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A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. March's Theme: "Communication"
Volume 2 Issue 3 ISSN# 1708-3265

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The Beauty and The Horror of Science
by David Suzuki PhD

At an international biotechnology conference in Vancouver, an industry spokesperson made reference to the hundreds of protestors outside and suggested that biotechnologists had obviously done a poor job convincing the public about the benefits and safety of their products. Thus, she trivialized the opponents' concerns as based on ignorance and not deserving serious attention.

It's unfortunate that GMO (genetically modified organism) has been used to refer to foods created by inserting genes from one species into another. I say "unfortunate" because for the past 10 millennia human beings have been genetically modifying plants and animals by selection and breeding. All of the food we eat was once wild and, whether it's corn, rice or chickens, we have dramatically increased yields and changed characteristics by genetic modification. Even more remarkable, the array of dog breeds - from Chihuahuas to Great Danes - were all derived by breeding from tamed wolves.

Critics of biotech food have labeled them "Frankenfoods" - an allusion to the famous story by Mary Shelley. It's often forgotten that Frankenstein was the doctor/scientist not the monster he created. The story is an apt allegory for the powers we have come to apply with biotechnology.

Victor Frankenstein was involved in experiments to find the secret of life. We watch in horror as he is driven by his curiosity to solve the mystery. You see, one of the enchanting attributes of scientists is that capacity for enthusiasm and single-minded focus. As Theodore Roszak has written: "It is both a beautiful and a terrible aspect of our humanity, this capacity to be carried away by an idea. For all the best reasons, Victor Frankenstein wished to create a new and better human type. What he knew was the secret of the creature's physical assemblage; he knew how to manipulate the material parts of nature to achieve an astonishing result. What he did not know was the secret of personality in nature. Yet he raced ahead, eager to play God, without knowing God's most divine mystery."

One of the most horrifying things I have ever witnessed was an experiment in which a cat was "decerebrated", that is, it had all of its brain scraped out. It was still alive, and when an electrode was inserted into a certain part of its brain stem, the cat began to walk on a treadmill. It was a macabre experiment, but the scientist's enthusiasm in concluding that the nerves controlling a cat's walking ability must reside in the spine, blinded him to the horror of what he was doing.

I spent 25 years running a genetics lab, studying how genes control an organism's development and behaviour. The great joy of the lab for me was the excitement and exhilaration of research and the moments of sheer ecstasy when a new discovery or insight was gained. Yet when we wrote experiments up for publication, all of that joy and emotion were expunged. We would never get a work published if we included a description of the "breathtaking beauty of the vivid scarlet sheen of exquisitely arranged rows of ommatidia" of a fly's eye or the exhilaration upon recovering a mutation inducing paralysis at different temperatures. Yet that's why we were hooked on the work.

The reason we can't express emotion is because science's great boast is objectivity. Ever since Descartes and Newton, we have tried to separate ourselves from the object of study, tried to focus on a part of nature, measuring or describing it in mathematical or chemical terms. In the process, we have acquired profound understanding of some of the most basic parts of the cosmos - subatomic particles, atoms, genes and cells. But by focussing on the parts, we often lose sight of the whole - of patterns and rhythms that make the quest interesting in the first place. And that's often what the public senses is wrong with scientists.

So even though she may have had the best of intentions, when that biotechnologist in Vancouver trivialized legitimate concerns as being merely ignorant, she revealed the very attributes which the public fears about science - the single-mindedness that can turn a scientist into a Frankenstein.

David T. Suzuki PhD, the Chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. David has received consistently high acclaim for his thirty years of award-winning work in broadcasting; explaining the complexities of science in a compelling, easily understood way. He is well known to millions as the host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's popular science television series, The Nature of Things. Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

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