm in parasite-host relationships. The mature Gaia hypothesis, which Silver dismisses as mere spiritualism, in fact generates testable, materialist hypotheses about the emergence of self-regulation in complex systems. Research in such areas has, interestingly enough, tracked the rise in the proportion of women in science in recent decades.

Silver needs such a macho, 19th-century view of nature to support his oddly Biblical vision of man's dominion. If nature is ruthless and cruel, then it is our duty to subdue it, to bend it to our needs. The first step in this process was the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago. In an eye-poppingly ahistorical passage, Silver attributes this invention to "the abstract concept of genes" entering "the tribal consciousness." Gregor Mendel, eat your heart out.

Such passages would be funny if they did not lead to such frightening conclusions. Silver sees the history of technology as a story of uninterrupted progress in quality of life—without recognizing the parallel histories of environmental and sociopolitical impacts. He laughs off the highest extinction rates in the history of the planet, countering with the non sequitur that extinction can also occur without human intervention. He presents the Green Revolution of the 1970s as a remarkable achievement in raising food production and reducing starvation. It was all that, but it also made farmers more dependent on corporate agribusiness, and it increased water and soil pollution due to the use of pesticides and fertilizers. He waves away the enormous and inherently unforeseeable risks involved in human genetic engineering (not to mention the mixed consequences of globalization), writing "It's nice to hope that a single globalized human society will provide the means for all people . . . to live free and healthful lives, taking advantage of the benefits that biotechnology and other technologies can provide." ("Pollyanna n : one who is unduly optimistic or achieves happiness through self-delusion"—Oxford English Dictionary)

Silver despairs of romantics who wish to improve health and save nature by reducing our dependence on technology. The only solution to our current environmental and health problems, he argues, is to adopt a full-throated engineering approach to nature, both human and organic. He envisions a comprehensive climate-control program in which we would dial up our ideal annual rainfall and temperature cycles, regulate growing seasons and decide which regions are going to be deserts, which lush forests and which fertile grasslands. He imagines the same oversight in the obstetric wards: Parents will design their offspring's qualities, perhaps ticking off desired traits on a checklist, eliminating diseases and enhancing abilities. Silver insists that we not let sentimental attachment to some vaporous ideal of pure nature or spirit stand in the way of creating true happiness and harmony with technology.

The problem is that we don't know what we don't know. Like reading glasses, technology magnifies and sharpens the near field but makes the distance blurry. The history of science and technology is stuffed with examples of shortsightedness and unintended consequences. Just after 1900, when Mendel's laws of heredity came to light, geneticists thought that they now had enough knowledge to take control of human evolution. Their false confidence contributed to a eugenics movement that sterilized thousands of Americans and provided the blueprint for the Nazi race-hygiene program. Similarly, no one intended to melt the icecaps, decimate wildlife populations, fill fish with mercury or wreathe our cities in toxic chemicals. Those things have happened accidentally, as the long-term effects of short-term solutions. Such disasters might have been lessened had we been more aware of our own ignorance. Humility in the face of nature's complexity is not spiritualism. It is realism.

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