Better Than Nature?

Rachel Armstrong
February 28th 2012

At the turn of the millennium, miniaturized canines acquired the cherished status of living, designer handbag ornaments.  These teeny tiny photogenic doggies, which had been shrunken from generations of in breeding, were snapped up by fashionistas who pouted alongside them in front of seas of clicking cameras.

In just a fragment of evolutionary time, today's ‘to die for’ bio-couture has been genetically spliced with jellyfish signatures. These trophies are freer to roam and easier to find than their miniaturised predecessors, as they can glow under UV, or ‘black’ light. Although not all varieties can fit in a clutch purse yet, there is an impressive range of designer ‘glo’ organisms available in green and red (blue is possible but isn’t as impressive under UV light). Options include fruit flies, fish, mice, chickens, rabbits, pigs and cats (for glo-cats, see here, here and here).

Science justifies these media friendly creations in service of the greater public good. Yet these animals have great popular appeal that speaks little to their ability to fight cancer or other diseases. Despite their ‘freaky’ designer origins, glo pets are undeniably ‘cute’. Genetic modification is part of a spectrum of technological approaches offered by the new science of synthetic biology, which enable us to overcome the apparent lottery of nature. The fundamental ‘vanity’ at the heart of synthetic biology is that we can do ‘better’ than nature, but is this actually possible?

If nature is a cosmic force  [1] then it simply sets the tolerance limits of what is possible. There is no ‘better’ than nature, since no matter how improbable, or artificially induced - it is a natural occurrence.

Janine Beynus, who pioneers the field of biomimicry, believes that nature ‘knows best’ and harnesses biological solutions to create novel industrial designs. She proposes that "nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with". Yet a non-interventionist approach to natural processes can result in ‘bio fatalism’. Simply waiting for nature to teach us and reveal all possible solutions restricts our immediate access to bio-inspired innovation. It is impossible to deduce all biological outcomes computationally, as the outputs are unpredictable, surprising and sometimes, even pretty freaky. Nature has no particular urgency that fuels its inventions. Humans, on the other hand, have a different set of rules.

If nature is the absence of humans [2][3] then the value placed on any creature (or any other natural phenomenon) as being ‘better’ than another, is entirely culturally defined. Also, this value isn’t reserved for unnaturally generated creatures since natural ‘mutants’ have traditionally been denounced as monsters [4]. The difference between a miracle and the grotesque is down to the prevalent social values, as Mary Shelley’s fictional creature soon discovered. If, as synthetic biology asserts, it is possible to do ‘better’ than nature through intervention, then this claim needs to be justified in human-centered terms. To justify the importance of its research, the scientific community makes functional claims about its experiments proposing that unnatural interventions serve a greater social good such as relieving human suffering, or providing vital food and energy sources.

Any ‘objective’ comparison between the material performance of a natural and augmented system simply fuels speculative variations based on the same fundamental rule set, which does little to ground such an approach in a value system. Other validations to justify social worth are made on financial grounds such as monetary gains from trading patented genetically modified creatures. Ultimately then, if the outcome of intervening in natural systems is seen as being an intervention that can be justified in sufficiently beneficial human terms – then yes, there is a ‘better’ than nature.

It’s next nature!

Photo via She Said Pop.

1. The history of Western philosophy is discussed in Arthur O. Lovejoy (2001 ) The Great Scheme of Things, A study of the history of an idea. The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University, 1933, Copyright 1934 and 1964. Reprinted 2001 by Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts and London, England, p. viii ISBN 0-674-36153-9

2. Fern Wickson, “What is nature, if it’s more than just a place without people?”, Nature 456, 29 (6 November 2008) | doi:10.1038/456029b.

3. Editorial, “Handle with care,” Nature 455, 263-264 (18 September 2008)

4. John Wyndham (1955) The Chrysalids, Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, UK  Printers Cox & Wyman Ltd., Great Britain

Share your thoughts and join the technology debate!

 

Comments are members only. Login to your account and join the technology debate.

LOGIN
Not a member? Join us

Alejandro Kondraasky
Posted 02/05/2012 ā€“ 17:53

Nature is just plain chaos, not a sentient being or something with a inner propose.
Yes, there is very beautiful things that come from nature but also very cripple and monstrous ones (as you said, this depends on social definition, but not totally).
So I don't think we should "worship" nature like if it were perfect when we know is not. One example is the XNA that is being develop recently to make a more stable genetic code that is less error prone when is copied.
Now... in which way we want to "perfect" it ? That is the question that we should ask. There are many and i think we shouldn't go just for one but rather go for as many as we want and see which ones ended up winning enough support ( like in opensource communities ).
What Iā€™m trying to say is that once you establish what type "sapiens" race you want to be you can discriminate between different traits amongst other living beings and yourself. But we are to fearful of redefine ourselves at core levels, rather we prefer to adapt the environment to our needs. Why we don't do the opposite?
I'm probably not making a clear point, but I feel that we need to be free from ourselves and what "nature" impose on us.

Should men be able to give birth to children?


Joyce Nabuurs: To me this question seems to be a logical next step in the emancipation movement of the past century. More and more women entered the workspace, but the responsibility for pregnancy and childrearing remained female.

Comment
Already a member? Login.