Tuesday, January 24, 2006


June 30, 2000

Much of the negative gut reaction people have toward the prospect of genetic engineering stems from a mistaken deification of the process of evolution. "We mustn't mess with our genes", they say, "Because evolution made things the way they are and it is wiser than us."

But if evolution is wise, then so is a coffee filter. All evolution does is take lines of creatures who change over time and filter out the less well adapted ones by virtue of natural selection. It has no foresight, and its reactions to changes in the environment, impressive as they may be, move at a snail's pace compared to our intelligent, forward-thinking technological developments.

These Neo-Luddites are always going on about the risk of mistakes. And in a certain sense, they have a point - human beings can and do make mistakes, and we ought to make a serious effort not to screw up.

But this is an unfair basis on which to compare human ingenuity to evolution. Evolution is never accused of making "mistakes" simply because evolution has no intent to begin with. It just does what it does, and whatever it does "just is". Then the Neo-Luddites proclaim that since we make mistakes and evolution doesn't, evolution is wiser than us and we shouldn't tinker with our genes. This amounts to an irrational deification of evolution itself.

What they forget is that tinkering, making mistakes, and learning from them so that we can tinker more effectively in the future is OUR nature. The process of evolution, which they elevate to godhood, made us the way we are.

They think that what we need to do is learn not to tinker at all - or at least not until we can show that we're wiser than evolution. But not to tinker denies our own nature, and the idea of nature's wisdom is an illusion that we can only overcome by dispelling it completely.


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