Prince Charles warned of the “disastrous consequences” of biotechnology. The precise dangers were never revealed. But according to Reuters he said, “tampering with nature is an affront to God.”
Conservative historian Paul Johnson called biotechnology a “new, infant monster.” Gertrude Himmelfarb has written that such research is contra naturn (against nature) and laments that this alone is not longer sufficient to put the fear of God into scientists.
But throughout human history each new scientific discovery was subjected to the same assault.
In 1752 a funny looking man flew a kite on the banks of Schuylkill. From that little experiment Benjamin Franklin discovered the principles of electricity as exhibited in lightning. Once he understood the facts of nature he was able to manipulate it. Lightning had a tendency to strike trees, high buildings, church steeples, etc. Franklin put his discovery to good use by inventing the lightning rod. His invention was not well received. The clergy of the day found such an invention demonic. It was man playing God.
In 1755 an unusual earthquake hit New England and the good reverends announced that the quake was the result of lightning rods. Rev. Thomas Prince of Boston’s Old South Church said the quake was due to the erection of “iron points invented by the sagacious Mr. Franklin.” He concluded “in Boston are more erected than anywhere else in New England, and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. Oh! there is no getting out of the mighty hand of God.”
John Adams wrote of a conversation he had with a Boston physician: “He began to prate upon the presumption of philosophy in erecting iron rods to draw the lightning from the clouds. He railed and foamed against the points and the presumption that erected them. He talked of presuming upon God, as Peter attempted to walk upon the water, and of attempting to control the artillery of heaven.”
Throughout Europe and the United States churches refused to attach lightning rods to their steeples. For decades after the invention of the device steeples continued to be struck in disproportionate numbers. The tower of St. Marks in Venice was repeatedly struck even though Franklin’s invention was brought to Italy by the physicist Beccaria. Church authorities saw the invention as contrary to nature. In 1761, 1762 and 1766 the tower was struck. After this last incident the church quietly attached a lightning rod.
Inoculation and vaccination faced the same uphill battle. In 1772 Rev. Edward Massey preached and published his sermon “The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation.” When Dr. Zabdiel Boylston of Boston experimented with inoculation the clergy raised such a stink that the city forbade him from further use of the treatment. Andrew White, in his “A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom”, wrote that Boylston’s opponents insisted that “for a man to infect his family in the morning with smallpox and to pray to God in the evening against the disease is blasphemy”; and the smallpox is ‘a judgement of God on the sins of the people,”; that inoculation is ‘an encroachment on the prerogatives of Jehovah whose right it is to wound and smite.’”
From the very beginning science was seen as an “encroachment on the prerogatives of Jehovah.” Church Fathers Tertullian and Augustine both condemned anatomy as butchery. Many such theologians feared what the practice would mean for the resurrection of the dead. This belief carried over to surgery as well. And for centuries such medical care was unavailable. Medicine was so suspect that there arose the proverb: “Where there are three physicians there are two atheists.”
Today we live in world that is a far, far better place because of these experiments. Today we eat corn that was, in fact, a result of early man’s experiments in biotechnology: Native Americans cross bred two prairie grasses to create an entirely new species. They created something “unnatural” in that experiment. By the time the Pilgrims landed they had no idea that corn they ate on Thanksgiving was contrary to God’s original plan; to them it was natural.
Even our modern potato was unknown to primitive man. Centuries of selective breeding have removed undesired genes and replaced them with desired ones. Primitive biotechniques were used in the fermentation of alcohol and the manufacture of cheese. The efficiency of the techniques may have been improved but the basic principles predate our discovery of DNA, genes and cloning.
Much of the opposition to man’s “manipulation” of nature rests on the assumption that Enlightenment mankind is not part of nature. Paul Ehrlich said the American people are "a cancer on the planet." Environmentalist David Graber, in a review of The End of Nature for the Los Angeles Times said: "I know social scientists who remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn't true. Somewhere along the line—at about a billion years ago, maybe half that—we quit the contract and became a cancer. ...Until such a time as Homosapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along." Eco-philosopher Patrick Corbett said that it is not perverse to prefer the lives of mice over "the lives of men and women" because "animals are in many respects superior to ourselves". Earth First leader David Forman said: "We advocate bio-diversity for bio-diversity's sake. That says man is no more important than any other species... It may well take our extinction to set things straight." The Earth First publication said, "as radical environmentalists, we can see AIDS not as a problem but a necessary solution." To Graber humans are not part of nature but a plague on nature. He made it clear that human’s come last. “We are not interested in the utility of a particular species, or free-flowing river, or ecosystem to mankind. They have intrinsic value, more value—to me—than another human body, or a billion of them.”
