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Science Book Club Episode 4

Farming is the least natural thing that biology can do.

Last month, Dr Adam Rutherford discussed the first half of his new book ‘Creation’, which dealt with the origin of life.  This month he moves onto part two, the future of life.


On the future of life

Now the very same processes that have allowed us to understand the origin of life, the fact that we know about DNA and cells and the mechanics of biochemistry, all of those things that have emerged in the last hundred years – more like the last fifty years – of biology, exactly the same process…the understanding of these mechanics, has enabled us to completely modify them.

So, we understand DNA at a fundamental level now, and that means, because it’s a universal language, that we can transfer bits of DNA from one species to another.  That’s genetic modification.  We’ve been doing something very similar for about 10,000 years which is called farming, right, which is to take two organisms and to breed them so that they produce something that we want, so that is desirable.  You know, farming is the exact opposite of natural, despite what some people tend to think.  Everything that we eat, all of the animals that we breed, they are quite unnatural, quite the opposite.  Darwin knew this: the first chapter of Origin of Species is about artificial selection, not about natural selection, and he uses the example of pigeons with ridiculous names like Trumpeters and Fanfares and Pouters that have been bred over hundreds of generations to be competitive in pigeon fancying competitions, which was a popular pastime in the 19th century.  But what he’s showing is that species are not immutable, they can change over time.

Now, we then do farming for 10,000 years, but in the 1970s and 80s we invented the technology that enables us to take bits of DNA and transfer them from one species to another, regardless of whether they could have sex with each other – which is the limitations of farming in a more traditional sense – and that was genetic modification.  So, there’s a lot of… I describe what genetic modification is and how it’s progressed over 20 years but also the key thing is that it’s begun to evolve itself to a new discipline which we call synthetic biology.  And synthetic biology is…it’s kind of like taking the tools of evolution and standardising them and commodifying them and turning them into, like, electrical engineering so that you don’t have to be an artisan genetic engineer to make…to do genetic modification.  What you need is a creative urge and a set of tools you can fit together in a nice way.

And my argument is that this something that has…it has begun; it’s an industrial revolution that is already happening and it’s something that we need to embrace with prudent vigilance because it will be a transformative technology in the 21st century.  We’ll be dominated by tools and machinery that has not been carved out of nature but is actually alive.

On ‘playing god’

I get ‘playing god’ often – not least because I made a programme called ‘Playing God’ – but the truth is we play god, if one believes in such things, we have always done that.  Farming is the least natural thing that biology can do.  We’ve always carved nature out to do things that we want.  Whether it’s clothing or food or, ah, even the countryside.  This beautiful land that we live in, you go up on trains and see the countryside and you think how wonderfully natural that is, but of course it’s not natural at all.  Those hedgerows, those fields, have been there for hundreds or thousands of years because we chose to put them there so, you know, playing god is an easy and glib term.  It’s effectively meaningless because, you know, unless you believe in god, we just are him.

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