Why Science Needs To Ask “Why?”

Check this out.

Above: Not nirnroot

That’s glow-in-the-dark tobacco. Plant geneticists were able to take some of the DNA in your common firefly and inject it into the chromosomes of a common tobacco plant. The result is a tobacco plant that glows the same color as a firefly’s butt.

“Awesome!” Comes the rousing cheer from the masses.

What’s the point?

Well, actually, there isn’t really a point. There’s not much advantage that can be gotten out of a glow-in-the-dark tobacco plant that isn’t offset by the cost of producing it.

So why did scientists do it?

Because why not? That’s why.

If you are thinking of a certain Dr. Ian Malcom, then congratulations, you paid attention to a bit of Jurassic Park that didn’t involve dinosaurs killing people. Dr. Malcom’s role in the story is not just to look like a tough guy, but to be the moral compass for the story and the subtle thematic question that plagues the reader:

Just because we can do things with science, does that mean we should do them?

As awesome as watching velociraptors kick ass is, the point of the movie and the books  was much deeper than the action. It gave us a hypothetical science situation where a possibility was opened up for advancement and nobody really asked the question, “why?”

If you are waving away this moral lesson with the excuse that Michael Crichton relies on science fiction, think again. Genetics are a mystery that has been more or less cracked. If a scientist wanted to, and was legally allowed to, they could genetically engineer a superior human.

Consider the infamous Monsanto soy bean. A company has designed a superior soy bean and has patented it. These soy beans are resistant to weed-killing sprays which make it a great boon for farmers. However, as time has gone on, Monsanto’s Round-up-Ready soy beans have replaced natural soy beans nearly everywhere. By just looking at a seed, it is impossible to tell if it is a normal soy bean or a Round-up-Ready Monsanto soy bean. This matters because Monsanto must be paid for every Round-up-Ready soy bean used. If a farmer even accidentally uses a Monsanto soy bean without paying, they can be sued.

And Monsanto will sue.

Above: Metaphor.

When it first came on to the market the Monsanto soy bean was a great boon to farmers, it was hailed as a great victory through science. Overtime however, it has proven that this “scientific victory” came as a loss to many more people.

Yet this trend is not restricted to the field of genetics. Robotics are being used more and more in factories where people were working as robots in the first place. The auto-industry has long been making a switch-over from line workers to automated machines that can work 24 hours a day without making a mistake. This has yielded bigger profits for auto-companies here and abroad, but with machines that can fix themselves come humans that can’t find jobs.

When robots were first starting to take the places of auto-workers, no one would have dreamed of attacking this great technological advancement, but now with more and more people going without jobs, it’s too late to tell the auto-industries that they have an obligation to employ people before machines.

As time goes on, science will advance. It’s not a bad thing in the least, it is a wonder what we can discover through research and experiments, but if we do not stop and consider the consequences of what we are doing, we could end up placing ourselves in a very bad place.

As a parting thought; before cold war scientists tested the first fusion bomb, there were some that were concerned that nuclear fusion on Earth could result similarly to nuclear fusion in the sun, chiefly; that it would cause a chain reaction that would consume the earth in a self sustaining fireball like a mini-star. Fortunately that wasn’t the case.

…But what if we were wrong about something similar in the future?

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One response to “Why Science Needs To Ask “Why?”

  1. I enjoy reading your essays, but this one I must challenge. Scientist cannot produce superior humans, though they are working on it. Actually, the tobacco plant you mention is an experiment that is working on increasing our understanding of genes. One reason for this experiment was to attempt to track genes through generations and potentially understand how some diseases can develop, hence, ways to avoid them.
    A key to creating superior humans is the avoidance of disease. If we cannot understand disease origins in simple plants, like tobacco, we can definitely not understand them in humans. I know that bashing the tobacco plant was not the point of the essay, just a good intro, but I believe it would be best if you did not pull a Paul Ryan and blatantly disregard the truth.

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