Professor George Reisman questions the idea that nature has intrinsic value. To say something has value demands that we ask: Of value to whom? Value implies an evaluator. In this sense there can be no value without a conscious evaluator passing judgment. To argue that value exists separate from an evaluator is not just illogical but dangerous to humanity. Man’s nature is that he is a rational creature who must manipulate nature to survive. In its raw state nature is disease, hunger and death. It is the “dog eat dog” world that many advocates of the natural deplore in other fields. But, if nature has intrinsic value, then man’s use of nature to survive destroys that value thus “man’s alleged destructiveness and evil is directly in proportion to his loyalty to his essential nature. Man is a rational being. It is his application of his reason in the form of science, technology, and an industrial civilisation that enables him to act on nature.... thus, it is his possession and use of reason—manifested in his technology and industry—for which he is hated.”
The vision of the advocates of the “natural” is directly contrary to that of the Enlightenment. The Western view of nature has not been one of worship, but of struggle. Nature is not inherently valuable. What value there is, and this is value to man, has to be fought for. It doesn’t flow naturally but results from struggle and effort. Left to its own devices nature is brutal. It leads to human lives that are, as Thomas Hobbes might describe it, short and brutish.
The nature worshippers instead dream of a mythical past, an Eden captured by the fantasies of Rousseau, who claimed that there was once an ideal state of nature where man is “wandering up and down the forest, without industry, without speech, and without home, an equal stranger to war and to all ties, neither standing in need of his fellow-creatures nor having any desire to hurt him and perhaps not even distinguishing them one from another.”
This other vision exists in much of the critiques of human science. The Jo’burg Memo, published by the Böll Foundation for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa extolled the virtues of what they called “traditional strategies of generating and communicating knowledge” as compared to science which is almost totally dismissed for being a “generalizable system of knowledge.” They ask: “Should this new generalizable system of knowledge which is in conformity with the global market replace all other systems of knowledge? Respect for cultures as well as prudent scepticism about the long-term effectiveness of science suggest a negative answer.”
But to answer in the negative they have to accept Rousseau’s myth of the Edenic “Noble Savage”. And they do. Saving Planet Earth claimed that “tribal people live in harmony with their environment taking care not to exhaust the land or use up the natural resources upon which they depend...” The Gaia Atlas of First Peoples says “all [indigenous cultures] consider the Earth like a parent and revere it accordingly...” The Kid’s Environment Book told it’s young readers that “Ancient people knew that they depended on the natural world for survival and had a close relationship with the forces of sky and earth...” Anita Roddick, on of the authors of the Jo’burg Memo, had her cosmetic chain store, The Body Shop, use shopping bags that claimed: “The wisdom of the world’s indigenous peoples is the accumulation of centuries of living not just on the land, but with it.”
Unfortunately such statements are more mythology than history. Native North Americans burned down entire forests to make hunting easier. Buffalo were slaughtered by the tens of thousands with most left to rot. This was accomplished by stampeding entire herds over a cliff. The Vora “buffalo jump” site in Wyoming has the remains of some 20,000 animals. The arrival of Aborigines in Australia quickly led to the demise of several “giant” macropodids (kangaroos and related species). In New Zealand the Maoris, according to science writer Matt Ridley, “sat down and ate their way through all twelve species of giant moa birds.” The Aztecs depleted their soil in Mexico.
It was only with the evolution of concepts of private property rights and science that man changed how he dealt with the world. He learned how to manipulate nature through science so as to create lasting benefits. And, with the advent of property rights he had the incentive to avoid overexploiting the resources he himself owned. The “tragedy of the commons” (Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, December 12, 1968) is mitigated when individuals are allowed to own, and reap the benefits, of natural resources. It is in those areas of “communal” property that man still has environmental problems: air, fisheries, etc. Yet, property rights are often dismissed by the advocates of the natural who prefer the more primitive concept of “communal” ownership to go along with their preferred system of “community” knowledge.
Surely the famine that was imposed imposed in Zimbabwe should call this into question? The private ownership of farms was replaced by the Mugabe regime with communal farming. Yet many of these new communal farms are incapable of producing enough food to feed the farmers, let alone anyone else. Private property was replaced by communal property; “generalized” scientific knowledge was replaced with “community” knowledge and the results are deadly.
World population growth, something that these groups fear, only became an issue because human’s evolved away from this view of the natural. Only through the adoption of reason and science did human’s thrive and live long enough for populations to increase. For most of human history birth rates were very high, because deaths rates were equally high. Life spans were short. That changed when man’s view of the world changed. Samuel Preston, a former president of the Population Association of America, said: “The increase in life expectancy during the 20th century I think has to be credited as our greatest single-achievement. At the turn of the century, India, China, most of the third world had a life expectancy of 25. ...It’s now over 60 for developing countries as a whole. At the turn of the century, the U.S. had a life expectancy of 49. It’s now 76. That’s what’s driving the population explosion, and it really is a credit to the success of the human race in lowering death rates.”
The 1999 report The State of the Population 1999 admits that population increases are the result of declining death rates more than they are the result of increased birth rates—which in fact have been falling. The report says: “This unprecedented growth was the net result of faster declines in mortality than in fertility, both from initially higher levels.” And: “The most important story behind the rise from 3 to 6 billion people since 1960 is the unprecedented drop in mortality.” The report notes that since 1950 the death rate has been cut in half “from about 20 to fewer than 10 deaths per year per thousand people....” This is not just the result of living longer but also because of a radical drop in infant mortality rates. In 1999 the UN said: “The world’s population is healthier from infancy through old age than it ever has been. Global infant mortality has fallen by two thirds since 1950, from 155 per thousand live births to 57 per thousand; this rate is projected to be reduced by a further two thirds by 2050.” Today’s rate is even lower: 55 per thousand. In fact the death rates have dropped so extensively that even though there were 1.5 billion more people alive in 1975 than in 1950 the annual number of raw deaths declined by 10 per cent. And even now with a world population more than double what it was in 1950 the raw death total is virtually identical: about 52 million people per year.
Humans are no longer dying as quickly or as young as before. The world now has around 770 million people over the age of 60. By 2050 the UN estimates this figure to grow to 2 billion. More incredible is the projected increase for those who live past 80 years. Currently there are 69 million such people world wide; by 2050 this will increase to 400 million. Living to 100 years of age was once an anomaly, so rare that in England it warranted a personal letter of congratulations from the Queen. Today just under 450,000 people world would qualify for such a greeting. By 2050 it is estimated there will be 3.3 million people over the age of 100! Projections show that the United States will have 600,000 centenarians by 2050 exceeded only by Japan which will have over 1 million of them. Those over 80 years of age in the US will total in excess of 29 million.
Say what you will about science, tampering with nature, or “playing God”, the results can’t be denied. Human’s live longer, healthier, better lives because of it.
From the moment the first man stood upright he was playing God. It’s natural for him to tamper with nature. He no longer relied on just body hair for warmth, but created clothes. He artificially lit and heated his dwellings by conquering the nature of fire. He grew his own food and manipulated its genetic structure by cross breeding. Instead of using his “God-given” feet for transit he harnessed wild horses and domesticated them, eventually creating the wheel. Without wings he learned to fly and, of all the species that we know of in the universe, he is the only one to walk on the moon.
When man left footprints among the stars he was playing God. When he performs heart surgery he is playing God. Each premature baby placed in an incubator and kept alive through “artificial” means lives because some researcher, some doctor, played God. When third world peasants flee to higher ground, because a meteorologist has warned them of an impending hurricane and the resulting flood, thousands of lives are spared because someone played God.
When man does not play God the world is a mean and brutal place. It is a world where old age is the mid 20s. It is a world where most infants die before reaching maturity. It is a world where the diabetic suffers pain finding release only in an early death. It is a world where disease and famine are rampant. It is a world where there is no warmth in the winter and no light after sunset. It is a world where each flash of lightning so terrifies men, women and children that they cringe in fear in the recesses of some darkened cave. It may be natural. But it is cruel and monstrous.