Life as We Made It: How 50,000 Years of Human Innovation Refined―and Redefined―Nature, by Beth Shapiro (Basic Books, 2021), 352 pages.
In the early 2000s, I was on vacation with my parents in Hawaii and the Honolulu Public Library was offering a display of transgenic mice. (Yes, I go to the public library when I’m on vacation.) The display featured a scientist from the local university, who produced a cage with two small white mice. They looked unremarkable until he held an ultraviolet light over them and they fluoresced a yellow-green. Their little pink ears and noses and tails, the parts not covered with fur, just lit up.
I was amazed. This was the most remarkable thing I had ever seen in my life. The mice had been given a gene from bioluminescent jellyfish. Since that day, 15 years ago, more transgenic advances have been made, bringing together genes from different species.
It’s hard to imagine a particular benefit for glowing mice, either commercially or in terms of the mice themselves. But aiding the survival of an endangered species is a situation in which genetic tweaking comes up. In Life as We Made It: How 50,000 Years of Human Innovation Refined―and Redefined―Nature, Beth Shapiro offers the example of Florida panthers. In the 1990s, their dwindling population was beset by genetic problems, including males who failed to produce viable sperm. They were rescued by genetic input from a closely related subspecies, the Texas puma. (This was done the old-fashioned way, introducing some feline gals from Texas to the Floridian cats, and letting nature take its course).
But there was debate at the time of whether the subsequent hybrid offspring could be counted as Florida Panthers and therefore still be protected species. This issue, where we draw the border between species, is something to which Shapiro returns repeatedly. For example, we all carry some fragments of Neanderthal DNA in us. Does that mean Neanderthals are not extinct but rather survive in us?
Likewise, genetic analysis might show more relationships between creatures than we realise. For decades it was believed the American landscape had been home to multiple species of bison. Bone and fossil hunters of the nineteenth century had sent their index specimens to museums around the world, bearing different scientific names to distinguish them. There were dozens of bison varieties (or had been), according to scholars. But Shapiro’s own work, using DNA analysis of bones and horns in various museum cabinets, overthrew this bison family taxonomy entirely. All the bison were the same species: Bison bison. Some may have been larger, or had longer horns than others, but they were all the same.
The more we unravel the genomes of Earth’s living beings, the greater the temptation to tweak them. Shapiro is good at explaining the processes to those of us whose knowledge of DNA stops at the helix chart in the high school science lab.
She unpacks some of the challenges around our conflicting attitudes to GMO foods, an area where scientists’ creating new forms has received a lot of public attention. Some environmentalists are vehemently against it, to the point of lobbying against developments like Golden Rice, designed to provide more beta-carotene. This would help prevent diseases of vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness. But to anti-GMO activists, that isn’t the issue. As Shapiro describes, in 2013 “Greenpeace activists destroyed a field of Golden Rice in the Philippines, where 20 percent of children suffer from vitamin A deficiency.” Evidently, malnourished blind kids aren’t the problem, it’s “frankenfoods” that need to be stopped. (Despite Greenpeace’s efforts, Golden Rice was licensed for commercial production in the Philippines this year. But they have succeeded in lobbying other nations to ban GMO foods).
Yet even those of us who cheer on modified crops that can feed the world’s hungry, have moments of pause when it comes to changing us.
But should we? We have no problem with other adjustments. For instance, if an adult receives an artificial hip or a pacemaker, we hail medical advancement. But to adjust an embryo so that it won’t have, for instance, a tendency to heart disease? The word “eugenics” looms in our consciousness.
That horse has bolted however. IVF clinics already allow parents to screen for not just health issues but eye color. Online, there are discussions about potential uses of CRISPR not just on embryos but adults. The real-world vision of Peter Parker’s radioactive spider bite.
We could see this as a natural extension of the ways we seek to improve ourselves already—diets, exercise, Botox, various “life hacks” to make our corporeal forms operate more efficiently. Once, such efforts would have been the province of religious faith, in which we would seek to improve ourselves to better serve God. Today, some people put RFID chips into their hands so that they may open doors without keys.
Yet we don’t really know what would be a better human. As Shapiro concludes:
I don’t doubt that we will eventually turn our engineering powers on ourselves. But when we do, it won’t be to chase an unknown and potentially better human. This is not, after all, how evolution works. There is no natural evolutionary path toward imagining genetic variation that might make one person more fit than another person in some unknown and undescribed future. Instead, we will find ourselves in a moment in which we are forced to decide whether to act or to let nature take its course.
Katrina Gulliver is a historian who has written for the Spectator, TIME, the Atlantic, Slate, Reason, and the Weekly Standard. Currently she is working on a history of urban life. Follow her on Twitter @katrinagulliver.