The Living Future
Genetically modified life? Call it Franken X
Sci Fi started with Biotech
It's arguable that Frankenstein was the first work of science fiction ever published. It's themes of playing God and creating life have certainly been part of the genre since then. It's only been in recent years though that the advancement of biotechnology has reached the point that the kind of organic technology Mary Shelly proposed has become even remotely plausible. Her work has become so influential on our views of manipulating biology that we use her title as a modifier to describe genetically modified creatures. Fish modified to glow in the dark were called frankenfish by some. The term frankenfood is used derogatorily by many to refer to things made from genetically modified crops. The themes also go on to be explored in more recent writings too as Crichton did when he created Jurassic Park. Fiction naturally pays the most attention to the more sensational risks associated with bio-tech. That, after all, is what makes an interesting story. Are the sensational dangers really the greatest ones that we face? Do risks really outweigh the benefits?
Dangers of disease
- Top 10 Worst Plagues In History - Listverse
Ten of the worst plagues to befall mankind, bringing death to generations.^Ten of the worst plagues to befall mankind, bringing death to generations.^Ten of the worst plagues to befall mankind, bringing death to generations. History is dotted with ep
- Rabies: The Plague Behind Zombies and Vampires - WSJ.com
The undead didn't always breed by biting. For that, the mythmakers needed rabies, write Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy.
- Plague of bioweapons accidents afflicts the US - health - 05 July 2007 - New Scientist
A growing biodefence industry employing thousands, and a culture of denial in accident reporting are putting the public at risk, say campaigners
The dangers of a genetically modified disease should be obvious. Any student if history knows how purely natural disease has devastated populations. The idea of an artificial super disease coupled with modern high tech transportation is obvious fodder for horror. Of course with the mythic association between the undead and it's possible real world basis a genetically engineered zombie plague made a natural crossover for the creators of the Resident Evil media franchise. Fortunately real world bio-weapons research seems to have a fairly low accident rate (although the secrecy involved in the research and failure to report incidents makes it difficult to be sure) and victims are usually confined to the researchers themselves. Although as critics will point out a super-bug only has to get out once.
The first game was originally titled Biohazard
- Scientists breed goats that produce spider silk
(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers from the University of Wyoming have developed a way to incorporate spiders' silk-spinning genes into goats, allowing the researchers to harvest the silk protein from the goats’ milk for a variety of applications. For inst
- De-Extinction - Bringing Extinct Species Back to Life - Pictures, News, TEDx Conference
A special National Geographic News series on bringing extinct species back to life.
- Rabbits in Australia - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Unfortunately these fears about bio-weapons easily translate to B movies about larger laboratory spawned monsters that ocasionally appear on SyFy network and it's kin. So far macroscopic genetically engineered organisms seem to be confined to things like the aforementioned glowing fish and the so called spider-goat. Neither of which is really all that intimidating. Of course some scientists really are considering ways to bring back extinct species with all the ethical conundrum that would entail. Anyone familiar with the introduction of rabbits to Australia can probably guess what might go wrong with putting a species back into an ecology from which it's been absent for centuries. To revive an extinct species with the intent of keeping it in zoos might seem like a good idea on the surface but as is repeatedly mentioned in Michael Crichton's work there is great potential for unintended hazards. It is likely though that the danger of deextinct animals getting lose will be ecological damage rather than to human life.
Not every author ignores this danger
Not all risks are sensational
Another branch of biological research gets protests but very little fictional treatment. Other than frankenfood fears there is little sensational for fiction writers to latch on to in genetically modified crops. There are real dangers though. The obvious dangers are the uncertainty of what you are eating and the risks of allergies to genetically mixed crops. Less obvious are the risks of widespread genetically modified crops all being vulnerable to the same pathogen. While one would think that the danger of famine from the loss of crops that were supposedly engineered to prevent such threats would be cause for concern it's the one threat of modified crops that does not make the news.
The first Transhuman fiction?
Of course the modifying bacteria, plants or animals pales I comparison to what the advocates of transhumanism suggest we might do to ourselves. Some of what they advocate seems like a clearly good idea. Why make a diabetic take insulin if gene therapy technology will fix the metabolic defect that causes diabetes. Better yet why not just check for problems before birth and use gene therapy then. More controversial is the option of simply aborting children carrying defects. The question becomes how far do you go in correcting defects? If retardation is a correctable defect is it acceptable to “correct” intelligence that is in the normal range but below average. If correcting crippling musculo-skeletal defects is okay can you also make a healthy child faster or stronger. Who pays for these enhancements if they are allowed? Will insurance plans or state run health care cover the costs? If they don't then what becomes of the poor? Are their descendants to share the world with the superhuman descendants of the rich? Will this accidentally lead to the sort of stratified society Huxley suggested might be deliberately created in Brave new World the first work of fiction to explore this sort of genetic engineering? It should not be necessary to list the atrocities that have historically been committed over imagined superiority of a race, ethnicity or even social class. Will the future feature similar divisions between the genetically enhanced and the normals? Then there are those who propose to leave biology behind entirely by uploading their minds to computers and merge with artificial intelligences that they expect will end up being smarter than their creators.
The results of biotechnology before we could do genetic engineering
Will we become the monster?
Biotechnology is somewhat different from other sciences. On the one hand we have been using it since before recorded history in the form of selective breeding of livestock and crops. On the other, emerging advancements give this science the capacity to change not just the world we live in but the nature of humanity. Advocates of transhumanism laud the idea of us taking control of our evolution yet the question of who gets to direct things seems to go unanswered. When it comes to biotech the question is less where are we going than what will we be when we get there. Over one hundred years after Shelly wrote Frankenstein do we run the risk of not just creating the monster but becoming it?