Challenging Nature is the title of my new column here on Scientific Blogging as well as the title of my new book. Since the idea of challenging nature may seem heretical to some, I will provide a brief explanation here of both the rationale for my argument and the opposition it faces.
The word "nature" and its cognate "natural" are typically imagined as metaphors for what is good and right in the world -- natural things are God's creations, not to be tampered with unduly by humankind. In opposition stand the unnatural, artificial, and synthetic -- the imagined profane creations of human intellect that despoil the world. Advertisers are well aware of the subliminal effects that these potent words have on people.
Food items, in particular, are routinely promoted as "all-natural," and "without any artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives."
What is so remarkable is how disconnected this world-view is from reality. In the fall of 2006, 204 Americans became seriously ill after eating freshly packaged spinach contaminated with a toxic bacteria found "naturally" in cow and pig manure. Ironically, the company that grew the tainted spinach was named "Natural Selection Foods."
Thousands of other Americans are striken every year in smaller outbreaks of fresh produce contamination. Meanwhile, every year, additional thousands suffer severe allergic reactions to certain foods including soy, peanuts, and shrimp, and more than a hundred, mostly young, children are killed. As I will detail in an upcoming post (Click here to see the article now), molecular biologists have already exploited the process of RNA interference to create a variety of soy that is 65% less allergenic than "natural" soy.
Unfortunately, the public-at-large (and organic food advocates) are so afraid of the "unnaturalness" of genetically modified organisms that research toward a commercially viable product is greatly hindered.
The organic food industry has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years because consumers equate organic with "natural," and "natural" with healthy and safe. But organic food is just as likely (if not more so) to be tained by pathogenic bacteria, and and organic peanuts and soy are just as likely to cause allergic reactions that lead to death. The main selling point of organics is that they are grown without "synthetic" pesticides, unlike conventionally farmed food. (Actually, a little publicized fact -- organic farmers are allowed to use some toxic chemical pesticides.) But, the total number of negative health consequences to American consumers from synthetic pesticides and "artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives" is --by all estimates -- zero.
As the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences explains,
while pesticides may be found in many products, the levels at which they are present fall far below the levels known to not cause any health effects. The fact that they are found at all is only due to the significant advances in analytical chemistry. The tests are now so sensitive that the detection level that can be easily reached is equivalent to detecting one teaspoon of salt in one million gallons of water. Levels even lower than that can sometimes be detected.
Certainly, humankind has done much to harm the biosphere at-large. Over the last 10,000 years, we wiped out 38% of land-based ecosystems and replaced them with farms. The original Australian settlers wiped out numerous marsupial species (that had been around for eons) when they arrived, and it's very likely that early Americans did the same to the mammoths, sabertooth tigers, giant sloths and most of the other large animal species that used to be in North America.
Throughout history, we have polluted many areas of the earth, on land and in the waters. And today, humanity seems to be greatly influcencing the global climate. So what should we do?
Many people think that if we just "let nature be" to the greatest extent possible, everything will work out for the better. But nature doesn't give a damn about any individual, any species, or even any ecosystem -- they all go extinct eventually.
The vast Sahara desert was a luxuriant forest with large animals and sophisticated human civilizations until just 8,000 years ago. Then "natural" changes in the earth's orbit plunged it into an arid abyss in less than a century and a half. "Natural" cycles also caused all of Canada to be covered in glaciers numerous times in the past.
Unlike "nature," humanity does seem to care about the future of both human and non-human systems of life on earth. And we will soon have the technological ability to guide whole-earth systems in a manner that could maximize the health of the biosphere. Why let Mother Nature throw the dice when we can place them on the table with the most desired number. Not every placement will be a win. Indeed, losses are a certainty. But they will be far fewer in number compared to those imposed by randomness, or a faith in transcendent non-randomness.
In further posts, I will elaborate on these ideas.