Genetically Modified Organisms

An Ancient Practice on the Cusp


Scientists and engineers are trained to adjust to change. During my own undergraduate and graduate studies about 50 years ago, eminent biologists were still choosing up sides as to whether proteins or nucleic acids carried genetic information in chromosomes. Look where we are now!

But revolutionary change doesn’t go down easily outside of the technical community. As Paul Ehrlich, the distinguished environmentalist, recently pointed out, “A major contemporary human problem is that the rate of cultural evolution in science and technology has been extraordinarily high in contrast with the snail’s pace of change in the social attitudes and political institutions that might channel the uses of technology in more beneficial directions” (Ehrlich, 2000). The different rates of change is a setup for problems. Serious gaps can develop between engineers’ and scientists’ ideas about the natural world and those that are current in mainstream society.

A case in point concerns genetically modified plants. For much of the nineteenth century a significant part of what we now call biology was called natural history. Tramping around the countryside looking for new species of beetles, fossils, or plants was considered a charming and harmless pursuit by the wealthy leisured class. Then, around the middle of the century, three great discoveries signaled a new kind of biology. One was the formulation of cell theory—the concept that all organisms are composed of one or more living cells. The second was Mendel’s elaboration of the laws of inheritance. The third was Darwin’s concept of evolution and the origin of species. Darwin, of course, opened a huge gap between science and the public that still haunts us. By the end of the twentieth century these three paths had converged into one biology—a science that is

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