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Making Aliens 5: Playing God II

flight.jpgThe Repercussions of Planetary Settlement

by Athena Andreadis

Art image: Fireflood, by Vonda McIntyre

Artist unnamed

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?

Part 6: The Descendants

8 Responses to “Making Aliens 5: Playing God II”

  1. rocketscientist says:

    Your ideas, while unpopular in mainstream thought, do have merit and real practicality. The sad thing is that like the study of nuclear power, the unethical will use such technology to create horrors.

    I guess I’m a cynic, but history does bear me out. The technology itself if quite useful, and as you point out, something that we do anyway.

  2. Athena says:

    Yes, I’m not starry-eyed about this, either. But the powerful always have plenty of ways to keep a tight hold on their privileges. And the less powerful use such technologies already for desired ends — hence, for example, the sudden huge deficit of girls in parts of India and China, now that people have routine access to ultrasound. Our technology has gone steadily forward while the rest of us is stuck in the Bronze Age.

  3. rocketscientist says:

    “Our technology has gone steadily forward while the rest of us is stuck in the Bronze Age.”

    Well put, and perhaps one of the few cases in point for the use of a philosophical examination of human culture as it stands. Of course, whose philosophy?

  4. Athena says:

    That of the disillusioned but not bitter exile. Someone unworldly but humane like Spinoza comes to mind.

  5. intrigued_scribe says:

    All points emphasized here are excellent and thought-provoking as well. :) The matter of genetic engineering–particularly the long-existing, restriction of some genetic paths while others are allowed to continue on–especially stands out in this installment, in no small part due to the underlying potential for great harm along with great good, which also goes for technology, as is appropriately pointed out here. And the closing segment sums up the themes touched upon perfectly.

  6. Athena says:

    Genetic engineering cuts very close to people’s settled sense of who or what we are. Yet I think the major barrier is getting used to the concept. After all, nowadays people routinely use in vitro fertilization and undergo plastic surgery (to say nothing of modifications for the sake of cultural conformity that are both painful and harmful). I still recall the the dire predictions that test tube children would be “subnormal.”

    Fear is the mind killer… but one fear is unquestionably valid: the misuse of technology for power.

  7. […] breeding pools with divergent technology and social mores (as discussed in Making Aliens 4, 5 and […]

  8. bigdan201 says:

    Genetic engineering is a truly great avenue of research. However, many people have difficulty swallowing it, due to hollywood scare tactics and the unpleasant history of things like eugenics. It opens up many possibilities though, including adapting to new worlds.
    Terraforming is something I’ve been interested in, and it does have validity in some cases. For example, no amount of adaptation would allow us to freely live on the surface of Venus or Mars. But with the addition of enough water and atmosphere to Mars, and a great reduction of atmosphere to Venus, those places could become much more hospitable.
    However, genetic engineering is best when it comes to fine-tuning. For example, if we found an earthlike planet with slightly higher gravity, a weird day-night cycle, etc, genetic engineering to adapt would be the best solution.