Genetic Engineering and Human Intervention: Part III

An Interview with Andy Knoll

Part III: Genetic Engineering and Human Intervention

Why should we value diversity?

Norman Myers, a conservation biologist at UC Berkeley, believes that the present generation of humans will be judged by future generations based on the actions we take with regard to diversity today.
Image Credit: Jane Scherr

I view the diversity of the planet as a biological gift we’ve been given. It modulates the climate, provides food and other products, and is a source of great joy and beauty. There’s nothing that says that humans as a species have to value all that stuff, so one certainly can imagine a world in which there are no elephants, or where only ten percent of the rainforest is preserved in Brazil. That happened to certain landscapes long ago – look at eastern Massachusetts. We long ago ceased to live in a world that was unchanged by human activities.

There’s nothing intrinsically valuable about diversity, but I personally subscribe to the view that there is value to diversity. As I said, there’s practical value as well as aesthetic and cultural value. I think it would be tremendously irresponsible for us as a species not to take that into consideration when we make decisions. It’s not that I think every decision ever made by humans has to be made for the animals and plants and against humans. We just need to recognize that we live in a world where local actions sometimes have large reactions. I think we have to be much more explicit in asking what the consequences of our actions will be.

Can vanishing diversity be rebuilt through genetic engineering?

My sense is that there is a great capacity for good to come of genetic engineering. I think we can look forward to more nutritious crops and to more effective ways of producing pharmaceuticals. In general, I think the promise of genetic engineering outweighs the perils.

"I think as a species we are responsible for the welfare of the planet as a whole." -Andrew Knoll
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Now, there are some people who think that if diversity declines, we can rebuild it through genetic engineering. I don’t think we understand the relationship between genes and biology well enough to even contemplate that. I can see plenty of peril in trying to engineer diversity in a way that exceeds the knowledge that we have. The potential for producing some genetic Frankenstein, which is what everyone worries about, is small in the kinds of crop enhancement and other genetic engineering applications we see today, but I think it becomes much larger if we attempt to reengineer the diversity of an ecosystem.

Is it the purpose of humanity to be altering the genetic and ecological landscape?

Whether or not humanity has some ordained purpose is not in the purview of science. It’s a good philosophical and theological question, but simply one that science can’t help answer. I think we can say that whether or not it’s the purpose of humanity, it is the lot of humanity. It is the point that we have arrived at in our own species history, and it is a part of our future. Like Pandora’s Box, once opened, it doesn’t easily close again. Whatever we view as the purpose of humans, I think responsible use of our knowledge is one of the responsibilities of humans.

Is human intervention unnatural?

I think the short answer is no. Humans are an integral part of the biology of this planet. We have a four-billion-year evolutionary legacy just like every other species that is living today, so I don’t think we should consider ourselves an unnatural part of the system. On the other hand, we have become an ecologically dominant part of the system. We are different from other species in that most organisms adapt to a set of environmental circumstances and then thrive only where those circumstances are met. But we are able to go anywhere on this planet and take our environments with us because of technology. Because of that, our population size has grown, and our use of resources has grown. So we do have some special ecological status, and that carries with it some special responsibility I think as stewards of the planet.

As we use our knowledge to visit changes on our planet, to whom are we as humans responsible?

It’s a good question. Are we responsible to anyone? Are we responsible to ourselves, or to the rest of the planet? My sense is that we’re responsible to future generations. Norman Myers is fond of saying that the present generation of humans will be judged by future generations based on the actions we take with regard to diversity today. I think that’s a reasonable thing. I think we are certainly responsible, particularly those of us who live in more prosperous nations are responsible for the welfare of others on this planet. I think as a species we are responsible for the welfare of the planet as a whole. And in particular we have a stewardship responsibility to act on our planet in ways that will vouch-safe it for future generations. So I think our responsibility is to our grand-children and great-grand-children.

Related Web Pages

Biodiversity interview with Andrew Knoll, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard University (original video)
Astrobiology at Harvard:

Genetic engineering: