The Null Device

Posts matching tags 'luddism'


From his recent book of essays A Devil's Chaplain, Richard Dawkins on genetic engineering, and why (some) public opposition is more based on superstition than fact:

What, then, of the widespread gut hostility, amounting to revulsion, against all such "transgenic" imports? This is based on the misconception that it is somehow "unnatural" to splice a fish gene, which was only ever "meant" to work in a fish, into the alien environment of a tomato cell. Surely an antifreeze gene from a fish must come with a fishy "flavour". Surely some of its fishiness must rub off. Yet nobody thinks that a square-root subroutine carries a "financial flavour" with it when you paste it into a rocket guidance system.

Which suggests that people intuitively understand biology in terms of Aristotelian essences; i.e., a fish is a fish because it has the quality of fishness, and there's a strong gut feeling that natural organisms aren't merely the sum of their DNA, but are natural because they carry Mother Gaia's blessing in their essence or something like that, and You Can't Tamper With Nature. Which is interesting as a study in psychology (much as "naïve physics" is), but when it comes to policy-making, it comes down to legislation-by-disgust, which is never a good thing.

(An insight: the difference between "natural" and "artificial" is whether someone knows or once knew how it was made.)

Dawkins, of course, doesn't dismiss all concern about genetic engineering; any sane scientist would agree that there needs to be sufficient testing for unintended effects. However, that's a far cry from the burn-down-the-laboratories attitude of some of the more ludditic doomsayers; which, Dawkins argues, given the popularity of such views in the Green movement, could hurt the Greens' credibility on other issues.

And as heated as opposition to genetic engineering is, it could be a storm in a teacup compared to the upcoming row over nanotechnology.

essentialism genetic engineering luddism richard dawkins 8

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