Tampering with Nature is in our nature


The cloning issue is back in our consciousness with a bang.  The UK seems to have cloned meat in its food chain and the usual ethical questions are being raised.  It’s way too easy to get worked up over cloning.  “Don’t tamper with Nature!” is the chant of choice.  Is that enough to stop the whole shebang?

Tampering with Nature is a pretty serious charge, and one that any scientist should answer for.  Shall we do this in chronological order?  First to be called to the stand is Urk of the species homo erectus, a pioneer in the transformation of substances.  By subjecting his samples to heat, he was able to destroy many organisms considered harmful to hominids and improve our ability to digest nutrients.  The science of cooking had serious ramifications, allowing the more efficient consumption of food and revolutionising early human existence.  Of course, food was cooked in Nature – some poor animals were caught in forest fires or struck by lightning.  But the harnessing of Nature to improve our lives in such a way was surely a very risky business.

This of course, was the thin end of the wedge.  Scientists went on to develop tools to fish and hunt, giving humans access to food sources that Nature had denied them.  Sure, some fish may wash up on the shore, or deer may fall down dead in the wood, but giving humans the power to actively force animals to die for the purpose of consuming their flesh was a terrible blow against Nature.

The march of Science and Technology has continued inexorably ever since.  Driven by the greed to survive beyond the limitations imposed by Nature’s harsh regime, Mankind developed the concepts of sanitation, sterilisation, medicine, pharmacology, psychology, advanced construction methods and social constructs that are hereto unknown in Nature, each a defiance of the natural order of things.

Let me take my tongue out of my cheek for a moment.  I’ve simply tried to prove a point here – most of the things that we cherish and take for granted in Mankind’s list of achievements are tamperings or defiances of Nature.  When you think about it, the entire field of medicine is a continuous fight against “natural” processes of damage, decay and death.  We don’t consider these advances as unnatural because they have been around for long enough.  Are you against IVF, a process by which children are artificially manufactured for parents that are unable to conceive? I imagine that most people are happy with the idea of giving people the right to have children even when Nature has made Her judgement in the negative (unless you have deep, religious misgivings).   It received plenty of criticism when it was first achieved in the late ’70s, but the passage of time and its subsequent success in the following decades have dulled the critics’ blades.

Cloning is not that different to any other scientific advance of the last few hundred thousand years.  Just like cooking, cloning also occurs naturally by multiple birth (you’ve probably eaten cloned meat because we’ve been eating it ever since we domesticated livestock).  We’ve been cloning plants since the beginnings of agriculture thousands of years ago.  We think animal cloning is different because it’s a new advance happening to us now, and we fear what we don’t understand.  Granted, it is potentially an incredibly powerful tool to improve our lives, or destroy them (as any technology is), and we shouldn’t dive into using it until we fully understand it.  There’s an awful lot of work to be done by geneticists, ethicists, legislators and science communicators to educate the public of the true nature of cloning, to stimulate an intelligent, rational discussion of the issues.

But arguing for something not to happen because it is “against Nature” is as ridiculous as arguing for the disconnection of the Internet or the dismantling of cars, as Man was not meant to communicate so efficiently or travel so fast.  If you’re reading this blog, I can only assume that you’re not a Luddite, and you agree that technology is a good thing.

There are plenty of better arguments to slow and regulate the development of cloning technology which I support – the dangers of its misuse and abuse, the effects of mass cloning on the welfare of livestock, the concerns about “ownership” of genetic code and many others.  Let’s talk about them because they deserve our attention, and leave our irrational feelings at the door.

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