if you don’t notice it, you must agree with it.
There’s a major blind spot in the way people confront the media that I’ve been thinking about recently. I first heard about it in an interview with Simon Pegg where he was talking about film criticism. When people watch movies, it’s always the things that they don’t notice that they agree with implicitly. The example he raised was the original Star Wars trilogy, which we all must remember was an allegory for the Cold War. In the original trilogy it is presented as morally unacceptable for the Empire (Soviets) to have the Death Star (nuclear weapons), presumably because they used it to kill innocent people on Alderaan, but it is completely acceptable for the Rebels (‘Murrica) to kill untold thousands of innocent people using weapons of supernatural powers such as the Force and lightsabers in order to stop them from using it. The fact that the political allegory of the movie was rarely mentioned or noticed when the movies were originally released is evidence that viewers agreed with this contradiction when it came to the power struggle of the US and USSR.
This seems like a fairly obvious phenomenon when you think about it. Moral or political propositions that you disagree with are more likely to draw your attention than ones you disagree with. That’s pretty much what the definition of “controversial” entails. The trick is, once you know that you’re less likely notice something that you agree with, is to start identifying things that you have always implicitly agreed with without ever thinking about. To continue with the theme of media awareness, a couple of weeks ago I was watching the movie version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In this movie, an apocalypse has happened for some reason that they don’t really get into. Viggo Mortenson (Go Aragorn, go!) has to protect his son from predatory gangs who would kill them for their food and clothes and shopping cart. I realized as I watched it that this represents a fairly radical political implication shared with nearly every other post-apocalypse type movie. This implication being that if something drastic happened to the federal government and police, then people would immediately revert to a kill-or-be-killed, everyone for themselves mentality and start raping and murdering and farming each other for food. The only thing preventing everyone from slitting each other’s throats is a strong central authority with legitimized use of guns and tanks and whatnot. As I watched the movie I actually started to think about what would happen if some catastrophe happened and the government ceased to function. It seems obvious now that in that event people would band together and help one another through the worst of the zombie attack or whatever, because it’s human nature as social animals to assist one another. I’ve watched dozens of apocalypse survival movies in my life and I’d never really noticed that sort of extreme authoritarian implication, and I sort of subtly agreed with it until I gave it some thought.
Another example of this type of cognitive myopia is made clear in the documentary that I’m currently watching on MSNBC about the Jonestown Massacre. In talking about Jim Jones’s early life as a preacher in Indianapolis, the producers praised his Faith, the evangelical of his ministry and spoke highly of his ability to gather a large congregation through social activism. They totally draw a blank on why he was able to preside over the atrocity in Guyana. This is an extremely dangerous example of implicit agreement. The MSNBC producers condemned Jones for Jonestown, but they implicitly agreed with the faith-based mode of thinking and foot-in-the-door activism that allowed him to accumulate followers in the first place. After all, mainstream religions require the same type of faith and use the same tactics to accrue devotees as did Jones, although the results of their ministry are (usually) different. If people never notice the framework upon which Jonestown was built, then they agree with it.
The examples I’ve gone through are kind of split between the trivial and hyperbolic, but it’s an important concept to have in your mind at all times. As critical thinkers, we’re not supposed to just agree with something without rationally considering it. Constant vigilance is required to make sure that you understand just what you think is true and why, because you won’t always notice when you’re dogmatically agreeing to something you see in the media. These are the sort of cognitive tools that a good critical thinker muses upon constantly.
is beauty a priority for biotech?
One of the facts of life that we must live with is that transgenic research and transgenic products enjoy a fairly low level of acceptance among the general population. The thought of scientists “playing God” (ha!) with micro-organisms and food products makes even fairly rational, science-literate people uneasy just by itself. Tinkering with genes is usually seen as justified only if the result provides a high utilitarian value to society. For example, creating transgenic yeast is seen as justified if it is done to create Humulin, saving lives by offering affordable human insulin. Transgenic crops are justified when they are engineered to increase yield and nutritional content or to allow crops to grow in poor environments, which could potentially lead to lower prices and let people in poor and disadvantaged parts of the world have greater access to food (it hasn’t worked out this way so far, but that’s a topic for a whole other blog post).
