The Repercussions of Planetary Settlement
by Athena Andreadis
Art image: Fireflood, by Vonda McIntyre
Part 5: Playing God II
The expression genetic engineering automatically raises hackles — especially in Europe, as the flap over engineered foostuffs attests. One reason for this is its novelty: the concept of the heliocentric system sounded equally incendiary and blasphemous when it was first discussed, to the point of getting several of its adherents burned at the stake. Another is its whiff of hubris. Altering the human germ line is considered equivalent to playing god and incompatible with free will (a strange correlative, since no human has even chosen her/his parents, gender or time and place of birth). In fact, most people seem to use the words genetic engineering and eugenics interchangeably and, granted, they do overlap and can be used for nefarious ends like any other application of scientific knowledge.
Yet we do protest too much, and we know it. Everything that humans touch they engineer, whether these items are animate or inanimate. All our foods, vegetable or animal, all our clothes or structural materials which are not synthetic, our pets, our royal families, from the Levites to the Incas to the Hapsburgs, are the results of genetic engineering. Too, segments of humanity have practiced inbreeding for racial, cultural or even financial reasons — and several cultures have additionally constricted their genotypic variety by selectively killing or aborting their daughters.
We have also practiced reverse genetic engineering by allowing the continuation of genotypes that would normally have become extinct — from the short-sighted and disabled, who would have ended up inside the stomachs of a lioness pride under normal circumstances, to hemophiliacs who would have bled to death from a minor scratch before reaching their reproductive years.
Genetic engineering has advantages that outweigh those of terraforming by a wide margin, in my opinion. Genetic engineering requires neither nuclear bombs nor mirrors the size of a solar system. Its results can be seen within a few years, given the generation time of most terrestrial species, compared with the millennia of terraforming. Also, whereas terraforming is a linear, one-shot deal, genetic engineering resembles parallel processing in that several lines of inquiry can be pursued concurrently.
Last but decidedly not least, genetic engineering may well turn out to be economical. Species not so good for one world may well thrive on another. The hubris involved in genetic engineering is several orders of magnitude smaller than that involved in terraforming. At least we’re good at the former, as the variety and quality of our foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals attest. Nor would we be condemning entire worlds or species to destruction. Terraforming is a battering ram, genetic engineering is a scalpel. Which one would you prefer for a delicate, complex operation — whether this is repairing a watch, performing a heart bypass or fine-tuning a new world?