There has been much discussion in magazines, newspapers, and the nightly news about genetically modified organisms. Why did French farmers attack a McDonald’s fast food restaurant that used genetically modified vegetables (with introduced genes to generate pesticides) and modified beef (with introduced genes that release growth hormones to speed development and increase the size of cattle)? Why does the Prince of Wales promote organic foods and decry genetic modification as “playing God”? Virtually the entire world reacted to the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997 as if the “brave new world” had bounded out of a work of fiction into our laps. Are the protesters right? Is all this as legitimate as the fear of nuclear energy or the fear of another thalidomide disaster?
What do we mean by genetically altered organisms? To the anthropologist or geneticist, organisms, including humans, are constantly being altered. That’s plain old evolution whether carried out in prehistoric times largely by natural selection or in more recent times (about fifteen thousand years or so to the present) by a variety of conscious and unconscious means of selection. There is scarcely a food we eat (beef, poultry, vegetables, cereal grains) or natural cloth we wear (wool, cotton, silk, linen) that is not the product of deliberate human cultivation and selection. We have consumed our culls, kept our rejects from breeding, and bred our best specimens for what appealed to us. Without intense human effort, few of our domesticated animals or plants would survive in the wild. They are grotesquely artificial compared to their progenitors, if their progenitors even exist today.
We think of genetically altered organisms primarily as products of the technologies of the twentieth century, when selection, which once depended only on a good eye and patience—with Luther Burbank as the exemplar—became a science of complex crosses to get genes from one strain into another. That required a knowledge of Mendel’s laws of heredity (how genes are passed from parent to offspring) and later the mathematics of gene distribution in multigenerational crosses and in populations. It also required a knowledge of genetic tools as they developed in the first half of the twentieth century, including the ability to induce mutations. The results were transforming for agriculture. Hybrid corn, rust-resistant wheat, cattle designed for dairy or the butcher’s block, and a steady output of varieties were developed at the nation’s agricultural field stations by Ph.D.s who knew what they were doing. Today’s dinner table may display beef produced almost entirely by artificial insemination, a technology introduced long before the molecular basis of heredity was worked out. The transition from the family farm to agribusiness was gradual, a year-by-year seamless shifting away from the horse and mule of the mid-nineteenth century to the tractors, combines, seed producers, cat...
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