A brief introduction to how technology is regulated in our society: Technological regulation is rooted deeply in the tradition of Utilitarian ethics, where an action is judged ethically acceptable if it promotes well being and happiness more than it promotes pain and injustice. For example, pharmaceutical testing is frequently judged on the potential to save lives and ease suffering compared to the pain caused during animal and human testing as well as any negative side effects. Any particular drug that has a high happiness:pain ratio is given approval. Every technology has had its ethical good points and ethical bad points weighed in this manner, whether it is the polio vaccine or nuclear power plants or cell-phone cameras, so the Utilitarian approach to transgenic regulation is nothing unique to GMOs. This sort of moral calculus is ongoing and a subject of constant debate, but historically technological advances have always been deemed acceptable only when their benefits outweigh their detriments.
But what if the benefit of a technology is immaterial? How much weight should aethetics be given in the technological calculus? The Japanese brewing and beverage company Suntory has, for a few years, offered for sale transgenic carnations and roses with blue petals. Creating blue flowers has been the aim of traditional plant breeders for centuries, but has never been done by conventional means. Scientists at Florigene, a division of Suntory, isolated the gene for blue pigment, part of the anthocyanin biosynthesis pathway in petunias, and expressed it in the “Moondust” carnation in 2003 and in the “Applause” rose in 2011. Both are available for purchase if you’re really into that sort of thing.
[The “Moondust” carnation image source]
[The “Applause” rose image source]
Not only can you buy these rare blue flowers from a huge multinational corporation, but guerrilla artist group BCL have decided to “liberate” the Moondust carnations. The Common Flowers/FlowerCommons project means basically cultivating cuttings from the Moondust carnations and planting them in public places in Setagaya, Japan and Cologne, Germany. This is an interesting project for a number of reasons. First, it is an artistic application of the “bio-piracy” philosophy, taking a living thing that has been patented and locked down by intellectual property laws and freeing it for the enjoyment of others using basic DIY-biology techniques. This, they hope, will also raise the level of acceptance of transgenic organisms amongst the general population through general awareness. Secondly, this project hopes to call attention to the exploitative nature of the commercial flower industry. Suntory grows the Moondust and Applause flowers on flower cultivation farms in Columbia, where workers basically live in a condition of indentured servitude. Thirdly, and most interestingly to me, is that the Flower Commons project kind of hopes that the Moondust flowers will propagate beyond the public gardens and flower-boxes where they will be planted, and reproduce in nature subject to traditional natural selection.
This last point is the really interesting thing in my mind. If this Flower Commons project is successful, blue carnations (and maybe roses) will be growing all over the place in the wild hundreds of years from now. This will represent humanity making a significant change to the ecology of the planet, not for agricultural or industrial purposes as has already been done, but purely for aethetic purposes. In essence, this will be using biotechnology to make the world a more beautiful place, rather than just one more suitable for human existence. I think that this should be one of the goals of biotechnology. We should work towards making the world healthier and feeding the hungry and whatnot, but along the way we should take time to bring a little bit of beauty to the world. Traditional art does this, but creating transgenic organisms as a form of art is a much more permanent way of leaving our mark on the world. If blue flowers or fluorescent grasses or red-glowing trees make their way into the wild, those transgenic alleles will persist in nature millenia after humanity has disappeared from the earth, constantly being reproduced. The conventional way of thinking of the relationship between GMOs and Nature is to limit the possible impact of transgenics on nature as much as possible, limiting their range to carefully-protected plots of land. However, I think that if organisms are altered in superficial ways to make them more aesthetically pleasing, their impact on the environment will also be superficial. Grass that has been transformed by a non-toxic fluorescent jellyfish protein would probably not alter basic ecology in a significant way. Given that the impact on the environment by artistic transgenics does not alter the environment in such a way as to not impede the long-term survival of the ecosystem, there is no moral impediment to creating more beautiful and interesting organisms. One day, maybe we will be walking around in a world truly of our own creation.